It was an extraordinary story.

Born into an orthodox Brahmin Mandyam Iyengar family in Melukote near Mysore in Karnataka in 1948 she was just like any other smart kid who loved her grandparents, school, books and friends.

Destiny crisscrossed the conventional household where Kannada was spoken with greater ease than Tamil when Jayalalithaa (then without the extra “a” in her name) followed her mother to Madras (now Chennai) a few years after her father had passed away when she was just two.

A life blessed with great beauty and intellect was from then on tossed into a rough ocean of highs and lows, hardening the once-innocent child.

From the big screen to a bigger one

Jayalalithaa gave up her dreams of pursuing higher studies and a professional career to join the film industry. She became the glamour queen of the southern silver screen, starring in over a hundred Kannada, Tamil and Telegu films. Many of the Tamil films paired her with the then matinee idol MG Ramachandran – widely known as MGR – who would irrevocably alter the course of her life.

She plunged headlong into a male-dominated world that could not trust her convent-school English and lack of the conventional docility expected of a woman in the film community. Not that she cared. It is this nonchalance that perhaps made her attractive to MGR, who was active in the Dravidian politics at the time as a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. (In 1972, he would start his own party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.) MGR was charmed by the bright young woman, who was so different. He seemed obsessed with her, something that alarmed his aides.

She was not aware of the machinations of her rivals who tried to block her path and when she did come to know, was baffled. She was vulnerable and alone in the battle. It helped her learn the tricks of the trade, pay each with his own coin.

MGR too drifted away for a while due to his preoccupation with politics and also started acting with other heroines due to the pressure of his producers who wanted to wean him away from Jayalalithaa: they feared she would undermine the impeccable image of him that they had so assiduously built. But to their dismay, after a gap of nearly ten years, Jayalalithaa managed to renew contact with MGR, who by then had become chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

The coterie could say nothing when MGR made her his AIADMK party’s propaganda secretary in 1983, a year after she joined the party. Her stature and importance grew manifold when she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1984. They tried their best to stop her progress by constantly complaining to MGR that she was overreaching her limits as she was ambitious and untrustworthy. They saw to it that she was not given an official status in the party or government by MGR, who was then serving his second stint as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. She was distanced from the leader when the latter fell seriously ill.

One-woman army

When MGR died, Jayalalithaa was 38, single and lonely, with nothing to hope for. Any other woman in her place would have wrapped herself in self pity and disappeared into an oblivion. But Jayalalithaa was not a person to be satisfied with a mundane life or take defeat. She knew she was made of sterner stuff and that she had to prove that she could outsmart her opponents.

She knew her strength. She knew she was charismatic. She decided to go to the people straight. She needed to be accepted by the electorate. If she could do this, the sky would be the limit. It was a gamble. But she liked to gamble. Challenges excited her.

She garnered support, formed her own group splitting the AIADMK party and emerged victorious as the leading opposition party leader when Assembly elections were held in 1989, when DMK formed the government.

The rivals merged with her rendering the split meaningless. The machinations, however, continued and who would have imagined that she – a former actress, a woman, and above all a Brahmin – would become the leader of a Dravidian party that had its roots in a movement that denounced Brahmins?

Storming to power

The unthinkable happened. She not only became the unimpeachable leader of the party but also was voted to power four times, a rare achievement for a woman politician in India. She achieved her first victory in 1991 with a handsome mandate defeating her opponent M Karunanidhi, a seasoned politician, the extremely articulate and clever leader of the DMK.

People could not understand her – her admirers deified her and her opponents trampled over her, failing to understand that she was an ordinary woman whose life was extraordinary.

She was utterly lonely and angry. Angry at the male world, surely, that humiliated her, dragged her to court on corruption charges and cases that her opponents thought would finish her off. One by one, the court, to the great surprise of her opponents, absolved her of the charges, most recently, in the disproportionate assets case in 2015. Her opponents of course went on appeal to the Supreme Court.

But she was used to setbacks and victories. She was not jubilant at the victories. They must have hardened her more. Her turbulent life made her what she was – a tough politician, a ruthless and unforgiving leader and a vengeful opponent and the most inaccessible chief minister Tamil Nadu had seen. Ridiculously intolerant of dissent, her government filed defamation cases by the hundreds against journalists and opponents for so-called derogatory remarks against their leader.

Yet she was loved , feared and venerated by the people and her party like no Tamil Nadu chief minister.

In life and and in death, Jayalalithaa was a mystery. Who was she really? Nobody knows.

The writer is the author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen, published by Juggernaut Books