'The problem is that Modi bhakts in the state, as elsewhere in the country, are unable to stomach healthy criticism of the Centre’s policies, even if coming from a non-partisan, non-politician actor like Suriya.
'It was such targeting of Kamal Hassan, and the social media campaign about his personal beliefs and non-beliefs, that became a contributory factor in his entering direct politics,' says N Sathiya Moorthy.
The way the pro-BJP social media brigade in Tamil Nadu is going about it, it looks as if they would not rest until popular film actor, Suriya, takes to full-time politics, if only to defend himself against the calumny they have since launched against him.
If at all it should happen, needless to say, Suriya may end up taking the anti-BJP line of political thinking, for no fault of his – and earlier than pro-BJP Rajnikanth enters direct politics, as he has been saying for months now.
Suriya was/is not one of those popular Tamil film stars who mouth politically appealing lines on the silver screen. Barring possibly one instance, in his box-office hit 7aum Arivu (2011), where he makes a veiled yet powerful reference to the contemporary Tamil community, his films do not talk politics, even remotely.
The current controversy however flows from Suriya’s recent criticism of the New Education Policy (NEP) draft at a recent function of his NGO, Agaram Foundation, which has been quietly extending educational assistance to poor children from across the state, and at times outside, over the past ten years.
His observations and criticism on education-related issues flowed from his constant interaction with the beneficiaries of his trust, and also school and college teachers.
This time round, Suriya’s criticisms of the NEP were based on three main issues, including the suggestion to close down the otherwise popular Anganwadi schools with less than 10 students. When we pride that ‘India lives in villages’ and 60 per cent of the students go to government-run schools, such a recommendation, if implemented, would affect tribals and other communities living in remote areas, he averred.
At his recent public function, Suriya also made a specific reference to NEET examinations. He pointed out how 30 per cent of government school students did not have regular teachers, and asked, “How can we expect them to fare as well as urban students with all facilities in common entrance examinations of the NEET kind?”
In this context, Suriya made a pointed reference to the scheme of entrance examinations changing ‘teaching into coaching’. He asserted that NEET has made private coaching a Rs 5,000-crore industry in the country, and the poor were left out of it.
On two other aspects of NEP, Suriya had specific criticism. In particular, he referred to the Kasturirangan Committee’s NEP draft proposal to have common public examinations at the third, fifth and eighth standards. Quoting statistics, Suriya said that in a country with a 40 per cent school drop-out rate, public examinations would only add to the woes.
The third important aspect of NEP that Suriya targeted for review was the three-language formula. He said the first-generation students without family exposure to a third language (say, Hindi?) would be at a disadvantage. What more, he wanted the people to raise their voice, without which such unilateral decisions impacting on the people might come into force.
It is this that has irked leaders of the local BJP and AIADMK, respectively ruling at the Centre and in the State. They lost no time in criticising him, without responding to the concerns expressed by him, even as on the other side of the political spectrum, the political Opposition backed him to the hilt, so to say.
Suriya and younger brother Karthi are both film actors, and are also sons of yesteryear's character artiste, Sivakumar. The latter, after a very long stint in the industry, retired as one of the handful of actors with an unblemished personal image. Post-retirement, Sivakumar has been discoursing on Tamil literature and Hindu mythology, and is infectiously passionate about it. In the process, he has also been promoting the cause of yoga, good health and habits.
Suriya’s wife Jyothika is yesteryear Tamil film’s dream-girl, who has since returned to the silver screen, donning the role of a powerful woman, with scope for acting.
Even more, the Sivakumars continue to be identified as a joint family, wedded to social traditions and customary Indian values, more than possibly most of the faceless critics of Suriya, now or even once earlier -- when the social media had not become this bothersome.
What should have surprised the Suriya-baiters just now is the kind of support he has got from fellow film-stars, more than in the case of any other film personality, on any issue, in recent times. ‘Anti-Modi’ motives could have been freely attributed to the support extended by Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM) founder and actor-politician, Kamal Hassan and Naam Thamizhar Katchi’s (NTK) Seeman, who was/is both a film-maker and actor, but not in the case of the ‘superstar’.
Speaking at the audio-launch of Suriya’s upcoming movie Kaappaan (Protector), Rajinikanth openly congratulated him for ‘revealing another face of his’. Declaring that he agreed with what all Suriya said on the issue of education, Rajini told the audience -- and more so the Suriya-baiters, outside -- that the subject became an issue of discussion, not because Suriya, the actor, had spoken about it.
Rajinikanth said that Suriya had learnt about these issues because of his working with students through his Agaram Foundation. If the superstar was targeting Suriya-baiters who had said that the latter was talking about such serious topics like education policy without any understanding and was only reading out what a speech-writer had given him, Rajini did not bother to clarify.
Rajinikanth did refer to the constant mention that if only he had spoken those lines, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have listened. “But Modi would have already heard what Suriya has said,” he added, without naming the sources, if any, that might have taken it to the prime minister’s attention.
However, the superstar also had a word of caution for the fellow-actor, asking him to concentrate in his career first, and now. Rajini may have a point. At a time when actors turning 40 are known to be wantonly mouthing political dialogues, as if to stay relevant, such an advice sounds meaningful.
It may have also flowed from Rajinikanth’s personal experience. Born in 1950 (now, aged 68), the super-star mouthed his first politically-loaded lines in maiden home-production Valli (1993), when he was 43, the same age as what Suriya is at present. There has not been any turning back for him since, though Rajini was also known to have abhorred politics and politicians, wholesale, at least up to a point.
Today, the name Rajinikanth, whether or not he is going to float a new political party ahead of the state assembly polls in 2021, is synonymous with everything political, starting with political promises. So much so, there are any number of (negative) memes about his promise to enter direct politics, and always finding a new reason to delay it and a new date to launch his party.
Translated, it could mean that Rajinikanth’s heart may still not be in entering direct politics. However, because of fan pressure and attendant identity-related electoral issues, he seems to have been left with little choice, at least as things stand. Maybe, that is also what he seems wanting to convey to younger Suriya, who is known to be more of a family man, and not known to have been cut out for politics.
The problem is that Modi bhakts in the state, as elsewhere in the country, are unable to stomach healthy criticism of the Centre’s policies, even if coming from a non-partisan, non-politician actor like Suriya. It was such targeting of Kamal Hassan, and the social media campaign about his personal beliefs and non-beliefs, that became a contributory factor in his entering direct politics.
In Kamal Hassan’s case, the pro-BJP sections of the social media claimed that he had converted to Christianity very long ago, and that he was receiving unaccounted foreign funds in volumes, which was to fund ‘conversion efforts’ and worse. Though conversion per se has not been added to the current campaign against Suriya, the rest of them are all already there.
Though not involving the BJP but AIADMK under then chief minister, the late Jayalalithaa, the state government in particular targeted another 40-something actor, Vijay. The latter has since emerged as ‘Thalapathi’ or ‘commander’, a title that originally belonged to the superstar, thanks to Mani Rathnam’s movie (1991) by the same name.
In more recent times, the Hindutva brigade has been digging deeper into Vijay’s Christian background, which had mostly remained a private affair until then. Whether or not such innuendoes have affected Vijay or his film-maker father S A Chandrasekharan of Andha Kanoon (1993) fame, his fans have surely not taken a liking to the BJP and Modi, possibly for no fault of theirs.
And among the younger-generation actors after Rajini and Kamal, Vijay is the star for producers to go to, the other one being Ajith Kumar, another apolitical family man, with the likes of Suriya following them.
Suriya is still the last of present-day Tamil actors to enter politics, if only after Ajith, who even shuns pre-release promotional events of films in which he acts. Vijay was one such, but no thanks to the fan mood of the times, he has been acting in political thrillers in recent years, in a way reflecting the mood of the young Tamil minds of the time.
It was enough to provoke the ruling class, first the AIADMK state government and later the BJP social media operators, too, and also some TN leaders of the party. This meant that the religion-neutral fans of Vijay cast their lot against the BJP, for no fault of the party or PM Modi.
In southern and western Tamil Nadu, it may have cost the BJP-AIADMK combine a few thousand votes in elections 2019. Given the massive victory margins of the Congress-DMK rivals in the state, it might have meant nothing much, but it can matter more come 2021, when the assembly elections are due.
Suriya comes from the state’s western region, where his Vellalar Gounder community is strong and dominating. Incumbent Edappadi K Palaniswami is the first chief minister from the community.
Both the community and also the western region, comprising mainly Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode and Salem districts, among others, has been a traditional stronghold of the AIADMK since the late M G Ramachandran (MGR) founded the party in 1972.
After the 1998 ‘Coimbatore serial-blasts’, where BJP’s then boss L K Advani escaped by sheer luck, the BJP too has a substantial and sustained presence.
Yet, the combined strengths of the parties and the personal stamp of the chief minister did not help the combine. As much of the rest of the state, the BJP-AIADMK-PMK-DMDK combine bit the dust in the western districts, again by massive margins.
Under the circumstances, it would be unwise for the BJP and also AIADMK second-line leaders to taunt the like of Suriya, and thus his fans, if not the clan, per se.
The fact that even when Jaya was alive, the region voted her out alongside the rest of the state in 1996, and a sub-regional political party of the Vellalar Gounder community thrived for a time, until it split owing to personality clashes, is something that the ruling parties at the Centre and in the state should not forget.
To this, they should also add the non-controversial personality of Suriya’s father Sivakumar, whose religious discourses have a huge fan following across the state, if it came to that.
Combined with it all are the immediate circumstances and issues on which Suriya is being pushed from outside, to defend himself.
It is all a sure recipe for disaster for the present-day rulers in elections 2021. With Rajinikanth, with his declared intention to enter the election fray in 2021, defending Suriya on the issue, to adapt the superstar’s anti-Jaya one-liner from elections 96, ‘even god cannot save them’.
It is another matter that Rajini’s words referred to the future of Tamil Nadu, not any particular party or parties.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.