Screengrab from Thalaivi (2021) / IMDB
Screengrab from Thalaivi (2021) / IMDB

“No Sasikala, please”

On the filmic representation of Jayalalithaa and what is lost in translation.
Jayaram Jayalalithaa's biopic Thalaivi (2021), directed by A L Vijay, depicts her journey from a filmstar to prominent politician. Jayalalithaa emerged as a powerful female public figure, first as a popular Tamilian actress and later as a politician holding the position of chief minister of Tamil Nadu for six terms. Although Thalaivi highlights Jaya's – as she is called in the film – influence and fighting spirit, it nevertheless subtly reinstates patriarchal norms. The film portrays her as a victim who goes from strength to strength with the support of her male film-star-turned-politician mentor M G Ramachandran, popularly called MGR, and after his death, by remaining true to his legacy. In emphasising Jaya's relationship with MGR while at the same time erasing her equally strong and influential history with party worker and aide V K Sasikala, the film deliberately foregrounds her life in a heterosexual domain, sanitising it and presenting it in a way whereby she emerges as culturally acceptable to the Brahminical order.
Jayalalithaa as Jaya in Thalaivi
Born in 1948 to an upper-middle-class Iyengar-Brahmin family, Jayalalithaa's early life was not easy. Her father died when she was two. Her mother, Vedavalli (Sandhya), who was only 26 years old, had to start looking after the family. Although Jayalalithaa was academically gifted, her mother convinced her to act in films beginning in 1961. Jayalalithaa went on to rule the Tamil film industry and later emerged as one of Tamil Nadu's most powerful politicians.
Although Jayalalithaa lived an interesting life, mainstream culture narrates her in a highly selective, strategic way, focusing on some aspects of her life while erasing others. Thalaivi is a good case in point. MGR, perceived as a demi-god, a Rama-like figure, already married, is implicitly both upper caste and heterosexual. In the film, his right-hand man and film producer, R M Veerappan, ensures no actress comes close to MGR to tarnish his image in any way. However, Jaya, a young, upcoming actress, manages to establish a close bond with MGR, frustrating all of Veerappan's efforts. Veerappan is so committed to MGR that even after the superstar dies, and even when he knows that Jaya is MGR's true heir in every way, he wants MGR's wife, Janaki, to contest elections. This dedication to MGR and his wife also suggests a dedication to the religious icons Rama and Sita, and their centrality in the collective India psyche. However, it is Jaya who finally succeeds MGR as the premier name in Tamil Nadu politics. Veerappan later supports her as he sees how steadfast she was in her loyalty to MGR. Jaya finally becomes Thalaivi, or leader in Tamil, but this transition from being an actress to a credible politician is not easy. By adopting behavioural traits associated with masculinity in her ways, and also as amma or mother to millions of her followers, she emerges as an ascetic figure. The implied heteronormativity and the framing of women in public life as 'amma', squarely within an ethos of motherhood, strips them of sexuality and evokes the care for and reproduction of the nation. This not only subsumes queerness, but also views female sexuality as a subversive threat to Brahminical caste order.
Although the film reads the full range of Jaya's relationship with MGR, it erases her relationship with Sasikala. In real life, their names became hyphenated, and one could not think of either of them in isolation. However, Sasikala hardly appears in the film. We see Sasikala meeting Jaya in the office of their political party, and a few scenes later, we see her living in Jaya's house. Even within the film's narrative arc, Sasikala's abrupt shift from the party office to the chief minister's residence seems odd, as it does not provide any convincing reason for this move. By dwelling on Jaya and MGR's relationship, the film upholds the prototypical, ideal figures of Rama and Sita. A similar rendering, as regards to Sasikala and Jaya's partnership, would have been impossible, because such a focus would weaken the status quo embedded in caste purity and heterosexuality.
The Brahminical form
Even when the film showcases Jayalalitha's humiliation, it reproduces a narrative that is as old as the caste system, a narrative that places her in a Brahminical context. The biopic, for instance, opens with scenes of Jaya's maltreatment by male politicians in 1989 in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, and uses that event to cast her as a wronged victim – likened to Draupadi of the Mahabharata. But the film conveniently forgets all the media speculation, crude remarks and innuendos that male politicians engaged in regarding her relationship with Sasikala.
The real Jayalalithaa shared her house with Sasikala, they spent much time together and lived like a cohabiting couple. When state officials checked Jayalalithaa's house while investigating a corruption charge, they were baffled to see rows of identical sarees and identical jewellery. On her 60th birthday, Jayalalithaa and Sasikala garlanded each other. In her later years, Jayalalithaa increasingly observed religious rituals in full public gaze along with Sasikala. All such rituals seemed as if they were taking vows of marriage. Looking at these various strands of Jayalalithaa 's life, one cannot 'unsee' the same-sex aspect of her relationship with Sasikala. Their very visibility perhaps made it invisible to many.

Mainstream narratives frequently reinstate heterosexuality as the only sexuality. Even when same-sex relations are addressed in epics or in Hindu mythology, unlike heterosexual unions, they remain in the divine domain, as illusions – maya or leela.

In a recent interview, Sasikala mentioned a much-publicised period of 100 days in 2011 when she had to move out of Jayalalithaa's house. According to Sasikala, it was staged for the public. After this staged separation and upon delivering a public apology, Jayalalithaa took her back publicly. The film also ignores the widely criticised wedding of Sasikala's nephew Sudhakaran, whom Jayalalithaa had adopted as her son. In September 1995, she gave a lavish party, inviting over 150, 000 guests, to celebrate her foster son's wedding. It was as if she were announcing her relationship with Sasikala. As the columnist Shobhaa De wrote, "Who can forget the photograph of the two ladies, covered in gold and diamond ornaments from head to toe, dressed in identical opulent silk sarees, defiantly flaunting both – their relationship and wealth".
Talking about two powerful influences on her life – her mother and MGR – in retrospect, Jayalalithaa recognised that she did exactly what they wanted her to do. Whereas her mother wanted her to learn dancing and acting for films, which she did very successfully, MGR took over her life and geared her career toward politics after her mother's death. The film dwells on these two influences in detail, but predictably ignores the third: Jaya's lifelong association with Sasikala. She says while she was led by others in the first two phases of her life, in the third and perhaps last phase, she was living her life on her terms, stressing the following: "I have my obligations to the public … but personally I am untied, unfettered, unbound." And this was the phase in which she was together with Sasikala. Conservative societies often resent single, powerful women, and if women also take charge of their (queer) sexuality, they confound society.
In her own voice
The media frequently described Jayalalithaa's relationship with Sasikala as mysterious, strange, and intriguing, not calling it for it was and thus keeping it in the realm of the unspeakable. From her early youth onward and until MGR died, she did what was expected of her, and followed rules set by others. However, despite much social resentment, she also flouted them by remaining loyal to Sasikala till the end. In defending her relationship with Sasikala, Jayalalithaa made a strong case that fit the context in which she functioned. She said while male politicians have their wives or mothers looking after them, she had no one. She needed someone who could run her home and also take care of her personal needs, further adding that since Sasikala performed that role, many people felt envious and tried to break her support system. Thus, Jayalalithaa defended and spoke about her friendship with Sasikala with great candour, not hiding anything but also not revealing everything.

Although Jayalalithaa lived an interesting life, mainstream culture narrates her in a highly selective, strategic way, focusing on some aspects of her life while erasing others.

In an interview given to the actress and director Simi Garewal, Jayalalithaa was directly asked why she did not marry. She said she had not found the right person. Garewal asked her the same question in different registers. Jaya answered her in generic terms. She could not have answered Garewal's question in any other way. Even if she were queer, she could not have announced it, could she? What would be the consequences of such a disclosure? Garewal directly asked her about the nature of her relationship with Sasikala, and why she continued to be with her, especially when the press was casting so many aspersions. Jayalalithaa forcefully defended Sasikala. When Garewal explicitly addressed the questions desire, marriage and children, Jayalalithaa spoke eloquently, but she extricated her private life by speaking for every woman. Curiously, in the same interview, Jaya referred to Sasikala as her friend, sister, and mother. Ruth Vanita, in her book 'Love's Rite' explores this very notion of queer people using words such as friend, sister, brother and mother to express same-sex love, a kind of language that both allows (and erases) same-sex desire. 
A 'suitable' Jaya
Despite all this, it could be that Sasikala was merely a friend. In a patriarchal society, it makes sense for a high-profile unmarried female politician to rely on another woman than on a man. Most people would immediately question any close association between an unrelated man and woman. Mainstream narratives frequently reinstate heterosexuality as the only sexuality. Even when same-sex relations are addressed in epics or in Hindu mythology, unlike heterosexual unions, they remain in the divine domain, as illusions – maya or leela. In their ultimate effect, these depictions powerfully reinforce heterosexuality. Interestingly, it is convenient for society to accept normative accounts of Jayalalithaa's relationship with Sasikala because such a narration does not disrupt the social order. In other words, whatever the nature of their relationship, it could only be accepted as that of friends, not as that of lovers.

The implied heteronormativity and the framing of women in public life as 'amma', squarely within an ethos of motherhood, strips them of sexuality and evokes the care for and reproduction of the nation.

The way the film tries to make sense of Jaya's sexuality is baffling. In order to present her as a virtuous woman, a goddess-like figure, it makes odd adjustments. In doing so, it reveals Jaya's queerness by default. For example, she could not perform love scenes with MGR, who is understanding and asks her whom she loves the most. She replies it is her mother, whom she calls 'ammu'. MGR suggests that she approach him as her ammu while enacting romantic scenes. Consequently, they emerge as a convincing romantic pair on screen, to which the masses respond with euphoria. Cleverly, the film also shows them to be in love, a relationship that remains within the boundaries of respectability, above ordinary lovers and their ordinary desires.
In Jayalaithaa's case, it was her cross-caste relationship with Sasikala which challenged Brahmanical patriarchy which thrives on controlling female sexuality. The film shows this restraint not because it cared for Jaya's sexuality, but because it sought to project her as a virtuous woman. All these balancing acts that the film tries to enact makes the film's narrative murky and deliberately evasive. And the driving force behind such a selective portrayal is to keep Jaya heterosexual and within Brahminical order so that she remains culturally legible.
No escaping the script
In the film, Jaya is first shown to be a hesitant yet very competent film star, and later completely devoted to her people as a politician. However, she would often state her desire to be left alone. And her desire to be left alone could also be read as her desire not to be that dutiful person who has to always do the 'right thing'. The passion she put in describing her innermost wish also indicated dissatisfaction, very likely connected to her lifelong commitment to the public and a disregard of her own desires.
Jayalalithaa's insistence on doing the 'right thing' is also a form of rebellion. At the outset, there is a scene in the film where MGR is showered with overwhelming adulation, but Jaya refuses to act like the others. Instead, she questions their behaviour. There are all kinds of people on the film set, and yet a young, anonymous actress opposes the status quo. In questioning that situation, she questions the whole socio-cultural setup, its unreflective servility and hypocrisies. That reflects Jayalalithaa's odd relationship with the world in which she finds herself, but to which she does not belong.
Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian