Jayalalithaa Jayaram: Tamil Nadu's film star politician with love for saris and shoes

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Leader and Chief Minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa Jayaram gesturing as she arrives at a public meeting in Pondicherry, on March 27, 2014.
All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Leader and Chief Minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa Jayaram gesturing as she arrives at a public meeting in Pondicherry, on March 27, 2014. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - The late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram was a former film star who went on to become one of India's most powerful and controversial politicians, famed for her vast sari collection that won her comparisons with Mrs Imelda Marcos, widow of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

In Ms Jayalalithaa's native southern state of Tamil Nadu, where she was known simply as Amma, or mother, she inspired a devotion that verged on the religious.

But she was also seen as an autocratic and secretive leader, and she battled allegations of corruption on a vast scale.

She was briefly jailed on two occasions, most recently in 2014 when prison officers reportedly allowed her staff to bring her usual breakfast - a privilege not extended to other inmates.

A 1997 police raid on her properties netted 10,500 saris, 750 pairs of shoes and a 1.5kg diamond-studded gold belt.

 
 
 

But the accusations did little to dent her popularity among followers in Tamil Nadu, which under her rule became one of India's most prosperous states.

Ministers would prostrate themselves before her, while followers went to extraordinary lengths to show their devotion, marking her birthday by tattooing her face on their skin.

When she first fell ill in September, one supporter set himself on fire, while an elderly man suspended himself from a crane with steel hooks pierced through his skin.

Their devotion was partly thanks to vast election-time giveaways that ranged from laptops to bicycles and kitchen appliances, and helped her win three terms as chief minister.

Her "Amma canteens", offering lunch for 3 rupees (S$0.06), were also a huge hit, and she managed to retain the reverence she had enjoyed as a movie star throughout her political career.

The career change was not as unusual as it might seem - cinema and politics have long been intertwined in Tamil Nadu.

Ms Jayalalithaa's AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party was founded by her fellow actor and on-screen love interest M. G. Ramachandran, who became her political mentor.

The pair remained close until his death in 1987, when his wife and family denied Ms Jayalalithaa permission to see his body.

"One-third of my life was dominated by my mother, the other part - a major one - was dominated by MGR," she once said in an interview, referring to Ramachandran.

"One third remains, and this part of my life remains for myself."

She quickly rose in the ranks of the party to become a member of India's upper house in 1983, taking over as leader after Ramachandran's death, before winning state elections in 1991 and becoming chief minister.

The allegations of corruption were first made by a rival politician in the state in 1996, and Ms Jayalalithaa always dismissed them as politically motivated.

Prosecutors in the latest trial said her assets, which reportedly included two 405ha estates in the lush tropical state she ran, were vastly disproportionate to her earnings as chief minister. 

Despite a string of court battles, she was re-elected and governed the state four times, working through a proxy even after she was convicted on corruption charges in September 2014. She was elected to her fourth term as chief minister in May this year.

In later life, she gained a reputation for reclusiveness, living alone in her palatial Poes Garden residence in Chennai.