RIP J Jayalalithaa: The Queen of Comebacks


The news of J Jayalalithaa’s demise was given to me on a Whatsapp group. It’s since been confirmed by every paper I read, every tweet I see. At 68 years old, Amma left behind a legacy so large her death is one of the most televised moment in Indian history — ironic for a leader whose party has filed over 120 defamation cases, most of them against the media.

Amma came into politics the same year I was born. My first introduction to her was my dad telling me, “an actress has been declared a politician.”

“Was she a good actress?” I asked back. He couldn’t say. My father doesn’t watch Tamil films, in which Jayalalithaa acted. “Izzat wasn’t half-bad,” he replied finally. That was Amma’s only Hindi film with Dharmendra. It is, in fact, a good watch. A young Jayalalithaa played an adivasi girl in love with a boy above her caste.


My father never told me she was raised in abject poverty by a single mother. I heard about the 1989 incident, when Jayalalithaa, a leader in the TN opposition at the time, was nearly disrobed inside the TN Assembly, with the ears of a toddler.  He never said this happened because when the then CM Karunanidhi stood up to read his budget speech, the young politician shouted out, “”People charged with criminal acts should not be allowed to present the budget.” Though there are several conflicting reports on this incident — in that AIADMK leaders were also seen manhandling DMK leaders — what the people remembered was the image of a woman’s modesty being outraged. Jayalalithaa didn’t let anyone forget this either — she vowed not to enter the TM Assembly till it was a place that was safe for women, though she attended assembly subsequently many times. It also wasn’t her last fight in the Assembly.

Much can be about Jayalalithaa’s “freebie” politics, her lavish lifestyle, her acting career, and her close relationship with South Indian actor and founder of the AIADMK Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR). She was brought into AIADMK by MGR because she spoke well. Her rise in the party was meteoric because she was a fast learner. Though, she famously remarked that MGR influenced 2/3rd of her life, and once declared she’d immolate herself on his death, it wasn’t a relationship that helped her. Rather, Jayalalithaa’s proximity to MGR caused resentment and a banishment to Delhi and a Rajya Sabha, where she had no friends. When her mentor died,  Jayalalithaa came home again to no friends and was pushed off MGR’s funeral procession by her own party members. Yet, it was not MGR’s widow that the people of TN felt sympathy for, but Jayalalithaa.

Three years after the 1989 incident, when she formed her first Assembly with 33 women members. In 2001, her ministry had 19 women members, which is the highest in TM history. She pioneered the Cradle Baby scheme in 1992 — her government offered to take in female children who may otherwise have been victims of foeticicide and infanticide. She also gave her MLAs carte blanche to do whatever they wanted in Fort St George, including sleeping in the CM’s seat. A building and position once so lovingly held by her DMK rivals.

A lot  — a lot — has been shared about Amma today. But, my favourite has been this letter she wrote to a journalist in 1980 about a story that she was looking to make a comeback into the film industry.

“While thanking you for the many compliments you have paid to me, I am not, I repeat, not struggling.”

In 2012, Amma handed over the smoking gun against Karunanidhi and the DMK brass in the 2G scam case.  My favourite rumour about Amma wasn’t that she “manipulated” MGR away from DMK, but that she always wore a bullet-proof vest under her sari. I like women who aren’t afraid to make enemies. As she once famously remarked on her nickname “the iron butterfly”: iron described her well, but she wasn’t no butterfly.


Avantika Mehta
Written by

Editor, Pyjama People

Avantika Mehta used to be a lawyer, resident Blue Frog party freak and proud wearer of harem pants curated from Kasol. Then she became a writer and it all went downhill. Famous Scottish journalists have been known to call her ‘a volatile woman.’

Twitter @bitingfriends / Instagram: @bitingfriends