Several controversies have shrouded the release of Periyar, a film on the life of the great rationalist thinker and social reformer, who hailed from Tamil Nadu. However, the film is a long overdue tribute to the exemplary visionary and the progressive traditions cherished by E V Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar). Not only this, in the context of the degeneration of Dravidian party politics in the state, the growing atrocities on lower castes – Papparpatti, Keeripatti and such other incidents and the assertion of rightwing reactionary forces at the national level, a film on the legacy of Periyar is welcome. Also, when women are being accused of inviting or deserving rape for dressing in modern outfits, when women are being targetted and victimized for expressing opinions crossing the taboos or writing poetry on sexuality, a film that voices a few progressive ideas regarding women’s rights and women’s emancipation provides a counterpoint.
At the same time, it is crystal clear that there is a definite propagandistic motive in the making and the funding of the film. The 95 lakh rupees endowed by the DMK-led government for the film, the free ticket bonanza to the DMK rank and cadre, the 50 % concession on tickets to school children and the special emphasis subtly placed on Karunanidhi’s role in the film is nothing but a desperate attempt to assert the rationalist identity of Karunanidhi and to appropriate the rich traditions of Periyar. The DMK, with its defence of those who perpetrated massacres of dalits like Keezhvenmani and its naked anti-labour violence let loose in Simpsons, TVS, etc., has long betrayed the legacy of the positive aspects of the Dravidian movement, a massive social movement unleashed and guided by Periyar. Periyar always condemned untouchability on Panchamars (dalits) and condemned even the neo-Brahmin OBCs who are perpetrating atrocities now on dalits, but the DMK has shown utter inaction on the murder of dalit panchayat presidents in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu and to cover up its own neo-Brahminical role it is indulging in this cultural politics of appropriating Periyar.
The film introduces EVR as a rebellious, inquisitive, enthusiastic and dynamic youngster having an innate concern for the poor and the downtrodden. In the course of his fight against brahminism, caste and gender discrimination he emerges as an iconoclast – denouncing God, religion, Hinduism in particular, gender oppression and caste. He propounded intercaste marriages and intercaste dining. He is the first person to introduce the tap water system in Tamil Nadu, so that lower caste people could have easy access to water facility, and many a reforms.
The film shows his disillusionment with the Congress over Gandhi’s and Rajaji’s promotion of Varnashrama dharma and caste-based occupation-education (Kulakkalvi Thittam; his championing of a movement for social dignity that leads him to emerge taller than Gandhi’s political persona in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reducing freedom to the struggle against the British, he castigates the Congress for its indifference to emancipation of the oppressed castes. When the entire nation immersed in rejoicing on the occasion of Independence he declared black day and gave a call for the people to observe it as a day of mourning. In Dravida Kazhagam, he identifies and grooms CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi who later started DMK, abusing Periyar for his second marriage with younger activist after the death of his wife. The developments in Malaya and Russia influence Periyar to support communism. He is arrested for pro-communist propaganda in his magazine Kudiyarasu. Later, when communist party is banned, he foresees that there is no way to save self-respect movement but for postponing campaign for his communist ideals for sometime.
Alongside his struggle for caste abolition, he committedly and relentlessly fought against gender discrimination. In his life, he struggled to liberate the devadasis, encouraged widow remarriage and fought for abolition of child marriage. He propagated a reformist marriage without mangalsutra, purohits or shastras. He strongly advocated that women should be liberated from the domestic shackles and should be educated and employed to ascertain their rights. He propounded that women should break the traditions by cutting their hair, wearing modern clothing, shedding the ornaments and even give up the preoccupation with child rearing which also enslaves women. This aspect is portrayed in the film but with lesser emphasis.
Essentially, what is missing in this film is his vehement opposition to Hinduism throughout his life. The film has limited it to the fight against Brahminism. Periyar was incomparably a far advanced radical democrat than what the film has made him to be. There are many a calculated omissions and tapering down the intensity, the vigor and the verve of his initiatives and thoughts.
The film has done away with sentimental treatise and sensationalism. Still, it could have been much more coherent and tightly structured. It could also have done away with the two dance sequences which are diluting the flow and the seriousness of the film. This apart, in contrast to the general standards of the commercial film industry this is a far better film at least to the extent that it has expounded some of Periyar’s concerns, chronicled a few streaks of his resistance and tried to popularize them.