When it comes to big stars openly extending support to the BJP or Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Tamil Nadu, it has always been ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth. But the actor with a massive fan following in the state and outside has stopped short of formally aligning with the BJP and just said he would take the path of ‘spiritual politics’.
But if not Rajinikanth, then who is best positioned to be a BJP cheerleader in Tamil Nadu? If you have been observing actor R. Madhavan of late, you know the answer. He is not there yet, but is slowly fashioning himself into a possible Akshay Kumar of the south.
Actor Madhavan, who is popularly known for his roles in movies such as Alaipayuthey (2000), Irudhi Suttru (2016), Tanu Weds Manu (2011), has been voluntarily walking into a lot of social media controversies of the Right-Left kind since the promotion and release of his movie Rocketry: The Nambi Effect this year. From endorsing Modi without context, flaunting his Brahminical thread on the chest to Islamophobic jokes – Madhavan is fast walking into a political hall of fame inhabited by stars such as Kangana Ranaut and Akshay Kumar.
The Rocketry way
Madhavan recently bristled when Bollywood critic Anupama Chopra called his portrayal of Nambi Narayanan in Rocketry a ‘true-blue Hindu patriot’.
Chopra, editor of Film Companion, in her review said, “The film repeatedly underlines this [Nambi’s] patriotism and also leans pointedly into his religion. Our first visual of him is in the puja room in his home. At crucial moments, he prays. Narayanan is a true-blue Hindu patriot. There is little room for ambiguity here.”
She didn’t appear to say this in a judgmental way, but more as a factual observation.
There’s a reason why. In Rocketry, Madhavan has sprinkled Brahmanical and religious elements throughout the movie as a director and producer.
Rocketry begins with the introductory shot of an imaginary rocket speeding downwards from outer space to Nambi’s house. What possible background score can one have for this scene? The sound of a rocket piercing through the sky? Yes. That’s there. But what catches our ears is the Sanskrit prayer song Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatham playing alongside. Swarajya Magazine calls the song, “…the hallmark of most middle-class religious Hindu households of southern India.” Suprabhathams are a defining feature of many Brahmin households. After finishing his puja in this first shot, Madahavan as Nambi walks into the frame with a filter coffee in a davara tumbler.
The film panders to the predominant perception in the rest of India, especially the north, which tends to equate all things Tamil with Tamil Brahmins. So, Madhavan is doing what Bollywood movies about Tamilians have done through the years – feature Brahmins, who make up a mere 5 per cent of India’s population. Perhaps he was reaching for a larger pan-India audience by working on this image, but questions about factual consistency do get raised.
Even though the scientist himself didn’t have a problem with these elements in the film, these portrayals matter. Narayanan had this to say about the criticism: “Is it a sin to be a Brahmin? I am not a Brahmin, that is a different question. If a Brahmin is an ally, would you consider him small? There are so many Brahmins who gave their lives for the country. Not just one. I can give you the full list. So the only thing is that we are promoting the issue unnecessarily.”
It is completely fine that Nambi Narayanan likes the way he is shown in the film. But the Tamil audience has always had a sharp eye when it comes to the portrayal of public personas in cinema. In the National Award-winning Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru released in 2020, which was based on the life of Captain Gopinath, the hero was shown to be singing anti-caste songs and opting for a ‘self-respect marriage’. Whereas, in real life, it was not the case. Gopinath is a Brahmin, but didn’t express any issue with the portrayal. Similarly, Nambi Narayanan may or may not have sipped coffee from davaras or listened to the Suprabhatham, but painting a colour on him impacts his portrayal.
OpIndia, in its defence of the movie, criticised Anupama. It went on to invoke Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Anupama’s husband) and condemned him for his political take on the Kashmiri Pandit exodus in his Bollywood movie Shikara (2020). It also criticises Anupama for calling The Kashmir Files (2022), a “revisionist drama”.
After filmmaker Ashoke Pandit called Anupama “Hinduphobic” on Twitter, the thread was filled with misogyny and hate comments against her. Madhavan, in a now-deleted tweet about Anupama’s review, wrote: “We thought it was in terrible taste too.. this is who Nambi sir is .. I am totally okay if you did not like or hated the film and I will take it in the chin..but why this ??Come on -we are way Better than this. Regretful [sic].”
‘Panchangam’ and Mars mission
Portrayal of Nambi Narayanan wasn’t the only controversy Rocketry faced. During another promotional event for Rocketry, a Tamil journalist asked Madhavan if the Panchangam (the Hindu calendar) has any connection with the Mars mission. To which, Madhavan answered in the affirmative. Singer activist T.M. Krishna, in his tweet, translated Madhavan’s response into English: “It [the Hindu calender] has the celestial map with all information on the various planets, their gravitation pulls, sun’s flares deflection etc, all calculated perfectly 1000’s of years ago and hence the micro-second the launch was calculated using this panchangam info.”
Joking about this unscientific reply, Krishna wrote: “Disappointed that @isro has not published this vital information on their website.”
After incessant trolling, Madhavan corrected his statement: “I deserve this for calling the Almanac the ‘Panchang’ in Tamil. Very ignorant of me.”
Former ISRO scientist Mayilsamy Annadurai who had worked on the Mangalyaan project also clarified, “World over, the almanacs are used. But, it is impossible to go to Mars with the panchangam that was prepared 1,000 years ago. The almanac keeps evolving.”
Madhavan on ‘Nation Wants to Know’
Republic TV ran a special promotional show for Rocketry. Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, at the start of the almost two-hour interview with Madhavan and Nambi Narayanan, says that it has been quite a while since he recorded the last episode of the ‘Nation Wants to Know’.
During the interview, while touching upon current affairs, Madhavan talks about Covid-19 and how India was portrayed by the Western media.
“I saw this foreign media showing visuals from our country. Let us say, in America, there are 300 deaths per day. When you bury 300 people, it’s not a gory sight. But when you have 300 cremations in a day because the crematoriums cannot organise that, you see so many funeral piers burning and it looks like there is mayhem in the country and you play up those visuals so much. Why would you want to project a country like that?”
Arnab responds, “Because, there’s a stereotype of this country that has been created out there.”
The media houses that came to the defence of Madhavan, his statements, and his movie Rocketry were Opindia, Swarajyamag, and Republic TV.
The Poonal post
Three years ago in 2019, on Independence Day, Madhavan posted a picture on Instagram with his son wearing a poonal (janeu or the Brahmin thread). It was captioned: “Wish you all a very happy INDEPENDENCE DAY, RAKSHA BANDHAN AND AVANI AVITTAM. Prayers for peace and prosperity for ALL in this world continues.”
Though it is a well-intended greeting, the display of caste in the picture makes it one of Brahmin pride.
First things first: What differentiates a Brahmin from a non-Brahmin is his janeu. ‘Avani Avittam’ is a Vedic ritual practised only by Hindu Brahmins. Celebrating it publicly conveys that the person takes pride in his caste and is tone-deaf about the long history of supremacy, oppression and privilege.
Islamophobic speech on YouTube
In a YouTube video titled “Drink your food, chew your water”, organised by Radiant Wellness Conclave, Madhavan is invited to talk about health. In a TedTalk-like setup, the actor narrates his personal experiences. He goes on to tell a story about his doctor, Manoj and his patient Abdul, who comes from the “ghettos” of Bombay. In what starts off as some ‘medical joke’, ends up making a rude stereotype of a Muslim man.
By the end of Madhavan’s story, Abdul has two wives. Madhavan weaves his character as a stupid, know-it-all man and finishes the joke with the line: “I find it tough to manage with one [wife] but I don’t know how Mr Abdul does.” This is peak casual Islamophobia. And completely out of context.
In another 2017 YouTube video titled “R Madhavan Speech about ‘India in 2030’ at Harvard University”, Madhavan repeats the same joke.
The Prime Minister’s pat
There are many recent movies that portray the life of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and women. But the Prime Minister has endorsed only two films so far this year. One was The Kashmir Files and the other, Rocketry. In March, The Kashmir Files director Vivek Agnihotri, his wife and actress Pallavi Joshi, and the producer of the film Abhishek Agarwal met PM Modi. The PM congratulated and appreciated the film.
Similarly, in April, Nambi Naryanan and Madhavan met the PM. He tweeted: “Happy to have met you and the brilliant Nambi Narayanan Ji. This film covers an important topic, which more people must know about. Our scientists and technicians have made great sacrifices for our country, glimpses of which I could see in the clips of Rocketry.”
Then came Madhavan’s trip to Cannes in May. In a press meet, he heaped praise on Modi, saying, “When he started his term, he [Modi] introduced micro-economy and digital currency.” But Madhavan neither defines the terms nor substantiates his claims. Union Minister Anurag Thakur shared the video of the actor speaking on his Twitter handle.
Madhavan has given a shout-out to India under Modi earlier too.
In the 2017 Harvard speech, he said, “Look at all the nations around the world and look at our neighbours. Compared to that, there’s somebody in India who’s doing something right for us to be called a growing economy and being projected as the third largest economy in 2026…it’s still a functional democracy. So, let’s first accept the fact that there’s somebody, some people in India, with the right ideas and the ability to lead the nation to where we are today.”
Silence during crucial times
In a 2015 interview, Aamir Khan commented on the political climate of the country and said his wife Kiran Rao suggested moving out of India owing to “growing intolerance”. Even after seven years, Aamir Khan is made to pay the price for it. There were boycott calls for his movie Laal Singh Chadha.
Hrithik Roshan, who the Prime Minister tagged in his tweet in 2019 with Madhavan, came out in support of Aamir’s film on Twitter, ignoring the consequences, and called it “magnificent” and urged people to watch it. Hrithik wasn’t spared either by the Hindu Right-wing. There were boycott calls on Twitter for his movie Vikram Vedha, which is the Hindi remake of Madhavan’s Tamil hit movie. Roshan even showered praise on Madhavan and Rocketry in July.
So far, Madhavan has neither directly come out in support of Aamir Khan with whom he has shared screen space twice (Rang De Basanti and 3 Idiots) nor Hrithik Roshan, who is remaking his own movie. About Laal Singh Chadha’s box office failure, Madhavan recently said, “Post COVID-19, people’s liking and preferences have changed… So if we make the kind of films that people will watch, with the kind of films that are coming today, we’ll have to become a little bit more progressive.”
Earlier, Madhavan had proudly said that actor Shah Rukh Khan didn’t take money for a cameo in his movie Rocketry. Even Shah Rukh faced boycott calls last week for his upcoming movie Pathaan. Madhavan didn’t utter a word.
Madhavan isn’t there yet. He won’t be able to fill Rajinikanth’s spot anyway as the prime Modi-supporter in Tamil Nadu. But the BJP is itself taking baby steps in the state. These are early days. Rajinikanth’s ‘spirituality’ politics can only take it so far. The party would need more cheerleaders and Madhavan is that educated, patriotic family man who works for middle-class voters. The process of becoming an Akshay Kumar will be complete in quick time.
Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.