Hindi movie star Kangana Ranaut celebrated her 34th birthday on March 23 with the trailer of a biopic about a Southern movie star. AL Vijay’s Thalaivi traces the eventful life of J Jayalalithaa, the screen icon and Tamil Nadu’s long-serving chief minister until her death in 2016. Jayalalithaa’s reign was marked by troughs and crests – dizzying corruption allegations, media censorship, firm leadership, benevolent welfare schemes. There has never quite been a female leader like her, before or ever.
Jayalalithaa’s death has left a vacuum in her party, the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. As Tamil Nadu faces its first post-Jayalalithaa election in April, the legacy of this singular woman in a male-dominated world will be assessed all over again. The election results will be out on May 2 – over a week after the release of Thalaivi in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu on April 24.
The primary audience for Vijay’s glossy production appears to be Hindi speakers, as is evident from the casting of Ranaut and other Mumbai actors, among them Bhagyashree Patwardhan. Tamil actor Arvind Swamy plays MG Ramachandran, another real-life movie star-turned-chief minister.
Ranaut sees herself as a history-maker on and off the screen, a trailblazer who is establishing a parallel cinematic universe with herself at the centre, the proud creator of the bonfires of Bollywood’s vanities. Ranaut’s pursuit of powerful female characters resulted in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and Panga in 2019 (she won a National Film Award for both the performances).
Ranaut’s fans call her “Queen”, after her breakthrough Hindi movie of the same name. But when it comes to both royal titles and Jayalalithaa, a web series pipped Thalaivi to the post.
The web series Queen was premiered on MX Player in 2019. The series is based on Anita Sivakumaran’s novel, The Queen. Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no doubt that Shakti, the actor who is thrown into the cesspool of politics by her lover and guide, is modelled on Jayalalithaa.
The web series also beat out another biopic of Jayalalithaa, directed by A Priyadhaarshini and starring Nithya Menen. Titled The Iron Lady, the project was announced in 2018. In an interview in July 2020, Menen said, “Our interest is only in making a good film, not in making the best film. A film that is authentic, that is right and stands out in its own way.”
The first season of Queen has been written by Reshma Ghatala and directed by Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan. Shakti is played by three actors: Anikha Surendran as a child, Anjana Jayaprakash in her twenties, and Ramya Krishnan thereafter. Over 11 episodes, the makers take milestones familiar from Jayalalithaa’s life and place them in Shakti’s path. These include an abiding love for academics and English literature, the hardscrabble circumstances that force Shakti into an acting career, the fateful encounter with marquee king GM Ramachandran, and the tortuous romance with GMR that both make and mar her.
The framing device for Queen is an interview between Shakti and an interviewer modelled on Simi Garewal and played with remarkable fidelity by Lilette Dubey. Garewal’s television interview with Jayalalithaa in 1999 revealed little-known facets of the leader (as well as evidence of her singing voice).
In the series, the conversation allows for flashbacks to Shakti’s childhood, the recounting of formative events and her views on challenging deeply embedded chauvinism and her lover’s obsessive behaviour.
Even as a child, Shakti is intelligent, resourceful and alert to her surroundings. She resents the atmosphere of the movie sets and especially detests missing out on an education. Fame is a double-edged sword. Shakti initially loses the respect of her acquaintances but is adored by the moviegoing public.
And then she meets HIM in the episode titled “Him”. He is always invoked in invisible capital letters, and exerts an inordinate influence on her choice of films and her later political career. Shakti and GMR quickly become lovers, but the already married actor keeps her where he wants her.
Shakti tears herself away from GMR and almost marries a filmmaker. When that relationship ends, she descends into depression, and is rescued once again by GMR. He offers her a place in his party, annoying his associates. The first season ends with Shakti settling into her new avatar as a Dravida politician.
Nearly every event in the web series draws on recorded facts and gossip about Jayalalithaa. If there are gaps in the writing in Queen, as there often are, they can be filled by revisiting memories of the leader’s life.
The leitmotif running through the series is Shakti’s quest for control of her destiny. Episode after episode explores Shakti’s attempts to assert herself, first with her mother, then with dismissive filmmakers, and later with GMR.
The halo of hagiography hangs over the scenes in which Shakti is shown to have a keen understanding of scripting and shot-taking. Series creator Gautham Menon has a cameo as a director who welcomes her interventions.
Shakti initially refuses to be awed by GMR and treats him as an equal. When he starts micro-managing her, she resists to the extent she can. The series attempts to provide a psychological profile of its contradictory heroine, who swings between slavishness towards GMR and independence from him – echoing Jayalalithaa’s own blow-hot-blow-cold equation with MGR.
The relationship that defined Jayalalithaa before she reinvented herself after MGR’s death in 1987 is, predictably, the focus of Queen’s first season. The age gap between Jayalalithaa and MGR – they were born 31 years apart – and the power dynamic between a vastly older actor swooping down on a new talent isn’t quite conveyed by the casting of Indrajith Sukumaran as GMR. In later episodes, Ramya Krishan’s Shakti appears to be the same age as her paramour.
Shakti’s complex emotional responses – pride, resentment, rebellion, submissiveness, self-assertion, self-abnegation – survive the tacky production values, the schematic plot turns, and the uneven performances. Shakti is deeply self-aware of her dilemma. Men are hunters who carry genetic information passed down through the centuries, while we women continue to hide in caves, she tells her interviewer.
She also admits that women tend to be trustworthy and willfully ignore the truth. In its better moments, Queen captures Shakti’s predicament, which will be familiar to women who burst into male bastions and then lose their footing once there.
When Mani Ratnam made Iruvar, loosely based on the fall-out between MGR and M Karunanidhi that causes ripples in Dravidian politics in the 1970s, he opted for an allusive approach.
The movie’s focus is on the divergent paths taken by Anandan and Tamizhselvan, portrayed by Mohanlal and Prakash Raj respectively. Ratnam’s screenplay broadly refers to the complicated personal lives of the men who inspired the characters. Anandan loses his beloved first wife Pushpavalli to an illness. He remarries, but is then mesmerised by a new actor, Kalpana, who is a dead ringer for his departed wife. Aishwarya Rai plays both the roles.
True to her name, Kalpana appears to have been conjured up by Anandan, an apparition often viewed in mirrors and softly lit close-ups. The character dies in an accident, removing her from Anandan’s orbit and relieving the movie of the difficulty of explaining the later phase of the MGR-Jayalalithaa relationship.
The enigma of Jayalalithaa might ultimately prove to be too vast for filmmakers seeking simplistic and inspirational stories of powerful women. On the basis of its trailer, Thalaivi appears to be a fan tribute to “the most colourful, dynamic and determined woman politician that Tamil Nadu, nay, India has ever seen”, the journalist and writer Vaasanthi wrote in her aptly titled biography The Lone Empress (Penguin India).
“Jayalalithaa’s was the story of how difficult it is for a single woman to survive in Indian politics,” Vaasanthi wrote. “It is also a story of how a woman tries to transform herself to survive in a male chauvinist society.”
Vaasanthi was among the journalists who was wounded by the imperious Jayalalithaa’s crackdown on the media. The politician blocked the biography through a legal injunction for years. Ironically, Jayalalithaa had written about many aspects of her life through a column in the Tamil weekly Kumudam in the late 1970s, Vaasanthi pointed out.
The biography was published only after Jayalalithaa’s death. Vaasanthi wrote of the sense of “relief and sadness” that she felt when she heard of Jayalalithaa’s demise after being hospitalised for 75 days. Even in her death, Jayalalithaa remained divisive, retaining her ability to provoke a “She was fascinating but…” response from the beyond.