A man & his mission

Print edition : June 15, 2007

Actor Satyaraj as periyar in the film-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A film on Periyar, a man whose struggle for social justice left an indelible mark on Tamil Nadu's politics and history, wins praise.

PORTRAYING Periyar on celluloid can be a test of character for any film-maker, for his was no ordinary life, all 94 years of it - inquiring as a boy, incisive in the later years, but relentless as always as a crusader for the dignity of the individual. It was a test that played on the minds of several film-makers for over two decades until Director Gnana Rajasekaran chose to take it and, in the process, bring alive on screen a period in Tamil Nadu's history when Periyar's struggle for social justice was all-encompassing.

The results of that struggle are apparent in today's Tamil Nadu. It has the second highest literacy rate (73.47 per cent) among States whose population exceeds 50 million, the first being Maharashtra (77.27 per cent). Tamil Nadu also accounts for the largest number of institutions of higher learning, particularly professional colleges.

This is no mean achievement in a State that is one of the worst affected by caste-based prejudice and discrimination and where around 80 per cent of the population of 62 million belongs to the socially disadvantaged sections, categorised as the Other Backward Classes (OBC), the Most Backward Castes (MBC) and the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.).

Social scientists attribute Tamil Nadu's impressive performance in education and other social sectors, including health, to the system of reservation in education and government employment followed in the State since 1927. It was a response to a decade-long struggle for social justice in the Madras Presidency in early 20th century, which successive governments have seen fit to improve upon.

The credit for mobilising mass support for the cause and keeping the movement alive for decades goes indisputably to Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, or Periyar, as he is popularly known. When vested interests put roadblocks to the measure in the wake of Independence, purportedly to be in tune with the Constitution of India, he motivated the State government to press the Centre to amend the Constitution and save reservation.

Periyar sustained the campaign for reservation for nearly five decades until his death in 1973. The system faced impediments at every stage of its expansion, the latest being the recent Supreme Court stay of the 2006 Central Act that provides for reservation in Central institutions of higher education.

Periyar's relevance to contemporary India goes beyond reservation and extends to the fight against untouchability and atrocities against Dalits. Periyar had, towards the end of his life, expressed deep anguish over what he called his two major unfinished tasks - putting an end to caste-based discrimination in employment and education and the liberation of Dalits from untouchability. In his perception, the ultimate solution for all caste-based ills lies in the abolition of the exploitative and hierarchic caste system.

Viewed in this context, Gnana Rajasekaran's feature film on the man who was a colossus in South Indian politics for over six decades has come not a day too soon. Rationalist, modernist, humanist, iconoclast and social reformer, Erode Venkata Naicker Ramasamy was born on September 17, 1879, in a wealthy orthodox Hindu family in Erode, a busy business centre in western Tamil Nadu. He went to a local primary school in 1885, but his formal education ended in less than five years. At the age of 12, he was inducted into his father's business.

DIRECTOR GNANA RAJASEKARAN, who has made a film on Subramania Bharati also.-

Bhajans, discourses and lectures by Vaishnavite teachers frequently held at his house engaged his attention in the formative years. He started questioning the content of these lectures and discourses and exposed and ridiculed the contradictions and absurdities in the epics and the puranas. He also began challenging rituals and irrational and unjust practices such as child marriage and the inhuman treatment of women, particularly widows, and people of the oppressed and segregated castes.

At 19 Ramasamy married Nagammal, a close relative who was 13 years old. A rationalist by then, he sowed the seeds of rationalistic thought in his young wife. In 1904, he left home for a brief period after his father reprimanded him in public and beat him because he helped court officials serve summons on the elusive brother of a Brahmin mutt head revered by his father. He travelled to the holy city of Varanasi and his experiences there only strengthened his views on the Hindu orthodoxy and its socially divisive nature. On his return, he was formally inducted into business, in which he proved his worth.

He entered public life as a temple trustee and soon became the municipal chairman of his hometown. At the instance of C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), he joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 and soon became president of its Tamil Nadu unit. He participated actively in the party's political activities, such as selling khadi and the agitation against toddy shops, with his wife. On a request from the Congress leaders from Kerala, he also led the Vaikom struggle to establish the right of the depressed classes to use the public road leading to the temple. His wife and friends also participated in the agitation.

Discrimination against non-Brahmins in a Congress-run training institution for youth controlled by a Brahmin leader saw him getting disillusioned with the party. Eventually he left the Congress after he failed to convince the leadership to support reservation of seats for the deprived sections in the government and educational institutions.

He founded the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 to champion the cause of the deprived people. A visit to the Soviet Union left a deep impression on him and soon after his return he addressed meetings praising the Soviet achievements. He even declared that henceforth his economic policy would be based on communism, but soon changed his mind. He said social reform and the fight for social justice at all levels would be his prime concern.

He took over the leadership of the Justice Party founded by a group of non-Brahmin leaders. In 1944, the Justice Party was renamed the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK). After Independence, C.N. Annadurai and his followers broke away from the DK to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Periyar decided on keeping off power politics and announced that the DK would be an apolitical, social organisation. Periyar confined his activities to social issues and fought relentlessly against superstition, the imposition of Hindi, social injustice, and so on until his death.

A SCENE FROM the film. The principal objective in making the film was to remove misgivings about Periyar among a section of people, says Gnana Rajasekaran.-

To bring into a three-hour film such an eventful life required some doing. Gnana Rajasekaran, a senior Indian Administrative Service officer of the Kerala cadre, took three years to complete the film. He spent one year reading about Periyar, who remained active in his work up to his last days. Seven years ago, his film on Subramania Bharati, the Tamil poet and freedom fighter, won critical acclaim.

Rajasekaran has said in an interview that his principal objective in making Periyar is to remove the misgivings about the man among a section of people, which projects him as a Brahmin-hater. The fact is that he was opposed only to what he called Brahminism and not Brahmins as individuals. The director cites Periyar's personal friendship with, and respect for, Rajaji, a Brahmin, to stress this point. The film shows how Periyar had no reservation about helping people in distress, irrespective of their caste. Basically, Periyar was a humanist and this attitude was the driving force in his evolution into a crusader for social justice.

Explaining why he chose to do a film on Periyar, Gnana Rajasekaran told Frontline that Tamil Nadu had produced several great leaders such as Subramania Bharati and Periyar, who were heroes in real life, unlike the fictional heroes of today's movies, who had heroism thrust on them. Such leaders took on challenges, fought for public causes, acquired leadership qualities and emerged as heroes and role models for generations to come. "So, after a film on Bharati (2000), my natural choice was Periyar," he said.

Although the film attempts to cover as many aspects of his life as possible, it highlights mainly his tirade against social injustice and his firm opposition to rituals, customs and unscientific beliefs that encourage child marriage and prohibit widow remarriage. The director draws from incidents in Periyar's family, the episodes bringing out Periyar's sense of humour, sharp wit and satire, besides his pragmatism, honesty and frugality.

The film also depicts beautifully how the young Ramasamy contests the superstitious beliefs of his parents and fights against their stand and gradually evolves into a fighter for social justice in the public domain. Periyar's meetings with Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji have been handled with care. Even as he shows immense respect to Rajaji, Periyar does not fail to pinpoint, subtly though, his friend's reluctance to reveal his mind on the reservation issue.

The same is the case with the scene showing Periyar taking Maniammai as his second wife.

The film explores well Periyar's deep commitment to the cause of ending the practice of untouchability and ensuring social justice, as also his frustration that the results of his efforts were not up to his expectation.

A point that needs special mention is the director's brilliant choice of actors. Senior Tamil actor Satyaraj, an ardent follower of Periyar, lives the role, an opportunity he will cherish all his life. His natural humour and body language go well with the character. Kushboo, whose choice for the role of Maniammai sparked a controversy, proves her worth with a restrained performance. Vairamuthu's powerful lyrics add immense value to the film by elaborating on aspects of Periyar's ideology relating to god, religion and the caste system.

Gnana Rajasekaran says the film is an attempt to draw attention to Periyar's humanism and respect for fellowbeings, his dispassionate attitude to life and concern for the underprivileged, and his progressive views on women's liberation, aspects that have not been highlighted adequately so far.

"My aim was not to soften the image of Periyar, but highlight his multi-faceted personality. I think I have succeeded in this, going by the overwhelming response to the film," he said. A valid claim, indeed.

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