Frontline (‘India’s national magazine’) reports on the new film about Indian humanist and rationalist Periyar directed by Gnana Rajasekaran.
Periyar (Periyar E. V. Ramaswami ) was born in 1879 and became a prominent Tamil atheist (“a colossus in South Indian politics for over six decades”) who struggled for social justice and against caste-based discrimination.
From an early age Periyar questioned the content of religious lectures and discourses and 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.
He entered public life as a temple trustee and soon became the municipal chairman of his hometown.He joined the Indian National Congress in 1919 and soon became president of its Tamil Nadu unit but eventually he left 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 and later took over the leadership of the Justice Party founded by a group of non-Brahmin leaders. After partition Periyar confined his activities to social issues and fought relentlessly against superstition, the imposition of Hindi, social injustice, and so on until his death.
The results of that struggle are apparent in today’s Tamil Nadu. Although it is one of the states 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 castes It has the second highest literacy rate (73.47 per cent) among States whose population exceeds 50 million and accounts for the largest number of institutions of higher learning, particularly professional colleges.
“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.”
“….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.”