Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the hugely popular south Indian actress who later turned to politics and became the highest elected official in the state of Tamil Nadu, died Monday. She was 68.
The Apollo Hospital in the southern Indian city of Chennai said Jayalalithaa died at 11:30 p.m. local time after undergoing surgery following a heart attack hours earlier.
Known by her followers as “Amma,” which means “Mother” in the Tamil language, Jayalalithaa inspired intense loyalty among film fans and political supporters alike.
Thousands of Jayalalithaa’s supporters, wailing and crying, gathered outside the hospital to pray for her recovery. Police were deployed across the state to ensure security out of fear that her death could trigger widespread violence and riots.
The neighboring state of Karnataka stopped public buses from traveling to Tamil Nadu after one of its buses was attacked Monday.
The U.S. Consulate in Chennai put out an advisory urging Americans to be careful in the city and avoid large crowds.
Jayalalithaa had already been in the hospital for two months since Sept. 22, when she was admitted with a fever, dehydration and a respiratory infection.
At the time, thousands of people prayed and fasted outside the hospital for her recovery. Doctors barred visitors, sparking rumors that they were withholding bad news out of fear it could trigger the same outpouring of grief, riots and suicides that followed the death of Jayalalithaa’s political and acting mentor, M.G. Ramachandran.
Jayalalithaa was kept on a ventilator in the intensive care unit for weeks, doctors said. She also suffered from diabetes.
Jayalalithaa was 13 when she began her film career and quickly became known as a romantic lead in many of the nearly 150 Tamil-language movies that she worked on.
She entered politics in the early 1980s, under the guidance of Ramachandran. Soon after his death in 1987, she declared herself his political heir and took control of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam party.
She served as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, the highest elected position in the state of 71 million people, for nearly 14 years over five terms beginning in 1991. She regained her office last year after a corruption case against her was overturned. Her supporters praised her efforts in fighting rural poverty with handouts like laptop computers for students, cows and goats for farmers, and spice grinders for homemakers.
Such free gifts are commonly used by Indian political parties in courting voters, but her handouts were still criticized by some as wasteful pandering and unfair bribery. But Jayalalithaa defended the giveaways as welfare measures aimed at helping the poor.
She herself was known for leading an extravagant lifestyle. In 1997, police found more than 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes after raiding her home as part of a corruption investigation.
In the first half of 2014, Jayalalithaa made a bid to become India’s prime minister job by saying she would form a coalition in New Delhi if no party dominated elections. But the Bharatiya Janata Party won a clear majority, catapulting Narendra Modi into the nation’s top job.
Later that year, she was forced to step down as chief minister in Tamil Nadu state when she was sentenced to four years in prison for amassing more than $10 million during her political career, a wealth the court said was disproportionate to her income.
She spent 21 days behind bars before the Indian Supreme Court released her on bail. In May 2015, an appeals court overturned the corruption charges, clearing the way for her return to power. She returned to office as chief minister on May 23 and a month later was re-elected in a by-election.
Jayalalithaa was born in 1948 in the village of Melukote, in what is now the state of Karnataka. Her birth name was Jayalalitha, but she reportedly added an “a” on advice from a numerologist.
Her lawyer father, also named Jayaram, died when she was 2, prompting her mother to learn shorthand and typing so she could work in a clerical position to support the family and put Jayalalithaa and her brother through school. Her brother died in the early 1990s.
Story by the Associated Press.