It is not easy to get an interview with her. Jayalalithaa has nothing but contempt for the local press, both English and Tamil. To her mind, they always distorted facts, they were mean and rude to her, abused her in insensitive language and harmed her reputation. The only way to deal with them is to physically assault them sometimes, ransack their offices or file defamation cases against them. It is a  conscious policy then, that when she is in power her whole government avoids the press. The AIADMK governments in Tamil Nadu have been arguably the most secretive state government in the country. 

Interviewing Jayalalithaa is no fun either. She can snub you and make you run for cover. Or be imperious and make you feel inadequate. She has never been known to relent for past deeds, no matter what damage they may have caused. So when she blurted out in a rare interview in India Today soon after her stunning defeat in the 1996 elections that the wedding that she performed of her foster son [whom she later disowned and dropped like a hit cinder] was one great blunder which she will regret forever, it was nothing less than a bombshell.

In a sense the whole idea of a foster son was revolutionary, true to the  endearing title by which the chief of the AIADMK was addressed—Puratchi Thalaivi. Two months before the wedding, Jayalalithaa had shocked and embarrassed many in her party by announcing that she had adopted Suthakaran, the nephew of her live-in alter ego Shashikala. More surprises followed. Before the initial shock could register, she announced the wedding of Sudhakaran with Sathyalakshmi, the granddaughter of the famous film actor Shivaji Ganesan, her former co-star and professional rival of MGR, Jayalalithaa’s mentor. The thailavi announced grandly to her party men, ‘I want you to think of this as a wedding in your house. All of you must participate in it and make it a success.’ The idea was to placate those who were unhappy with Shashikala and her family, who wielded such unconstitutional authority.

The Shasikala-Jayalalithaa relationship intrigued the common man and became a point of ridicule with the opposition parties. Shasikala, till a few years ago, was a modest woman of humble beginnings, wedded to Natarajan, a state government employee, who saw the advantage of his wife befriending Jayalalithaa even before the latter plunged into active politics. The two women met when Shashikala was running a video shop in Poes Garden near Jayalalithaa’s house, which was a sheer coincidence. That was a lot time for Jayalalithaa as an actress and as an AIADMK worker. 

Their acquaintance soon turned into close friendship and Jayayalithaa engaged Shashikala’s husband Natarajan to be her scriptwriter and adviser. After a conflict involving a letter of resignation [from the Legislative Assembly] written by Jayalalithaa to the Governor, which got leaked to the ruling DMK, Jayalalithaa broke with Natarajan, though not with his wife. Shashikala chose to stay back with Jayalalithaa, forsaking her husband. Many AIADMK leaders believed that it was only a ploy and that Natarajan was closely monitoring his wife residing in Poes Garden, to the family’s advantage.

During Jayalalithaa’s first tenure as chief minister, Shashikala and her brothers and nephews acquired land and property to an extent that seemed improbable, given their humble beginnings. When a jeweler in Chennai was shown a picture of Shashikala decked in diamonds and asked to assess how much all that could be worth, he opined that it would be easily a crore or more. Shashikala held no formal position either in the party or in the government, but her real status was in her exclusive proximity to the chief minister. Officials and ministers paid obeisance to her and approached her for favours. When government officials went to Poes Garden to discuss official matters with Jayalalithaa, Shashikala was a constant presence during the discussion. Wherever Jayalalithaa went, Shashikala followed like a shadow.

Shashikala belonged to the Thevar community, and her rise in power led to a perceptible rise in clout and political power of the Thevars, to the chagrin of Dalits and other backwards communities, which are traditional rivals of the Thevars.

Little did Jayalalithaa realize that the wedding would prove to be a massive political blunder, discrediting her within the party as well as before the public. The sheer ostentation, the vulgar display of wealth and grandeur, watched by even the rural population on the pro-DMK Sun TV, the channel owned by Karunanidhi’s grandnephew, made Jayalalithaa an easy target for accusations of amassing wealth at the expense of ordinary people. The DMK chief Karunanidhi remarked that the ostentatious display was shocking. He had performed the wedding of his daughter Kanimozhi when he was the chief minister. But it was performed in a quiet manner at a kalyana mandapam, he said. The allegations of corruption against Jayalalithaa suddenly gained widespread credibility. To add insult to injury, the wedding also drew public attention to Shashikala and her family.

It was the single most discrediting event for Jayalalithaa in her entire political life. What made her go for such an obscene show of wealth and power? Even as an actress, she was never known to be ostentatious. The wedding, rumoured to have cost one hundred crore rupees, was anything but a show of refinement. For crude medieval splendour and arrogant display of wealth, the marriage may be unrivaled forever.

The people were as confused as the AIADMK with this development. It was insinuated even within the party that their thanga thalaiva was being pressured by Shashikala. Suddenly Jayalalithaa looked weak and vulnerable.

The AIADMK failed miserably in the 1996 Assembly elections and the DMK came to power with a thumping majority. Throughout the DMK rule of five years Jayalalithaa, her ministers and Shashikala were harassed and booked for corruption in several cases. But whatever else was said about Shashikala, to her credit, she never spoke a word against her friend Jayalalithaa during the court investigations.

It is still not clear why Jayalalithaa, even granting her temperamental nature, indulged in such thoughtless acts of extravaganza and misuse of government machinery when the corruption charges were piling up against her in the courts. The preparations to accommodate 2,00,000 invitees to the wedding began months earlier, with blatant misuse of government machinery. Workers from the city corporation and state electricity board, among others, were deployed. The route of the wedding procession was transformed into a tinseltown with massive arches, viewing galleries, lanterns, and decorations which would put to shame elaborate film sets.

There were horses, dancers, and fireworks—the kind one saw at royal weddings in films. Sudhakaran and his bride too were dressed like a prince and a princess, with a smiling bejeweled Jayalalithaa, the queen, looking on benevolently. Shivaji Ganeshan, the bride’s grandfather, sitting at a distance, looked quite overpowered and disoriented by all that he saw, wondering whether it was not a scene from one of his films. Brightly clad young women stood on either side of the aisle and thre fragrant jasmine buds and rose-petals as Jayalalithaa and Shashikala in all their glittering finery walked past with their entourage.

I remember when I went to cover the election campaign in 1996, the rural women made a particular reference to the wedding and said that they were appalled at Jayalalithaa’s audacity. How could a women walk over flowers as if she were a goddess? How could she be so callous and irreverent? When she lost the elections, I heard them say that it was divine retribution.

Excerpted with permission from Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars; The World of Tamil Politics, Vaasanthi, Penguin India.