A death that could not be reported

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 07/12/2016
Archival nostalgia became the highlights that gave viewers a rare insight into the otherwise aloof Amma.
NUPUR BASU on TV coverage of Jayalalitha’s final moments

Jaya Plus channel broadcast an early announcement of her death and then retracted. 


If secrecy and enigma was the hallmark of Jayalalitha Jayaram’s career in Indian politics, then the last few hours of her life, mirrored the same qualities.

In the media coverage spanning nine hours from 6 pm from December 5 to 3 am on December 6 morning, the series of fast paced events appeared as rivetting as Jayalalitha’s life and career in cinema and politics.

The first alert was raised by a local Tamil channel around 5.30 pm on December 5 saying the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is no more. Leading newspapers like the Hindustan Times started running it as ‘breaking news’ on its online tickers. The report was virulently denied by the hospital authorities. It was finally only seven hours later, after midnight, that Jayalalitha’s death was formally announced. After hours of speculation, the waiting media was informed through a press release by the Apollo Hospital authorities,that she had passed away.

But what happened between those nine hours - from the first news break to the official announcement – resembled a nerve-wracking thriller. It included the lowering of the flag to half mast in the AIADMK headquarters on the first newsbreak of her death, to re-raising the flag when the news was denied, to the final lowering again.

It included a series of dramatic events – a midnight announcement from Apollo Hospital that Puratchi Thalaivi is no more, this after the Chairman of the Apollo Hospital , Dr Pratap Reddy, left the premises under police protection without speaking to the waiting media. The grim swearing-in of the new chief minister and leader of AIADMK O Paneerselvam at 1.20 am in the morning in Raj Bhavan after a two minute silence observed for Jayalalitha.

The newly sworn-in Chief Minister and his men then returned to Apollo hospital and in a convoy escorted the body of their deceased leader to her home in Poes Garden under the vigil of Jaya TV OB, which instantly simulcast its footage across all the channels. The channels reported a “lockdown” on the streets of a nervous Chennai and only a sea of men and women in khaki were picked up on the cameras. All action was concentrated between the four kilometre stretch between the Greams Road where Apollo hospital was situated and Jayalalitha’s residence, Poes Garden.

Prior to that, the wait and watch hours had to be filled by anxious reporters manning OBs outside the hospital, her residence and the AIADMK headquarters.


"News X anchor Aatir Khan kept hinting at Jayalalitha’s actual status saying “I have my compulsions and can’t say anything beyond this.”"


Although most journalists reporting out of Chennai knew that the inevitable had happened in the hospital, no one could report on the obvious till the official announcement was put out since an earlier report had been denied so vehemently. News X anchor Aatir Khan kept hinting at Jayalalitha’s actual status saying “I have my compulsions and can’t say anything beyond this.” The channel referred to her as the “Matriarch of Madras” and said how she fought caste politics and misogyny throughout her career.

On BBC Siva Parameswran of Tamil BBC described Jayalalitha’s rule as monolithic :“She was known for the ask- no- questions type of leadership. It was a huge personality cult ..and hence there was no succession plan. She had fought for women’s rights and against female infancticide.”

WION channel called her a “demi god” and reported that 150 people had immolated themselves ever since she had been in hospital since 22nd September.

Javed Ansari, Executive editor of India Today pointed out: “Jayalalitha shared a very good relationship with Rajiv Gandhi and they would speak to each other once a week when he was Prime Minister.”

Much airtime was spent in speculating about the political future of the AIADMK ,Dravidian politics, whether Rajanikant would now enter politics in Tamil Nadu , what close confidante Shashikala’s role would be and how the BJP would try to fish in troubled waters in Tamil Nadu.


"In our party there are no succession plans, no heir apparent..when the time comes someone will emerge from the grassroots, just as MGR did and I did after MGR."


Through all this though the archival nostalgia were to be the highlights that gave viewers a rare insight into the otherwise aloof Amma. Simi Garewal in her famous Rendezvous programme asked Jayalalitha : “I have been watching your career and it has been more exciting than a film script isn’t it ?”  Jayalalitha replied: “It’s been a tempestuous life and career”. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister went onto confide in Ms Garewal that she had a crush on Shammi Kapoor and her favourite film was “Junglee” and title song - Yahoo…koi mujhe junglee kahen.. was a favourite of hers.

Simi then pursuaded Jayalalitha to sing and together they hummed the Hindi film song from “Chori Chori” (1956) .

Aaja sanam madhur chandni main…

hum tum milen to biraane main bhi aa jayegi bahaar..

jhoomne lagega aasman…

Kahta hain dil … machalta hain dil…

more sajan le chal taron ke par ...

lagta nahin hain dil yehan..”

Former television journalist and Resident Editor of The Hindu, Bangalore, T M Veeraraghav who had interviewed Jayalalitha had posed the question to her :“Are you a reluctant politician ?” Jayalalitha’s reply was :“Yes I guess so because I never wanted to join politics..I am doing my duty..I would have rather been a lawyer or a good academician..I don’t enjoy politics....I have been pushed into two high profile careers which I would never have chosen if I had been allowed to choose for myself ”.

In another interview she had told  Prabhu Chawla : “I never thought of myself as a man or a woman…whenever I had to do something that I believed in, I did it..In our party there are no succession plans, no heir apparent..when the time comes someone will emerge from the grassroots, just as MGR did and I did after MGR.” In the interview with Chawla sometimes Jayalalitha spoke in chaste Hindi. She had acted in a Hindi film with Dharmendra among the 140 other Tamil, Telugu, Malyalam and Kannada films she had acted in.

“Personally I am untied, unfettered, unbound ” J Jayalalitha had told Simi Garewal in the Rendezvous programme.

At midnight the lights went out at Apollo Hospital in Chennai and an era in Tamilnadu politics was literally untied, unfettered and unbound.


Nupur Basu is a senior journalist and documentary filmmaker. 



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