On January 15, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth leaders in Karnataka sprinkled cow urine at the venue of a programme in Sirsi in order to “purify” it since the actor Prakash Raj had delivered a lecture at the venue a day earlier.
The topic of Raj’s lecture was ‘Our Constitution, Our Pride’. The opposition was more to the man than the title of his talk. Prakash Raj, however, remained unfazed. The incident at Sirsi is only the latest response that the actor has received since he decided to voice his criticism against the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindutva politics in September 2017. In response, Raj tweeted to ask if similar acts of purification were going to be conducted at the other places that he plans to visit.
Prakash Raj has notched up numerous critical and commercial hits in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi cinema. His newly minted avatar, as a politically conscious citizen, began when he questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his silence on the murder of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh. Raj has since voiced his opinions on the policies and positions of the Modi government on numerous occasions through his Twitter account and public statements.
All of Raj’s tweets are fashioned as questions accompanied with the hashtag justasking. Over the months, he has been trolled for his fiercely worded and anti-BJP questions, and his detractors include not only anonymous accounts but also Member of Parliament Pratap Simha. But the trolls have only emboldened Raj, for he plans to take #JustAsking beyond Twitter and to the people soon.
“It was a political awakening and I’m not ashamed that it happened so late,” Raj told Scroll.in. “I believe it is better late than never. And I may be late, but that does not mean I don’t have the right to ask questions.”
Raj plans to spend one-and-a-half months from the end of January travelling across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to meet people and discuss “why we should vote, whom to vote for, what is our strength and how we should look at politics”. His personal campaign is not aimed at any party. “Yes, I’m anti-BJP because they are the biggest threat that I see,” he clarified. “But what I’m interested in is a debate with the people about what they feel. I’m going to have chai with them, but mine will be in a different way.” Excerpts from an interview.
How do you respond to a group that comes out and “cleans” the premises after your speech?
They could have done this or registered their protest on the day of my speech. But they came a day later. They actually chose their comfort zone. This shows their samskara.
I had given a lecture on the Constitution and the preamble. You have a Union Minister like Anantkumar Hegde saying things, like they are here to remove the world secular from the Constitution. So, I decided to give a talk about the importance and relevance of the words in the preamble of our Constitution.
But what did the BJP’s youth leaders attack me for? For being a beef eater, when I’m not one. They had to lie because they cannot say they sprinkled cow urine because I spoke about the preamble of our Constitution, can they?
I don’t look at them as enemies. I look at them as patients that need to be cured. I don’t want to kill them, but they want to harm me. In fact, I want to give them a nice, big hug and say, grow up.
What led to the #JustAsking hashtag and your political awakening?
There was a comfort zone in which I was living in for so long. I always thought the work I did – including the work in the villages I’ve adopted – was enough. But what I realised, especially in the last two or three years, is that there is one issue that is not being addressed enough at all. Slowly and silently, a sense of fear is seeping in among people. In fact, it is being injected into them. Anybody who asks critical questions is being relegated to a corner, is separated and then attacked. Every whistleblower is made to believe he is alone, that others won’t support him – this is how fascist groups operate.
The goal is to eliminate them physically or push and brand them into a corner and accuse them of not knowing how to live, of not being intelligent enough and of not knowing how to adapt. I wanted to fight this.
I felt I should start a movement that begins first by fearlessly asking questions; that stands with the people and is by the people. Sometimes the questions we ask maybe wrong, but we must always defend our right to ask them at all costs. The idea is to tell people that we are stronger than our leaders. We, as people, have to decide first. Else, the system cannot be cleaned. And for that, we must first have a fearless society.
What role did Gauri Lankesh’s murder in September play in this awakening?
Gauri and I differed on many issues, but that did not mean we were not friends. Gauri, with her absence, has awakened me. It is now clear to me what she was fighting against. Maybe she was harsh in her words, but that didn’t mean she should have been silenced. By all means, go ahead and debate with her and silence her if you want. Not like this.
What she has taught me after she left is that we all left her alone. This sense of guilt is something that I have to carry within me. The only way to be purged of this guilt is to become a louder voice. To try and tell her I’m sorry, but the only way to support you is to not be afraid anymore.
We are living in a society wherein it isn’t clear which news media and publication is bought by whom. Twitter and Facebook are platforms where one hears opinions straight from the horse’s mouth. Nobody edits stuff there. And let me be responsible for both what I say and what I don’t say. I feel it is a wonderful space where people respond directly to you. They debate with you and that’s what’s important.
How do you engage with trolls?
In the last few months, whenever I’ve travelled across the country thanks to my work, I’ve not come across a single person who has walked up to me to fight with me for what I’m fighting against. But I’ve found thousands of them coming up to me to tell me they are with me. So many have said, be careful but we are with you. That means these people who troll are faceless. Trolls don’t answer the questions I’m asking. They are trying to attack me personally. They are obscene.
But I don’t want to block them because I need to know what the disease is. I can’t be in a comfort zone. I’m in the middle of a public movement. I have to learn to deal with it. And, people are watching this – there is a silent majority that is watching the attacks.
Is entering politics still a distant possibility?
At this point, all I want to be is a fearless citizen. I want to go to people and tell them, we are powerful, and I want to question any party which comes to power. Let us see, after that. If that doesn’t work, I want to go back to people and ask them if we can send a representative of our own. Let us find our leaders. Let us get youngsters.
I’m a politically conscious citizen now. Let me see how it goes. I do not want to jump into politics to challenge someone. This is not a cricket match. Politics is a way of life. There is a larger dream and I will be consistent in my pursuit of that. Let’s see what the people want.
Have you received any threats from anyone?
A lot of people have asked me to be careful, but to be honest, I have not received any threats yet. Yes, indirectly, they are trying to stop some of my films and advertisements. But let me see how far they go. What they don’t realise is that I’m rich enough to lose money.
Your column in Kannada newspaper ‘Udayavani’ was abruptly stopped after six months.
The writing on the wall is very clear. Without even telling me, they stop it abruptly. So I know why they did that. I’m popular in Dakshina Kannada, which is their bastion. But they can’t stop me. Can you stop a river?
Are your actions a culmination of seeds sown during your early years – in theatre, for instance?
A lot of the values I’ve imbibed have come to me after meeting the likes of P Lankesh and Tejaswi. In their own way, they guided the films I directed and worked in. But a political awakening, in its truest sense, has happened now. Thank god.
I realise now that it is not enough to speak through my art alone. I need to speak through my heart too. Now I feel I’m answerable to Lankesh and Tejaswi. I’m answerable to Ambedkar and Gandhi.
Has your newfound politics influenced your film projects?
No, that’s different. I just surrender to the scripts that come to me.
What are the films you are working on currently?
I’m directing the Hindi remake of Oggarane with Nana Patekar and Taapsee Pannu, called Tadka. This will be my first directorial venture in Hindi. I’m shooting with Mohanlal for Odiyan. I have signed another film with Lal and one with Prithviraj.
In Tamil, I’ve just finished Velaikkaran. I’m shooting for the Tamil remake of Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu. I will also start shooting for Mani Ratnam’s next in the next 15 days. In Telugu, I’ve just finished shooting for Mahesh Babu’s film and Ram Charan’s film. I’ve three other projects in the pipeline. I’m producing a film in Kannada.