Monday, March 28, 2011

Jayalalithaa: A modern Cleopatra

The passing away of Liz Taylor has rekindled interest in her blockbuster “Cleopatra”. I’ve watched it many times and recently I was struck by how much Jaya and Cleo have in common.
Mark Antony comes to Cleo to negotiate a treaty. Cleo asks Antony to kneel. Antony is livid and reminds her that he is pro consul of the Roman empire. Seething with rage Cleo retorts, “I asked it of Caesar, I demand it of you”. Ministers prostrating at Jaya’s feet (a practice started by MGR) reached such levels that they became staple jokes. Once she was to chair a meeting of IAS officers. The officers all waited for her to enter the room, standing. No one dared to sit even in her absence. The worst incident was when Sedappatti Muthiah, now with DMK, prostrating to her in the Assembly after he got elected as speaker.In an interview after losing power in 1996 Jaya claimed that she did not like it and told her party men not to do it. I guess she was vying to make her name synonymous with 'self deluded'.
Cleopatra’s love of the extravagance is well known. Jaya, in her first stint, astounded TN with flagrant display of extravaganza. 1000 car retinues followed her. Cho Ramasamy memorably said "அவர் ஐய்யங்கார் இல்லை ஆயிரம் கார்" . Her royal highness need a/c's on stage. Cleopatra and Jaya were obsessed with astrology. If Cleopatra's dinners were legendary so were Jaya's. Jaya's meeting with Narendra Modi was known more for the lavish spread of lunch than for any policy discussion. How Jaya received her guests, at door or not, was itself news.

Both were thrust into the world of men at a very young age. Jaya had just finished her 10th exams when her mother pushed her into movies. Jaya's first movie was rated as "A" because she appeared in sleeveless tops, being less than 18 she could not see her first movie in the theaters. Cleopatra had her Caesar. Jaya had MGR. Both lived down their lives as "the other woman". Cleopatra was not a native Egyptian. Jaya's lineage is not clearly known. Cleopatra, modern historians assert, was a very shrewd and intelligent person who used her seductive skills to protect her fledgling kingdom. Jayalalitha has impressed many with her shrewdness and decisiveness. Both are equally impulsive thus undoing what they achieved. Both were avid lovers of books. The movie shows Cleopatra being anguished seeing the famed library of Alexandria burn. Jaya is supposed to be a voracious reader.

When Cleopatra first meets Caesar, in the movie, she jeers that Rome needs Egypt for money and grains. She clearly understood who needed whom and why. She needed Caesar to overcome her brother. Caesar needed her riches. Knowing the power equation she tried to use it to her best interest. When Mark Antony tries to summon her very cleverly Cleopatra makes him understand that Amtony needs her more than she needs him. She had the money. She could choose to deal with Antony or if she wishes Octavian. 

For decades Congress had taken Tamil Nadu for granted. When Indira drubbed in North after Emergency only the south provided her succor. Though MP's from Tamil Nadu occasionally wielded some ministries never where TN MP's respected as a power bloc. All that changed one summer when an imperious Jayalalitha pulled the rug from under Vajpayee. North India was dumbstruck seeing a woman from South address the press from the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, in Hindi, saying she had withdrawn her support to the BJP government. Her misadventure cost India Rs 5000 crores, she lost her clout as BJP returned back to power aided by her bete noire DMK. But TN was never taken lightly after that.

Both shared a love for pearls. The best known photo of Jaya in her younger days showed her wearing a single strand of pearl necklace. The foster son marriage (now disowned) showcased that she could easily outdo Cleopatra in shameless display of wealth. World press billed it as Rs 100 crore marriage.

Cleopatra was ruthless to anyone she deemed a threat. Thugs in autos became a sad joke about Jaya's first regime. Subramaniam Swamy, Chidambaram, Seshan, advocate Vijayan all bore the brunt of her anger. 

Above all Jaya and Cleo share a fatal trait, the unseemly desire to self-destruct themselves. Mark Antony commanded a good army but Cleopatra compels him to fight Octavian at sea, a task that his army is highly unsuited for. The Battle of Actium is a disaster.The movie depicts how Cleopatra deserts Antony. Antony then deserts his army chasing her. When it appeared that Jaya's comeback has very good chances she went and ruined it by her sheer arrogant treatment of Vaiko. Tamil Nadu was just astounded to see Vaiko being humiliated and wondered if she would ever learn. 

Cleopatra and Jayalalitha are shrouded in mystery. Jaya, even in this modern age, is a puzzle that nobody has understood or found a clue to. She is not an approachable person, she has written a thinly veiled auto-biographical fiction yet much remains unknown about her. Just like Cleopatra we know Jayalalithaa only through men whether its her opponents or the media. Only in 2010 did Cleopatra get a female biographer. 

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