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The movie begins with a journey back to a dramatic Tollywood with ornate sets, and a 16-year-old Jayalalitha beginning her career and gaining popularity as a romantic lead alongside actor M.G Ramachandran (MGR). Her vulnerability as a young girl in a toxic industry is portrayed through a series of attempts to silence her by Veerappan (Raj Arjun), the exalted aide to MGR. Jayalalitha, nicknamed Amu, idolizes MGR, and the pair begin to share an off-screen romance while MGR is still married to another woman.
“Hug me like I am your mother,” he says to her in a coaxing tone.
However, MGR’s behavior toward the teenager changes when he is reminded that it could ruin his political aspirations as chief minister of Tamilnadu, a conservative state. MGR eventually becomes the chief minister as the beloved leader of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, acutely aware of the optics of his trendy black shades and Russian topi.
The narrative grabs attention when Amu becomes aware that the mid-day meal program started by MGR is a sham and that kids are eating stale, foul kanji rather than nutritious rasam, sambar, and vegetables marketed by the government. She takes the food to the CM’s office and he recognizes that the actress has the ability to advance his political career.
MGR makes a key decision and makes Jayalalitha his propaganda secretary. She becomes an activist, feeding children in remote village schools, nurturing hungry families, and a whole generation of Tamilians who graduate into capable members of society because of her activism. She suffers ridicule and subterfuge at the hands of old boys in the DMK political party but her fame prevails.
Her crowning moment happens when L.K.Advani concedes his time in a parliamentary session of the Rajya Sabha to Jayalalitha, who makes a speech about the energy crisis in Tamil Nadu. Her diction, grasp of the subject, communication skills, and body language impress the members. She is granted an audience and a photo opportunity with the PM Indira Gandhi.
Another shockwave unnerves her and the country when Indira Gandhi is assassinated in October 1984. The party tries to distance itself from her but Rajiv Gandhi refuses to support DMK’s agenda without Jayalalitha on the ticket. In 1987, MGR agrees to come over for dinner. Jayalalitha waits for her mentor dressed in a pink Kancheepuram, but he is a no-show. She waits till dawn and then learns that MGR has succumbed to myocardial infarction.
After his demise, Jaya boldly declares her desire to lead the party. She voices charges against the opposition leader Karunanidhi in the assembly and is manhandled by an army of political pundits dressed in white! She barely escapes with her honor intact from that bizarre attack.
But she has fire in her soul and once again, she rises. This time she takes a “public oath” channeling the curse of Draupadi who was manhandled by the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. She is attacked, ridiculed, and seriously injured but she remains steadfast in her political aspirations. She sacrifices her personal jewelry, cash, and real estate assets to inject cash into her campaign. Rajiv Gandhi comes to see her and is impressed by her courage. Even her staunchest adversary Veerappan becomes her ally. Jayalalitha claims her final role as Thalaivii. She is reincarnated as “Amma” who remained chief minister of Tamil Nadu for 16 years(1991-2016).
Jayalalitha built her political career based on the advice from her mentor MGR: If you give love to people, they will love you back. She appeals to the heart of the people and ties her well-being into their wellness. Once she is in, with the grit of her determination; unlimited access to steroids and painkillers she becomes AMMA Thalaivi. She even has the party goons bowing down in her court.
Kangana owns the character and looks the part in her white sarees and pearls. She reminds me a bit of Eva Peron, the Argentinian actress, politician, activist, and wife of Argentine President Juan Peron. I cannot comment on how Ranaut sounds in Tamil but in the Hindi version with prosthesis and weight gain, she does embody the passionate temperament of the indomitable female leader who died in 2016. Definitely worth watching for all of us who are not familiar with the dramatic arc of Thalaivii’s life!
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.