The many faces of ‘Thalaivii’ Jayalalithaa in pop culture

screenmixSeptember 9, 2021

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who was known for her extremely reserved nature, allowed people a rare peek into her life as she sat down for a candid conversation with celebrity TV host Simi Garewal on her show, Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. On the show, Jayalalithaa had said that she thought Aishwarya Rai Bachchan would be “very suitable” to play her in a biopic if it were ever to be made in the future. The episode featuring Jayalalithaa aired in the year 1999. It was two years after director Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) had released and made waves in the political circles of Tamil Nadu.

That this film was inspired by the events in the lives of M. G. Ramachandran, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa is an open secret, even though none of the leaders on record ever admitted the film’s relevance to their actual lives. Even the disclaimer at the beginning of Iruvar describes itself as “a work of fiction”, a lip service to sidestep unwanted scrutiny.

Iruvar starred Aishwarya in a dual role, Pushpavalli and Kalpana. While the former was the first wife of Mohanlal’s Anandan, who dies an untimely death due to an illness in the movie, the latter is a confident, educated, headstrong beauty. It is believed that the character Kalpana is based on Jayalalithaa.

So in 1999, Jayalalithaa wishing Aishwarya to play her onscreen was moot as it had already happened. Perhaps, it was an indirect acknowledgement of Jayalalithaa that she had enjoyed seeing Aishwarya representing her onscreen. Or it was her clever way of disowning Kalpana in Iruvar. Whatever it was, we will never know.

Iruvar mohanlal MGR Iruvar released in 1997.

In Irvuar, just when Anandan decides to bring Kalpana into politics as his confidant, Kalpana dies in a road accident. Her untimely death wrecks the heart of Anandan. In a way, the tragedy weakens him physically and not long after her death, even he passes away peacefully in his sleep. But not before making peace with his friend-turned-political-rival Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj), when they bump into each other at a wedding ceremony. Anandan and Tamizhselvan sit next to each other in complete silence, looking into each other’s eyes as their souls waltz away in old memories. Composer AR Rahman’s dramatic score and cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s erratically moving camera tell a story of their own. The empty walls and corridors of the building are the silent witness to their friendship that will never be acknowledged in public ever. It is one of the most elegant moments in this Mani Ratnam’s masterpiece.

The film is set in the backdrop of the revolutionary period of politics in Tamil Nadu when the Dravidian movement emerged and changed the course of regional politics forever. We see Kalpana as a playful and smart girl, who was capable of seeing the intent behind Anandan’s power moves in politics. That’s the only hint at Kalpana’s deep political acumen and tenacity we ever get in the movie.

mohanlal in iruvar Aishwarya Rai and Mohanlal in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar.

And Kalpana was the closest portrayal of Jayalalithaa we had in pop culture until Jayalalithaa was alive. No other filmmakers attempted to capture the stormy events that shaped Jayalalithaa’s political career. Of course, Rajinikanth’s punch dialogues loaded with political innuendo in movies like Mannan (1992), Muthu (1995) and Padayappa (1999) were allegedly meant as a criticism against Jayalalithaa’s governance. But, no filmmaker showed interest in making a biopic on her at the time.

That changed following the demise of the actor-turned-politician in 2016. Several movies based on the times and struggles of Jayalalithaa were announced by leading filmmakers of Tamil cinema. Veteran directors Bharathiraaja and Lingusamy publicly announced their interest to explore Jayalalithaa’s life on the celluloid. Priyadarshini, former assistant to Mysskin, announced The Iron Lady, and even released the first look poster featuring Nithya Menen as the late Tamil Nadu CM. And then there was AL Vijay with Thalaivii, which is set to hit the screens on September 10.

Nithya Menen Jayalalithaa Nithya Menen as J Jayalalithaa in The Iron Lady.

Of all the Jayalalithaa biopic films that were announced, Vijay is the only filmmaker so far who has succeeded in realizing the project. While everyone was debating over who has the rights to Jayalalithaa’s story, director Gautham Menon quietly completed a web series, Queen. The series inspired by the real-life events in Jayalalithaa’s life was released on MX Player in 2019.

Incidentally, the 10-episode series plays out in the backdrop of an interview similar to Jayalalithaa’s on Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. The series chronicles Jayalalithaa’s life from her troubled childhood days to becoming a dominant Dravidian force. And somehow Gautham had managed to squeeze out all the drama out of the most stormy events of Indian politics. The unhurried, sombre, tone and texture of the series failed to evoke any excitement.

In that sense, one can confidently say that there won’t be any dearth of dramatic moments in Thalaivii, given it is written by veteran scenarist KV Vijayendra Prasad (the Baahubali movies, Bajrangi Bhaijaan to name a few). And judging from the trailer, Kangana Ranaut has got the looks of Jayalalithaa right and it only the quality of her performance remains to be seen.

Jayalalithaa biopic thalaivi Kangana Ranaut in Thalaivii. (Photo: Zee Studios/YouTube)

At the end of the trailer of director Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, we hear a character say, “They know everything.” And then we see Kristen Stewart’s Diana saying, “They don’t.” It was the director’s way of telling the audience, “If you are under the assumption that the four seasons of The Crown and various documentaries on Netflix have informed you everything about the darkest chapters of the British Royal family, you don’t.”

Will Thalaivii be an approximation of all the publicly known information about Jayalalithaa, which in effect becomes more or less an exercise in adulation? Or an honest, insightful, well-researched, humane drama about a polarising but the most powerful woman leader that Indian politics has ever produced?

We have to wait and see.