Home Letters Passing of a Tollywood Film icon once loved in Guyana
Popular Indian actress, Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister (CM) of the state of Tamil Nadu (TN), where many Guyanese trace their ancestry, died on Monday night from cardiac arrest; she was hospitalised for over two months having won re-election by a landslide earlier this year. Ms Jayalalithaa had a huge (Bollywood/Tollywood) cadre of cinema fans abroad and was well known among cinema goers in Guyana during the late 1960s and 1970s for her role in religious films. The older generation Guyanese Americans also remember her and spoke well of her acting; they remember her films very fondly, describing her as a religious Goddess or Devi portraying such characters in the holy Hindu scriptures.
They say she was most gorgeous and displayed some of the finest acting talent in Indian cinema. She was an iconic figure in India, as well as among Tamils overseas, including Guyanese in the diaspora, as well as in Guyana. Guyanese crowded to see her films when she ruled the Indian film industry. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils (Madrassis as they are called in Guyana) took to the streets in mourning the passing of their political leader, beating their chests and screaming. Bollywood and Tollywood stars also came out to pay rich tributes to her acting and her role in making Indian cinema popular abroad. Her films and serials were seen all over Asia and the former east bloc countries.
Jayalalithaa co-starred in several films opposite the great actor MG Ramachandran who was also made famous in films depicting Hindu Gods in epics like the Ramayana. He was described as extremely handsome in his youth, and she was among the most beautiful actresses to come out of India. MG Ramachandran left acting and took up active politics, defeating the popular Congress Party of Indira Gandhi. He became Chief Minister.
Jayalalithaa joined him. And when he passed away two decades ago, she succeeded him as Chief Minister. She was in and out of the Chief Minister position. She defeated the Congress led Alliance over five years ago and won re-election three months ago, defeating the same alliance. She is supportive of Modi, though her party is not part of the central government.
Politicians from across the political aisle showered glowing praises on the popular politician. Prime Minister Narendra Modi (from BJP), as well as his cabinet colleagues and the President Pranab Mukherjee (Congress Party) and the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul all showered accolades on Jayalalithaa. Government institutions will be closed for three days as a mark of respect for her. And there will be seven days of mourning. Schools and colleges will also be closed for the rest of the week.
I had the rare occasion to see her once when I visited Madras some fifteen years ago when she was Chief Minister. She was a huge magnet for Tamils. They stormed her public appearances to see her. Her meetings usually attracted tens, if not hundreds of thousands of followers. A survey I conducted on her performance and re-election chance showed her heading for defeat; she lost re-election. She would make a come-back. During her rule, she courted Tamils abroad to visit TN and to invest in their ancestral state. She had set up a diaspora office in her administration.
Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo (of Tamil descent) recently (last October) visited Chennai, the state capital, but he said he regretted he did not meet the popular CM. However, Nagamootoo told me that he recognised the popularity of the great CM and her acting credentials. He said the CM’s office treated him like a head of state according him all protocols for such an office. Guyanese who visited Madras and holy cities (like Rameshwaram – where Lord Rama first landed in India after returning from Sri Lanka where he defeated the evil Rawan) say they were treated with respect and love in visits there. Jayalalithaa was making her state friendly to visiting overseas-based Indians.
Jayalalithaa contributed enormously to the transformation of TN and helped to reduce the poverty level in the state. It was the second best governed state (first being Modi’s Gujarat) under her watch. In TN, she introduced a number of safety net schemes to help the poor, providing them with free or close to free basic rations like rice, flour, oil, grains, etc. She also offered free education to all and free, safe drinking water in the state and protection and rights to girl children. She will long be remembered for the progress and development of TN earning the pride and respect of Tamils overseas, including Guyanese of Tamil descent.