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The films of Vetrimaaran have politics. His movies are to do with power, authority and a politics against it 

In Adukulam, he explored the power dynamic between the guru and the disciple. In Visaranai, he critiqued lawless authoritarianism. In Vada Chennai, he talked about political forces exploiting marginalized folk. But, rarely, if ever, has he talked about specific political ideologies or commented on issues of the day in the open. So it was a surprise that he chose to inject a note of caution in the celebratory mood regarding the Ponniyin Selvan film. 

Vetrimaaran didn’t mince words. At VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan’s 60th birthday celebrations, he said: “Art is politics. Literature, films are there in “their” hands. Since the Dravidian movement took over films from ‘their’ hands, Tamil Nadu has remained secular and is able to be immune to pressures from outside. Films can reach the common people very quickly. It is absolutely necessary to politicize cinema. When the Dravidian movement took over films, there was talk that art is only for art’s sake. But if art goes away from people, it cannot sustain. Because art is for the people. Art should represent people. We should use art appropriately, therefore. Making Tiruvalluvar wear saffron or portraying Raja Raja Chozhan as Hindu can happen in cinema [to mislead]. We should protect our identity. We should function with political clarity. We should work together. I will support such an initiative.”

Also read: PS-1: Mani Ratnam lost in the Chola maze

This was certainly a call to action. It was a call to all Tamils, aka Dravidianists, to band together to protect Tamil identity, as against Hindu identity. He said brahmins dominate many things including films. And that films are key to the Dravidian political philosophy of social justice and opposing brahmin domination. He was making a case for Dravidian ideology ruling the film world, saying otherwise the narrative would change. Hindutva would take hold and Tamils would lose their identity, he implied. 

Vetrimaaran has said brahmins dominate many things including films. And that films are key to the Dravidian political philosophy of social justice and opposing brahmin domination

Jumping into the fray, Tamilisai Soundararajan evoked the same identity issue. She too said Tamils should not lose their identity but she was referring to the Hindu identity of Tamils. As only he could, BJP’s H Raja asked what was Raja Raja Chola if not a Hindu. Surely, he didn’t build mosques and churches. 

Kamal Haasan, for his part, spoke his heart and with clarity. Instead of confusing the issue, which his interventions often end up doing, he said the question of whether Raja Raja Chola was Hindu or not was irrelevant. Because in Raja Raja’s time, there was no such word. He also pointedly said it was Adi Shankara who sought to create an umbrella akin to today’s word, Hindu. Shankara’s Shanmatha (six religions) brought together six traditions, or faiths if you will, but did not include Buddhism or Jainism that questioned the authority of the Vedas. 

It was inevitable that Ponniyin Selvan would lead to this debate. Through its success, the movie’s various details are now being interpreted. A review on did point to the Raja Raja era embracing the Vedas and facilitating brahmin dominance. 

As per the movie, Vedic chants were common in the Chola royal domain. A scene has Madurantaka Chola looking quizzically, even frowning, at the brahmins and their Sanskrit chants. Mani Ratnam and his writer Jeyamohan were probably only being faithful to recreating the milieu but ended up implying a bigger narrative of the Vedic ingredient in Chola greatness. 

Also read: Ponniyin Selvan movie: The strong story that Mani Ratnam films lacked

The Sangh Parivar has always held that Tamils’ religions are very much a part of the grand Hindu narrative. The RSS route march that ran into trouble in 2016 was to celebrate the 1000th year of Rajendra Chola’s coronation. 

Raja Raja Chola was a Saivite but like most kings, he patronized other faiths. He not only built Vishnu temples but also a Buddha vihar. There are records of his daughter Kundavai’s association with Jainism. Raja Raja, as the movie shows, patronized Vedic traditions too. 

As Kamal Haasan said, Raja Raja probably didn’t see himself as Hindu as the word didn’t exist at that time. But just as the BJP would like to own Raja Raja as a Hindu king so do the Dravidianists. 

The Hinduism of the BJP is Vedic and has Sanskrit brahminism as a key component that Dravidianism opposes.

Raja Raja Chola lived 1,000 years ago. He did some remarkable things, so did his son. The Indian merchant navy training ship, for many years, was called T S Rajendra, as a tribute to Rajendra Chola. 

To the BJP today, his achievements shine as that of a Hindu king. To Dravidianists, he was a great Tamil king. And in any case, Tamils are non-Vedic and non-brahmin, so they are a separate entity, they argue. The Hinduism of the BJP is Vedic and has Sanskrit brahminism as a key component that Dravidianism opposes. 

The BJP wants to become stronger here and the Dravidianists oppose it. Vetrimaaran is alive to that and has come out in the open against it. 

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