Rajinikanth Takes on Periyar – Foot-in-Mouth or Political Debut?

Was Rajinikanth's take on Periyar a faux pas or his first political move in twenty years? Why is it such a big deal?

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Politics
6 min read
Rajinikanth taking on Periyar is a sign of a larger leap.
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Rajinikanth's most famous filmy 'punch' dialogue, from the iconic movie Baasha, goes something like this:

If I say it once, it's equal to saying it a hundred times.

Politics and cinema in Tamil Nadu have historically blurry boundaries. Little surprise, therefore, that this dialogue seems to have jumped out of the screen and taken to the streets.

For the first time ever, Rajinikanth spoke against EV Ramaswamy at a public function. He called out EVR (aka Periyar) for organising a rally decades ago in Salem in which naked cutouts of Lord Rama and Sita were paraded with garlands made of sandals.

In a leaderless state that is currently seeing a drought in political news, this one statement has opened floodgates, and fanned fires. Let's begin with the obvious question.

Did Rajinikanth Lie?

Anti-Superstition Procession in Salem. 1971.
Anti-Superstition Procession in Salem. 1971.
(Photo Courtesy: Illustrated Weekly of India, 7 March, 1971)
In 1971, at Salem, Periyar took out a rally in which undressed images of Lord Sri Ramachandramoorty and Sita with a garland of sandals featured, and no news outlet published it.
Rajinikanth at the 50th anniversary function of Thuglak magazine.

Did Rajinikanth lie?

No, but he mixed up the details. He quoted a report that appeared on Outlook in 2017, which had done the same thing.

The effigies of Rama and Seetha were fully clothed. But they weren't just garlanded with chappals, they were also beaten with them.

Effigies and posters of Vishnu, Shiva, Parvathi, Ayyappa and other smaller Gods were paraded naked, and shown having sexual communion.

No Tamil publication except the Thuglak published it. But there was a report in The Hindu, the next day (25 January, 1971), by the Salem correspondent who wrote on the 'Superstition Eradication Conference', in which, 'a 10-foot long image of Lord Rama was carried on a vehicle and dozens of people kept beating it with chappals'. And that an image of Lord Rama cutout in wood was set afire at the end of the parade.

The CM of the time K Karunanidhi first denied the incident, and then at a press conference held on 1 February the same year, said, "I am saddened to hear of the news that the procession at Salem in which idols were displayed obscenely have hurt the sentiments of the theists."

That Karunanidhi tried to seize copies of Thuglak which carried the news, and that the said copies were sneaked out and sold at premium, is an interesting segue for another time. But the DMK's act of trying to muzzle Thuglak is considered the first instance of a TN government gagging its press.

Long story short, Rajinikanth mixed up the gods who got beaten with chappals and the gods who were paraded naked. But he didn't lie. Nevertheless, this raises another pertinent question.

Should Rajinikanth Have Spoken on Periyar At All?

Actor Rajinikanth with his WMD; the mic.
Actor Rajinikanth with his WMD; the mic.
(Photo: IANS)
With every word, Rajinikanth swings public opinion, and in dangerous tangents. That is his superpower. That's what makes him political.

There is an undeniable political ramification to anything the superstar says. Whether he's ready to enter politics or not, whether or not he's even truly a politician, all that he says in public, is political.

He batted for the DMK in 1996, and won them an election. In 2017 he called supporting DMK (in 1996) a political accident. He supported the Jallikattu protests, but was against the Sterlite protests. Gradually, thanks to his off-screen mannerisms and accent, his hint at 'spiritual politics' and his pro-Centre anti-protests stance on the CAA, the media and public perception coloured him as being right-of-centre.

Rajinikanth is pro-BJP.

This is what the DMK and the AIADMK think. Other parties, independent of their loyalties, think the same. And this is definitely what the BJP in Tamil Nadu wants.

Nevertheless, he has never spoken about, or against, Periyar thus far. Nor has he dwelt on Dravidian ideology in any of his public speeches or films. The incident he mentions, implicating Periyar of Hindu-hatred, is common knowledge, and not something he would have chanced upon recently.

This then gives us two options. Either Rajinikanth spoke without thinking it through. Or, he spoke knowing fully well that his comments on Periyar would blow up. And this brings us to the next question.

Why Is This a Big Deal?

EV Ramasamy.
EV Ramasamy.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
The word Periyar is a loose translation of Mahatma. As in, Mahatma Gandhi. That is the stature EVR enjoys among Tamil Nadu's people. Even those who hate the Dravidian ideology hold EVR in high regard for his stand against caste-ism and his stance on gender equality.

Case in point, superstar Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. He used cinema as a vehicle for propaganda and personal glorification so successfully that he won his final election while unconscious in the hospital.

MGR's hatred for the DMK and its ideology is legendary. He was a religious man and his songs often spoke of how he was chosen by god to lead the people to a better life.

Yet, he was a die-hard devotee of Periyar. Most of the hero entry songs in his films would mention how he follows the footsteps of 'Thanthai Periyar' (Father Periyar).

Deputy CM O Panneerselvam can never be seen without the holy ash and vermilion on his forehead. He is so religious that late CM Jayalalithaa is now a part of his pantheon of gods. Yet, he tweeted against Rajinikanth's statements, saying, "Periyar should be kept at the highest pedestal and respected."

It's an idiosyncracy peculiar to Tamil Nadu. The majority is deeply religious. And the same majority look up to Periyar, self proclaimed hater of Hinduism, as a Mahatma.

EV Ramaswamy's hatred towards the Hindu religion and his open slander of gods in his magazines Kudiarasu and Dravidan are well-known. But equally astonishing is his work on eradication of caste, women's empowerment and social reform, which are globally acknowledged legacies.

Which is why, for a celebrity to speak against Periyar is to denounce him, and all of his work in toto. If that is what Rajinikanth has done, then it IS a big deal. Which brings us to the real question.

Will the Non-Dravidian Poster Boy Finally Stand Up?

Actor Rajinikanth said he refuses to apologise to those who are protesting his controversial remark on Periyar.
Actor Rajinikanth said he refuses to apologise to those who are protesting his controversial remark on Periyar.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@smitha_tarur)

This is Rajinikanth's first overtly political move, in over twenty years. He has, with a single quote, isolated himself from the ruling party and all of the Opposition, and united them. He is yet to take BJP's the hand that they have been extending since 2014. And his statement has received more traction and attention than all of Kamal Haasan's tweets put together.

As Rajinikanth refuses to apologise or change his stance, more protests are announced by Dravidian outfits, security outside his Poes garden home is tightened, and political analysts' antennae tingle.

Has Rajinikanth made Periyar his political launchpad? Has Rajinikanth gone saffron? Has he finally plunged into politics at the deep end?

The only time Rajinikanth openly admitted to having political ambitions was in a Doordarshan interview in 1995. He then did NOT enter electoral politics. All one can say is that the wind is blowing his way now. When Darbar can rake in 200 crores in 11 days despite having no story to save its skin, the superstar's long-awaited entry to politics doesn't seem to be that much of a pipe dream.

And in the end, it may not be his ideology, but his name on the ballot sheet that could swing votes.

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