When Jaya Prada was fourteen years old, she performed a dance at her school's annual function. A film director was in the audience, and he offered her a three-minute dance number in the Telugu film Bhoomikosam. She was hesitant, but her family encouraged her to accept it. She was paid only 10 rupees for her work in the film, but she also received much greater opportunities, as the rushes of those three minutes of film was shown to the major figures of the Telugu film industry, and the floodgates opened. Major filmmakers offered her starring roles in quality films, and she accepted them. She became a major star in 1976 with big hits. Famous director K. Balachander's black-and-white film Anthuleni Katha (1976) showcased her dramatic skills; K. Viswanath's color film Siri Siri Muvva (1976) showed her playing a mute with excellent dancing skills; and her title role as Sita in the big-budget mythological film Seetha Kalyanam confirmed her versatility. In 1977, she starred in Adavi Ramudu, which broke box office records and which permanently cemented her star status. The song "Aaresukoboyi Paresukunnanu" picturized on her and co-star N.T. Rama Rao became a mass hit. In 1979, she acted in Ninaithale Inikkum opposite Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth in which she played a terminally-ill patient. She continued to act in more films in Telugu opposite major actors like NTR, ANR, Krishna, Krishnam Raju and Shobhan babu throughout the 70s. K. Viswanath remade Siri Siri Muvva (1976) in Hindi as Sargam introducing Jayaprada to Bollywood in 1979. The film became a huge hit and she became an overnight star there as well. She earned her first Filmfare nomination as Best Actress but couldn't capitalize on her success since she couldn't speak Hindi.
In 1981, Jaya Prada starred in the critically acclaimed 47 Natkal in which Chiranjeevi played negative shaded protagonist. Director K. Vishwanath relaunched her again in Hindi films, with the hit film Kaamchor where she spoke Hindi fluently for the first time. She was now able to consistently work in Hindi films and earn two more Filmfare nominations as Best Actress for playing Amitabh Bachchan's endearing girlfriend in Prakash Mehra's Sharaabi (1984) and for her challenging double role in K. Vishwanath's Sanjog. Saagara Sangamam released in 1983 proved to be a milestone in her career, Starring Kamal Haasan, the film won her lot of accolades including Filmfare Award for Best Actress – Telugu.
Jayaprada made a successful team, not just with Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra, but also with her immediate screen rival Sridevi, with whom she has acted in about a dozen films. Their hit Telugu film Devata (film) (1982) where they played sisters who made big sacrifices for each other, was remade into the hit Hindi film Tohfaa (1984). These films endeared Jayaprada to the traditional conservative section of film goers and she amassed a huge female fan following as well. It was an image that would serve her well when she started a new career as a politician.
Jaya Prada earned fans, not just with the masses, but also with the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, who has said she was one of the prettiest women in the world. Although, she has acted in Bengali films, she has never worked for Ray. (She claimed that Ray had her in mind for a film, but his illness and subsequent death prevented their collaboration). In film Paatal Bhairavi, at the peak of her facial and physical beauty, Jayapradha plays the role of a princess in a magical kingdom. This performance became renowned as the supreme example of grand and classical beauty of South Indian women in Bollywood. As she became involved in her political career since 1994, at the age of 32, her involvement with films reduced. In 2002, she stepped into the Marathi film industry by being a guest in the movie Aadhaar. Thus far, she acted in eight languages and has completed 300 films during a 30-year film career. She started playing mature roles in 2004. She also owns the Jaya Prada Theater in Chennai.
In 2011, she returned to Malayalam screens with a strong role in Pranayam, alongside Mohanlal and Anupam Kher. She essayed the role of 'Grace' in this film which won her critical acclaim and several awards. Her Kannada film Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna (Sangolli Rayanna (film)) which sees her donning the historical role of Kittur Chennamma is slated for release in the later half of 2012.
In 1986, Jaya Prada married producer Srikant Nahata, who was already married to Chandra and had 3 children. This marriage stirred a lot of controversy, especially since Nahata did not divorce his current wife and had children with his first wife after marrying Jayaprada. Jayaprada and Srikanth have no children together, but she expressed desire to have children.