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Khalid Mohamed revisits the takes on the chequered life and no-holds-barred power of J. Jayalalithaa, late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu


Never too late perhaps. I’d been avoiding the series with the longest barge-pole. On a fallow day, lately, I started on it – thanks to a link mailed by a fellow-scrounger of OTT offerings -- to be quite pleasantly surprised.


Of course, the 11-episode series titled Queen (not to be confused with Vikas Bahl’s Hindi film Queen, 2013) is guilty of granting itself plenty of dramatic licences. It’s replete with tedious passages, and doesn’t dwell enough into the mega-negative (read despotic) aspects of its central character.


Such soft pedalling is endemic in a majority of our biopics which could and have led to a furious controversy or a ban to be slugged out in the law courts.


Gratifyingly, the Iron Lady of Indian cinema and politics – J. Jayalalithaa (1948-2016) – in the web series Queen, despite its aberrations, struck me as a portrayal of sufficient  complexity.


The web series had been dropped on MX Player in 2019. Nuanced and unwaveringly sensitive,  in the eponymous role the Chennai-based actress Ramya Krishnan, delivered her career-best performance.


By the way it’s no secret that the series wasn’t the first endeavour to retell the fascinating, believe-it-or-not life story of Jayalalithaa, who was forced as a teenager by her poverty-stricken mother to give up her studies to become an actress.


Subsequently, Jayalalithaa went on to ride roughshod over the political grid of  Tamil Nadu as the state’s Chief Minister. Roads would be blocked off for hours to make way for her cavalcade, at one point even raising the ire of the supestar Rajanikanth.


Ramya Krishnan as Jayalalithaa in Queen (2019)

Back in 1997, Mani Rathnam had also selected certain phases of her life for Iruvar, one his most politically critical films yet. The focus was largely on the friendship and fall-out between M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi, both to become Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers in the future.


Aishwarya Rai had made her acting debut as an obvious allusion to Jayalalithaa in the company of Malayalam cinema’s superstar Mohan Lal who was depicted as a veiled avatar of her mentor, actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran aka MGR.


Initially, Rathnam’s film with a brilliant, jazz-enhanced  music score by A.R.Rahman and stunning photography by Santosh Sivan, was refused a censor certificate.


 Jayalalithaa who was at the peak of her power then wasn’t amused by her characterisation in Iruvar. Not the sort to  be cowed down though, Rathnam had appealed to the Censor Board’s revising committee. The film was passed with quite a few visual and dialogue cuts. However, that didn’t prevent Iruvar from achieving moderate success at the box office, besides achieving a cult status among film connoisseurs.


Agree or not, Iruvar did resort to needless short-cuts, like dispensing with the faux Jayalalithaa character in an off-screen road accident. While Mohanlal was bankably credible, Aishwarya  Rai’s was essentially a pretty-as-a-picture, one-dimensional act. Not surprisingly Prakash Raj in the part patterned after M. Karunanidhi stole the thunder, besides winning the Best Supporting Actor National Award.


Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar (1997)

Quite piquantly, while the Ramya Krishnan web series Queen was being appreciated, a full-fledged biography on the Iron Lady, headlining Kangana Ranaut, was being readied for an imminent release.


Designed as a multi-lingual version,titled Thalaivi in Tamil  and Telugu, and Jaya in Hindi, here was a tough test for Kangana. Could she better Ramya Krishnan’s bravura performance in Queen? Chances were that the headstrong Kangana Ranaut wouldn’t let go of the opportunity to display her acting chops to the hilt. To her credit, she did manage an inspired job.


Kangana Ranaut in Thalaivi (2021)

More: Sporadically, at least three more projects were announced based on the unbridled power wielded by Jayalalithaa, but there have been no updates on them, perhaps stymied by the prospect of objections which were being constantly raised by the late Chief Minister’s surviving family.


Nevertheless, carrying a disclaimer that no attempt is being made to recreate reality and the assertion that the aim is to narrate fiction could work, as it did for Iruvar and Queen.  Apparently, the trick to circumvent legal snafus  is to slightly alter the names of the real-life characters (like calling MGR, GMR), and some of the script situations  have to be fashioned as figments of the imagination.


Personally circa 1998, in an interview with me for Filmfare, Jayalalithaa had expressed deep resentment against Rathnam’s Iruvar, adding vitriolically that she didn’t think of him highly as a filmmaker and  didn’t wish to give him any importance in the media. “Such so-called filmmakers are best ignored,” she had said, adding, “All I will say his music composer, A.R.Rahman,is a genius”


Rather, she wished to focus our interview on her abiding love for literature and had shown me around her bungalow, where  commodious suite of rooms had been converted into a library of hundreds of books, ranging from the world classics to  bestsellers.


In the course of our conversation, she came across as a paradoxically  no-nonsense and yet vulnerable woman who could never recover from the fact that after being a topper at her school examinations, she wasn’t permitted to join a college for further studies.


Her avowed dream was to become either a doctor or a lawyer. Instead dire circumstances compelled her to become an actress and then take over the mantle of the Chief Minister. This was on the heels of  the death of MGR, who was considered a demi-god by the masses. Often she had received death threats, coercing her to wear a bullet-proof cloak throughout her working day.


Indeed by delving into the consequences of this shattered dream for a formal education, the web series Queen tread on the right track. Throughout we were moved by the haplessness of a young woman who was to become a pawn in the game of self-seeking adults. Yet despite suffering through a nervous breakdown, psychological treatment and being jilted by an actor who had sworn undying love to her, Jayalalithaa – renamed Shakthi Seshadri in the series – emerged triumphant.


She ruled for 14 years over the male-dominated political system, thanks to her resilience and her belief for gender equality.


The series jointly created by Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan did tend to be slow-paced occasionally and repetitive. Also the device of a TV interviewer (Lillete Dubey) questioning the Iron Lady (obviously replicated from Simi Garewal’s Rendezvous with Jayalalithaa), kept interrupting the flow of the dramaturgy. Such reservations apart, after a long hiatus, here was an Indian series that was binge-worthy.


Moreover, Ramya Krishnan at the age of 49 then, clearly revealed that she’s an artiste of substance. Perhaps Bollywood didn’t give her the roles she deserved, mostly slotting her in the parts of an oomph-oozing femme fatale. Count among them, Khalnayak (1993), Chaahat (1996) and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998). No wonder, she opted to resume her career in Chennai, and subsequently made a sledge-hammer impact as the Queen Mother in the iconic magnum opus Baahubali (2015) and its sequel two years later.  


Incidentally, vis-à-vis Jayalalithaa, she featured in just one Hindi film,  T. Prakash Rao’s Izzat (1968), co-starring Dharmenda in a double role and Tanuja, and she’s remembered merely for  breaking out into an embarrassingly boisterous song (‘Jagi Badan Mein Jwala’) on a rocky landscape.


Jayalalithaa in Izzat (1968)

The Ramya Krishna web-series Queen surely deserved a second season. No news on that yet. J. Jayalalithaa may be no more. She passed away at the age of 68 after a cardiac arrest, leaving behind a shoal of controveries.


Without a doubt as a Chief Minister she had her despicable flaws and was accused of   being autocratic and corrupt.   


Correct. But every effect has a cause. In sum, all her strengths and weaknesses considered,  here was a woman who did make a place for herself, and how, in a man’s world. Or else why should there be a rush to revend her story again and again? One more could be just around the corner.



Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, producer & filmmaker.

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