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A large gathering, holding green flags, faces away from the podium on which a woman resembling Smriti Irani stares out at them. “Inspired by a true story” cries a label, above the gold-lettered title of the book. The glossy print on the cover suggests it may be vanity publishing. But publisher Juggernaut has claimed 10 pages at the end, advertising its app and the fact that it binds its authors to engage in a Reddit AMA-style interaction with readers.
The back cover says “Actress, politician, chief minister” and the blurb contains the summary of Jayalalithaa’s life, except that it turns into fact what is the subject of speculation – an affair with her mentor — and changes her name to Kalai Arasi.
With Jayalalithaa no longer around to file defamation suits, it is probably a good time for a novel based on her life to be released. The timeline of events has been altered every now and again, perhaps in the interest of avoiding a lawsuit from her followers. The phrase “based on” implies that a degree of creativity was involved. However, The Queen is not even thinly veiled; what we get is a watered-down version of Jayalalithaa’s life.
Every character has a real-life counterpart, with a similar name either by sound or syllable count. Kalai Arasi-Jayalalithaa; Anju-Sandhya (her mother); PKB-MGR; Ayya-Anna. There is a Progress For Dravidians party, and a Justice For Dravidians party. The protagonist’s nemesis is addressed as The Speechwriter, with children (legitimate and illegitimate) and nephews with political aspirations. Her best friend Selvi runs a video shop and moves on to various businesses, quite like Sasikala Natarajan. There is a bus-conductor-turned-superstar Sathya. Others are composite characters, whose constituent parts can be traced to Jayalalithaa’s circle. Only a few, very minor, characters seem to be entirely of the author’s imagination, and the only memorable one disappears after performing some sort of naked dance at a temple.
The book is dotted with famous incidents from Jayalalithaa’s life — the shooting of MGR in the throat by a co-actor, her being snubbed at his funeral, her assault in the Assembly, the grand wedding of her foster son, the disproportionate assets case. Several of these are glossed over in a couple of paragraphs and we must rely on our acquaintance with the real events to fill in the gaps left by the “fictionalised” version.
So close is the correlation that the author might be on thin ice if someone were to make a plagiarism charge. Several lines from the character’s speeches, and even lines from her film songs, are quoted verbatim from existing sources. Take for instance, “Let us fly like the birds, let us dance like the waves, let us sing the song of freedom”, a literal translation of the hugely popular number Adho andha paravai pola from Aayirathil Oruvan (1965), starring Jayalalithaa and MGR. There is a reference to a ‘PKB film’ called Maduraiyai Meetta Sundarapandyan — this is the name of MGR’s last film, released in 1978, months into his first term as chief minister. There is no disclaimer pleading coincidence or statement that permission has been sought for the appropriation, and the lines are now copyrighted to the author of this book.
The only invention is that Kalai Arasi married her first co-star, “Shekar”, a Kannadiga hero who seems to be a composite of Tamil actor Srikanth and Telugu star Sobhan Babu. And that Ramachandra Medical College, established in 1985, existed in 1965.
The book is readable and the writing is not bad — a couple of insightful sentences indicate that the author may be better than her novel — but one wonders what the point of the work is. If it were a biopic, the actor playing the lead may be dutifully nominated for a couple of awards. But would you pay Rs 350 for something you could read on Wikipedia for free?
Nandini Krishnan is a Chennai-based writer