My 'apolitical' image started with 'Sandesham': Sreenivasan on Twenty20

Director-writer-actor Sreenivasan’s decision to be a part of Kitex group-backed political party Twenty20 has drawn much criticism in the election season. The political satirist came face to face with the entities he satirized in his popular movies. He spoke to Manorama Online about that decision and the future of Twenty20.

Sreenivasan’s foray into politics has sparked a debate. Politicians think you have taken an apolitical decision. Where do you actually stand?

I can’t blame them for saying that. If they have to recognise me as a politician, I would have to hack someone 51 times. I can’t do that. So I am apolitical.

Two of your movies – ‘Sandesham’ and ‘Varavelpu’ – were among the most notable political satires in Malayalam. Both of them dealt with the CPM’s degradation and diversion from its ideals. Do they reflect the sentiments of someone who grew up in the times of an extraordinary communist like Pattiam Gopalan?

No doubt about it. I have that grouse. The party I had seen in my younger days had shifted to unexpected dimensions. That grouse is in my movies. Most of my characters are people who lived in my native land. Pattiam Gopalan was an MLA and an MP and he was also a postgraduate. He was a poet. He used to treat people well.

I was never an active worker of that party but I always respected him. After his death, the party changed when uneducated and unaware people came to its leadership. They could only make a name by physically eliminating enemies. That is the only way left when you can’t defeat someone with ideas. Elimination became a party programme after the time of Gopalettan.

Even Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan claims the political legacy of Pattiam Gopalan.

Of course. I have talked to Pinarayi Vijayan about Gopalettan. He said that he used to sleep in Gopalettan’s house when he returned after attending some programmes. He told me about a Pattiam Gopalan who would sleep on the mat on the ground to let the guest sleep on the cot. But, no point talking about that, right?

Is it true that ‘Varavelpu’ was your father’s experience?

Yes. Whatever the Mohanlal character, Muraleedharan, faced in that movie had happened to my father. He suffered greatly because of the immaturity of the party leaders. My father was a communist. He pledged our house and land in the Kerala Financial Corporation to buy a bus. Once he owned a bus, he was treated as a capitalist and bourgeoisie. The party treated him as an enemy. We lost everything and moved to a rented house. Father refused to move with us unless he recovered whatever he had lost. He couldn’t. He eventually moved with us to the rented house.

A scene from the movie 'Varavelpu'

The character played by Jagadeesh, the bus conductor who absconds with the money collected from special festival trips, is also based on a real-life person. Six months after that happened, the CITU served a notice on my father for dismissing the conductor illegally. He was provoked. He gave them an earful. They talked back. They blocked the bus and agitated to get the conductor reinstated. When the police interfered, my father joined them and tried to remove the party flag. He was also adamant as any other communist. That night, the CITU members ganged up to destroy the bus. They effectively finished a person who bought a bus as a livelihood after pledging his house.

How did those people react when the movie was released?

Pattiam got a good movie hall at that time. Some people tried their best not to screen ‘Varavelpu’ in that hall. I think they succeeded in their efforts. A local leader of the party visited me when I went home. I think he was a local committee secretary. He asked me if I had to do this. I told him I haven’t conjured up anything. He said that he was just saying.

Sreenivasan in the film 'Arabikatha'
Sreenivasan in the film 'Arabikatha'

Did you face any unpleasant experiences for the politics in your movies?

A friend in the party told me that our native land was like a mourning house after the release of ‘Varavelpu’. I received many anonymous letters after ‘Sandesham’ was released. In fact, the efforts to portray me as apolitical started back then. I don’t care about that. I never got a letter from anyone who identified himself. Only cowards send anonymous letters. One sender claimed that I owed my freedom to them. Until then, I was under the impression that Mahatma Gandhi was the one who got us our freedom.

Mainstream political parties had tried to rope you in and make you their candidate.

That is true. There were many invites, from people in responsible posts. I did not oblige because I had already made up my mind. I lost faith in all political parties. I had no affinity to any party to become a part of them. I decided to cooperate with Twenty20 not because they extended an invite. I went on my own. I would encourage any good move. I think that Kerala deserves better. Mainstream political parties are standing in the way.

You get your hands dirty in farming. You had said that you don’t want any more dirt by joining politics. Is politics so dirty?

Politics has become a platform to take advantage of emotions. You get a kit or Rs 100 more in pension. Then you want to vote for a particular party. Politics has come to that. The local self-government body elections proved that freebies can get you votes. We will get a clearer picture when the assembly election results are out.

Your movies are stinging on the CPM. Are you sympathetic towards the Congress?

Many in the CPM are attracted to violent politics. They are arrogant. They think they know everything and the others are idiots. I am not saying everyone in that party is like that. They all contest the election and go on to become MLAs, ministers and chief ministers as per the Constitution of India. Why do they keep saying, “Long live the revolution”?

A still from the film 'Kuttimaama'
A still from the film 'Kuttimaama'

I would never think that the Congress is devoid of corruption. But they are peaceful in general. They are not so fearsome. You would know that if you take a note of the way the CPM and the Congress deals with their critics. Congress people do not treat their critics as lifelong enemies.

What about the BJP? Religious division is worse than class-based division.

Definitely. The biggest problem faced by our country and the world is the divisions based on religion and caste. Talk about employee-employer division. When a relative went to work in China, he found a communist party office in the same factory complex. He was impressed initially. This can happen only in China. He later realized that the party secretary in that office was in fact the factory owner. The only purpose of that office is to discipline the workers and make them work under duress. Is it genuine communism? When I went to China, a friend wanted me to buy a flag of the Chinese Communist Party. I had to search a lot before I found one in a shop.

Has this disillusion led you towards Twenty20?

I am in such a state of mind that I am ready to drift anywhere I see an iota of ‘positive’ virtue. I was attracted to the SFI when I lacked any intelligence. When I became a little more intelligence, I became a KSU member. Then I was an ABVP member. When I have common sense, I am with Twenty20. I might move on. That’s my decision. The Indian Constitution has not set a limit on anyone on the number of parties he can work in. I will change as per my will. When all politicians oppose Twenty20, they have something to fear in that. So I am convinced that there is something in it.

Sreenivasan and Fahadh Faasil in 'Njan Prakashan'
Sreenivasan and Fahadh Faasil in 'Njan Prakashan'

You are a member of the Twenty20’s advisory committee. What kind of advice do you give them? We haven’t seen you campaigning for them.

I didn’t go to campaign because I was not well. Otherwise, I would have definitely gone to campaign. I help them as far as I can. Let the political parties show me a better-run panchayat than Kizhakkambalam. I will join whoever is ruling that panchayat. All they have to do is to show me a panchayat that is better than Kizhakkambalam.

Isn’t it a fact that Twenty20 is a corporate collective and the work they do is run by corporate social responsibility funds?

I am not bothered about that right now. I have met so many people in Kizhakkambalam and talked to them. They have only benefited from this. They get quality food at cheaper rates. The “Laksham Veedu” (housing colony project) is something you can’t even imagine. Good roads, good drinking water and an atmosphere to lead a good life. If the corporates are spending their money for this, let them do it. Why don’t anyone else do it?

Political leadership is committed to the people. Can we expect that responsibility from capitalists?

What have the committed people done for Kerala? India became independent in 1947. Both the fronts are ruling alternately. They are all united in raising the salaries of the MLAs, ministers and whoever is in their good books. Have they stood together in any issues that benefit the people. They will unite for a common good. Otherwise, they fight between themselves.

You promote organic farming yet act as a brand ambassador of a company that produce chemical waste. That is what P T Thomas MLA said.

Can’t the government close down the company overnight if they were flowing chemical waste into the river? Why don’t they do it? Even the UDF did not do it when they were in power. About 80 companies are functioning by the River Periyar flushing out wastes that should not be allowed anywhere near a river. They survive by bribing the politicians. P T Thomas is an MLA. He could have stopped them. Wasn’t he duty-bound to do so as a people’s representative? Did he do that? I had raised the question to the people concerned. They said that their enemies were flowing paint into the river and shooting videos.

The party workers also say that Sreenivasan joined Twenty20 to get financial benefits from the corporates.

Do they think only they are in need of money? Why can’t I have some? Maybe I am not content with what I got from the movies. I need some extra money. They said they will give me that. So I cut down on script writing. That’s better, right? All I have to do is to talk. Someone like Kochouseph Chittilappilly who even donated a kidney to someone has also joined us. Even he has not worked with any political party before this. Maybe he also got good money. Maybe he got crores of rupees. He can’t be bought cheaply. I am not worth crores. I can get only lakhs.

What happens if Twenty20 does not get a single seat in the assembly election? Will that be the end of the experiment?

They can prove their popular base in some constituencies at least. This is the first step. You only have to view this election as the first step to inform the people of Kerala about an alternative. We will think of our future plans depending on the poll results.

The two dominant fronts in Kerala do not even leave room for the BJP, which is in power at the centre. What can Twenty20 do, with only a few of panchayats in its hold?

What Arvind Kejriwal did in Delhi gives us hope. I was sympathetic towards the AAP, but they did not become very active in Kerala.

You said you were SFI or KSU at different junctures. However, when you speak of Twenty20, it seems like you are adamant on getting it successful.

Politicians are carrying off taxpayers’ money. We want to stop that and improve people’s lives. I will stand with anyone who tries that. I do not crave any position. There were people who thought I was going to be a Twenty20 candidate in the Piravom assembly constituency. I am not interested in serving people for a reward. I have decided 25 years ago against becoming an MLA or an MP. There are many good people around me. I will continue identifying and encouraging them.

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