Tamil Nadu’s ailing chief minister Jayalalitha had a very successful innings in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as an actress. Surprisingly she did only one Hindi film as a leading lady. This was a 1968 melodrama called Izzat which featured Dharmendra in a double role. He played the two sons of an arrogant Thakur (played by the amazing Balraj Sahni) who during a hunting expedition, rapes and impregnates a tribal woman.
As luck irony and corny scriptwriting would have it, the tribal woman sires a son who falls in love with a sober sad and grieving upper-class woman while the Thakur’s legitimate son falls for a sprightly, outspoken and unabashed tribal girl Jhumki. The tribal girl was played by Jayalalitha.
Izzat was directed by the famed Tamil-Telugu director T Prakash Rao who made several successful Hindi films in the 1960s mostly with South Indian leading ladies: B Saroja Devi in Sasural, Vyjanthimala in College Girl, Duniya and Suraj, Padmini in Nanha Farishta .
Rao was given the responsibility of launching Jayalalitha in Hindi for the reason of cultural comfort. Rao had great facility with the cultural transition from Tamil to Hindi cinema.
The tribal girl’s role in Izzat was talkative chirpy and aggressively attention-grabbing. The film came and went without creating a dent at the box office. If it is remembered to this day it is for Jayalalitha dancing with fluent grace to Lata Mangeshkar’s fabulously rendered song ‘Jaagi Re Badan Mein Jawala Saiyyan Tuney Kya Kar Dala’.
The hit song composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal had raised quite a storm for its lyrics written by the great Sahir Ladhianvi. Lataji recalls that number with a smile of recognition. “Yes, after the film was released there was quite a lot of noise about the song. Actually I had sung another number for Jayalalithaji in that film ‘Ruk Ja Zara Babu Re Babu Re’ which was also a hit.”
Dharmendra who had the singular privilege of being the only leading man from Hindi cinema to have been paired with Jayalalitha in a Hindi film remembers the lady with much respect. “She was very quiet, very graceful and only focused on her work. She didn’t speak much on the sets. And we all respected her privacy. In the film she played a chirpy bubbly character similar to what Hema played in Sholay many years later. But in person she was quite the opposite. Very dignified graceful and quiet. I am sorry to know she is unwell. I wish her a quick recovery and good health.”