Making a movie on a legend is not easy. There needs to be a balance between sentimentality and fact, which director Gnana Rajasekharan has managed to do in Periyar -- a film based on the legendary social activist EV Ramasami Naicker aka Periyar.
Rajasekharan wanted to portray an individual who could be a role model to society; someone who did not fit the anti-hero mould. The end result, thankfully, is not simpering eulogy.
Granted, there have been calculated omissions from Periyar's life but the movie mostly attempts to be a rapidly condensed portrayal of the life of a man who is revered even today, especially in Tamil Nadu. It is mainly the protagonist's charisma, fearlessness and mischievous wit, portrayed by the endearing Sathyaraj, that make him believable and not a conventional saint dripping sombre pearls of wisdom.
His personality is what makes this movie eminently watchable, despite the lengthy film's frenetic pace to squeeze in as many incidents as possible.
Ramasami (Sathyaraj) is a young man living with his devout Hindu parents. His father is a merchant and his God-fearing mother (Manorama) spends most of her day praying and busying herself with astrologers and rituals. He annoys his parents endlessly with his brash statements and outrageous pranks (he secretly puts a piece of chicken in his mother's rice).
Raman then falls in love with a simple girl Nagammal (Jyothirmayi) from a lower caste and marries her despite his parents' apprehensions. In and around his household, he keeps noticing small but significant acts of discrimination, such as the exclusion of lower caste people from functions and the archaic treatment of widows, and does his best to rectify them. Fed up with his antics, his father disowns him and kicks him out.
Ramasami then goes to Kashi on a pilgrimage. He discovers that since all doors open only to Brahmins, he disguises himself as one. However, he is disgusted with their hypocritical ways and the debauchery that goes on behind closed doors (he finds that the pious swamis merrily spend their nights in the company of women and smoking gaanja).
He returns to Hyderabad to stay with his friend Subramani and is soon persuaded by his repentant father to return home and take over the family business. By virtue of his hard work and ethics, Ramasami soon rises to the post of municipal chairman of Erode.
He is soon convinced to join the Congress fold by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, C Rajagopalachari, Gandhiji and others. He passionately espouses Gandhian ideals, such as the use of khadi. However, he soon becomes disenchanted with the Congress and its indecisive ways when he brings up the issue of eliminating caste discrimination. Ramasami realises his true calling after resigning from the Congress and becoming a becoming a social reformer.
Thanks to his fiery words and ideologies, he mobilises the lower castes and women to protest against unfair actions of the British regime and to fight against discrimination. Undeterred by prison, 'Periyar' goes on an all-out rampage to cleanse society of its evils -- he liberates devadasis, encourages widows to remarry and uplifts the lower castes by inculcating in them self-respect creating a movement which spreads to places like Vaikkom in Kerala, where his followers strove for creating equal access to temples and temple roads for all castes.
Impressed with the equalising effects of communism in Malaya and Russia during a visit there, he soon adopts it as part of his ideology. However, after his return, he goes through a phase of depression and introspection after his wife passes away.
His second marriage to Kannamai (Khushboo) raises a hue and cry with one-time ally C K Annadurai dissociating himself to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
The rest of the movie is a flurry of scenes featuring Periyar's meetings with various personalities, and culminating in his death. The penultimate scene reminds you of the Tamil Nadu government's Rs 95 lakh grant towards the making of this movie, where Karunanidhi is shown praising Periyar and insisting he be appropriately commemorated after his demise.
Sathyaraj is delightful as Periyar, right from his youthful activism to his equally fiery old age. His wit and crisp dialogues invoke spontaneous applause from the audience several times through the movie. The rest of the cast, including Jyothirmayi and Khushboo as his two wives, Chandrasekhar, Manorama, Nizhalgal Ravi and others, though dwarfed by the powerful stature of Periyar, still manage to hold their own in their small but significant roles (especially the dignified Khushboo).
Thankfully, director Gnana Rajasekharan has kept weepy sentimentality under control in the film. No terrible sob stories about oppressed lower castes here. He has also done a commendable job of attempting to push the story of the man's life to the forefront, rather than making the film a piece of propaganda.
Cinematography by Thankar Bachan is beautiful the feel of the bygone era is conveyed beautifully by lovely sepia colours and goes well with music by Vidyasagar, which has superb lyrics by Vairamuthu.
Whether it is well-received or not, just as the last line of the film says, this film will hopefully help the spirit of Periyar live forever and ever.