A news report this morning asked a million-dollar question: "Is J Jayalalithaa a narcissist or a victim of slander?" It was raised with reference to the 213 cases of defamation that the Tamil Nadu government has filed in the last five years against people who have dared malign their chief minister. The situation has become so absurd that the Supreme Court berated the government yesterday for misusing the state machinery to settle personal scores. "This is not the sign of a healthy democracy," the bench said, adding, "If somebody criticises the policy of the government, if the person criticised is a public figure, he has to face it instead of using the state machinery to choke criticism."
Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy has 5 cases pending against him for insulting Jayalalithaa, or Amma as she is popularly called, on Twitter. Over two dozens cases have been slapped on her political opponent, the leader of Desiya Morpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), Vijaykanth. Around 55 have been filed against media platforms for adverse reporting on her or her government, while 85 are against the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), arch-rival of Jayalalithaa's party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Over the years, Jayalalithaa's public image has come to attain a protean quality. To her supporters, she's a goddess incarnate. Officials and party workers are regularly seen supplicating at her feet with pride and reverence. Her sworn enemies, especially M. Karunanidhi of DMK and his clan, have left no stone unturned to abuse her. Jayalalithaa has been to prison several times for massive financial irregularities and other charges of corruption, but has come out each time, won elections, seized power and got back at those who crossed her path.
It is a challenge to catch the nebulous human being who lurks between these various avatars: dictatorial leader, unscrupulous politician and a woman who has had to find her feet in an overtly male world, often by invoking a certain ruthless streak within herself.
Journalist Vaasanthi, one of Tamil Nadu's most respected writers who was the editor of the Tamil edition of the India Today for nearly a decade, brings out the complexity of Jayalalithaa's character in her short biography, Amma: Journey From Movie Star To Political Queen. The narrative is gripping, without being sensational. It employs psychological conjecture, but avoids any prurience, to understand the enigma that is Jayalalithaa. Most importantly, the book places its subject in the context of the world that made her, as any biography ideally should.
The transformation of Jayalalithaa from little Ammu, who was academically gifted and wanted to be a doctor or engineer, to a beloved film star, who became the legendary MGR's protégée due to the force of circumstances, to the larger-than-life Amma, the benevolent yet fearsome leader of the people, is a story that takes more than investigation to piece together.
Jayalalithaa's magnetic popular appeal, her innate reserve and mistrust of the media make her a difficult subject to write about. So cryptic are her ways that the real reason behind her estrangement from her brother or the nature of her relationship with her close aide, Sashikala, is yet to be fully known. As a result, it requires empathy, discretion and, most crucially, imagination to bring her story to life, all of which are apparent in Vaasanthi's expert narration.
In Amma, Vaasanthi seems to project the drama of Jayalalithaa's childhood as a defining moment for her adult personality, without obviously saying so. Born in Mandya near Mysore, Jayalalithaa was brought up by her Tamil Iyengar Brahmin mother, Veda, who later assumed the name Sadhya and starred in several movies in the South. After losing their father early in life, Jayalalithaa and her brother grew up at her grandparents' house in Bangalore. Her pining for her mother, who was living the busy life of an actor in Chennai, was constant. Jayalalithaa sought her company and approval but never got much of either, a fact that would shape her choices years later as an adult, especially her hugely successful career in the film industry, which she never quite wanted to be a part of.
Jayalalithaa's troubled relationship with MGR, who was over 30 years older to her, is at the centre of the story. The ups and downs of their relationship are fairly well-known. She tried to coax, cajole and coerce him into marrying her. He refused each time, shunned her for months, demoted her in the AIADMK chain of command, but would soften eventually. After his death, Jayalalithaa succeeded in establishing herself as the supremo of the party, but had to move heaven and hell to conquer the heroic resistance put up by Janaki, MGR's legally wedded wife.
Since then, it has been a journey of constant highs and lows, marked by giddy success, relentless abuse from rivals and often preposterous humiliation from legal scrutiny. Vaasanthi's chronicle of the AIADMK's moving between various allies, especially the Congress and the BJP, are common knowledge. So is the story of DMK's dramatic loss of public trust for its support of the LTTE, which was responsible for Rajiv Gandhi's death. But it is her invocation of the political mood of those years, defined by the personalities of the leaders and the pulse on the street, which makes the revisiting of familiar material so rewarding.
The book ends with Jayalalithaa coming back to power in the 2016 assembly elections, a much revered figure to the electorate at 68, having "waded through an inferno to reach where she has", living very much in the present and in her own terms, fearless of the consequences of her actions and decisions as always.
Amma: Jayalalithaa's Journey From Movie Star To Political Queen is published by Juggernaut Books, 204 pages, Rs 299.
Also on HuffPost: