“Anitha is my daughter. And I will raise my voice for her,” said Kamal Haasan. He was reacting in September 2017 after Anitha hanged herself inside her home in Ariyalur, 40 km from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The 17-year-old had aspired to become a doctor, to save lives. Instead, she choked her own dreams.
It was not as if Anitha was a below average student. The youngest of five siblings whose father Shanmugham was a daily wage labourer, Anitha had scored 98 per cent in her class 12 exams. But with no access to expensive coaching for NEET, the entrance exam for medical colleges, she scored just 86 out of 720 marks, unable to cope with the “unfamiliar syllabus”.
Kamal was not the only one who spoke from the heart. Fellow actor Vijay visited Anitha’s family at their modest home while Rajinikanth got emotional talking about “the pain and agony Anitha would have undergone before taking the drastic step”. Actor Vijay Sethupathi said “this nation has lost a good doctor today”.
The support system extended ensured things did not spiral out of control after the NEET results in Tamil Nadu.
In sharp contrast is the radio silence from Telugu film stars despite 20 `Anithas’ in Telangana since last Thursday. Barring Pawan Kalyan of Jana Sena who put out a statement on 24 April appealing to students not to resort to suicide, Tollywood has been blind and deaf to the tragedies unfolding in Telangana homes.
Twenty Intermediate students have killed themselves since the exam results came out, unable to suffer the shock and humiliation of failure. As it turns out now, there have been glaring marking errors by the Board for Intermediate Studies leading to a furore among parents and students.
Usually suicides take place soon after the results are out. But this year, perhaps as an exasperated reaction to the Education ministry’s stubborn attitude to student angst and the high-handed approach of the police towards protesting parents and students outside the office of the Board for Intermediate Education in Hyderabad, the spate of suicides just does not seem to stop. Even six days after the results were announced, three more suicides were reported. One of them, Jyothi set herself ablaze. Another student, Raju hanged himself from a tree at the school premises in Medak district.
One of the officials told me “suicides happen every year”. No. `The Times of India’ reports that there were no Intermediate results-related suicides in 2015 and 2016. The following year saw one suicide while six student suicides were reported in 2018.
You could argue that Kamal, Rajini are now politicians while Vijay is known to nurture political ambitions. You could also argue that it is not any actor’s business to get into socio-political issues.
If 20 students have taken the extreme step in less than a week, it is an emergency in Telangana civil society. No one is saying it is the film industry’s primary responsibility. In fact, it is an acknowledgement of their power to provide solace, even heal in this difficult moment.
Why shouldn’t a Vijay Deverakonda, a Mahesh Babu or an Allu Arjun reach out?
Does Prakash Raj who has adopted a village in Mahbubnagar and contested elections in Bengaluru, not know of this tragedy unfolding in Telangana?
Why should Chiranjeevi, the Telugu Megastar with a huge fan following, stay divorced from what is happening around him?
No one is asking movie stars to reach out amidst TV cameras and flashbulbs. Knowing the craze for films and filmstars in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, a simple appeal, a video message, a tweet, an Instagram or Facebook post could have saved a few lives. It was about showing empathy, to tell their fans that their lives are important to everyone who loves them, that a failure now does not mean a failure for life.
Mental health counsellers will tell you that it is not parents or close friends that children in a depressed state listen to. It is quite possible that words from a star they have idolised in their teenage, put up posters of in their study room, seen their movies first day first show, can do the magic.
It isn’t that stars do not speak out on issues concerning education. Mohan Babu sat on a dharna ahead of the Andhra elections protesting against his educational institution in Chittoor district not getting its share under the fee reimbursement scheme. Incidentally his son, actor Vishnu Manchu was the first to react to the suicides. Vishnu blamed the education system and the thought process of parents who think IIT or other competitive exams are the only purpose of life.
Part of the reason for the Telugu film industry staying aloof is its reluctance to say anything that may be construed as critical of the Telangana government. That was also pretty much the state of mind of the Tamil film industry during the Jayalalithaa era.
Things have changed in Tamil Nadu now. People, including actors, are not afraid to speak their mind, even take an anti-AIADMK or anti-BJP position, be it over Jallikattu, NEET or Tuticorin. Yes, political parties have also jumped into it and Anitha and NEET were a poll issue in Tamil Nadu and found place in campaign videos of many opposition parties. But at the same time, actions by stars like Vijay away from media glare have touched hearts.
Movie stars need to bear in mind that preventing Telangana’s gen-next from taking a drastic step is NOT political. It is not about taking a stand for or against a political party or the government. It is about talking for Telangana and its future.
Opposition parties like Congress and the BJP have protested for the students in Hyderabad. While that is necessary to put pressure on the government to act, I think of even greater importance now is to stop the spiraling suicides.
The looking down upon the 3.28 lakh students who have failed in one subject or more by those in authority, has to stop as well. There is a sense of insult embedded into the word `failure’ and students weak in mind and heart, cannot stomach the humiliation.
“Schools, parents believe in negative reinforcement as a result of which students lose their sense of self-esteem. They are made to feel useless. Which is why not all suicides are impulsive, many of them are contemplated suicides too,” says Dr Purnima Nagaraja, Clinical psychiatrist.
A bigger star than all the film stars put together is K Chandrasekhar Rao. The Telangana chief minister should not confine himself to a press release approach to the issue. Irrespective of whether his government is at fault or not, as an elder statesman, as the person holding the top job, KCR should use his excellent oratory to tell the students not to lose heart. He needs to tell them, he is there for them.
Social influencers, be it the CM or the movie stars, need to show heart, speak from the heart. It is a mistake to think the tragedy has occurred in a stranger’s home. No. The bereavement has taken place in your home, my home, our home. Help stop it.