Till two weeks ago, Janaki Omkumar and senior Naveen Razak were just regular students at Thrissur Medical College in Kerala, busy with exams. Today, they are social media stars and fast becoming mascots for communal harmony in a state that just finished voting in a bruising election with sharp overtones of religion and a lingering undertone of alleged “love jihad”.
It started with a 30-second video that Janaki and Naveen posted of them dancing, in their navy blue scrubs, to Boney M’s classic Rasputin, in the empty corridors of their college, that went viral.
This week, a lawyer put up a Facebook post referring to their different religious backgrounds and cautioning Janaki’s parents. The outrage across the state in response has seen student unions in colleges organise similar dance competitions as their message against hate; a ‘Rasputin Challenge’ by the students’ unit of the Indian Medical Association inviting video entries on Instagram; and Milma, Kerala’s biggest milk cooperative, featuring Janaki and Naveen in a Facebook post titled “when you set hearts on fire”.
An overwhelmed Janaki, who has been besieged by phone calls and requests for selfies, as well as gained thousands of followers on social media, says she and Naveen never anticipated this reaction. Speaking on the phone from Thrissur, the third-year medical student says, “I read his (the lawyer’s) comments just when our exams had started and we didn’t take it seriously. Later, we realised that it had snowballed into a huge controversy. But right from the beginning, we were very cool about it and so were our families. The remarks show his (the lawyer’s) thinking.”
In his Facebook post on their video, lawyer Krishna Raj wrote: “There’s something fishy. It would be good if Janaki’s parents are careful. They won’t have to be sorry later as the case of Nimisha’s mother proves. Let us pray for Janaki’s father Omkumar and his wife.” (A native of Thiruvananthapuram, Nimisha had converted to Islam and joined the Islamic State in Afghanistan in 2016 with her husband.)
Among those who have responded to Krishna Raj in kind is the students’ union at Janaki and Naveen’s institute, Thrissur Medical College, which posted a video of more students dancing to Rasputin, with the title, ‘If you are planning to spread hate, we intend to resist it’.
At the end of the video, Janaki and Naveen appear, this time the only ones who are not in scrubs. Listing the names of the students who danced in the video, the union added in a remark alluding to Raj’s comment, “If you go around searching the head and tail of names of these students (implying names and surnames), you will get more reasons to put up a post on Facebook.”
The students’ union at the Cochin University of Science and Technology in Kochi, led by the CPM’s Students’ Federation of India, announced a dance challenge with cash prizes in solidarity with Janaki and Naveen. A member of the union, Abhinav Krishna, said, “We also borrowed the term ‘Entho oru panthikedu (there’s something fishy)’ from the lawyer’s comments for our dance challenge. We want to register our protest at those making such hateful comments to show that these have no place in Kerala.”
Inviting entries, Krishna added, “Anyone irrespective of age can send in videos of them dancing to the Rasputin song to us till April 14. The best video, to be judged by Naveen and Janaki, will get a cash prize of Rs 10,000.”
Janaki says she was thrown at first by the fact that Raj mentioned her father in his post. “I didn’t know what to think or say. But then we realised that it was just one negative comment in a sea of positive comments. We decided not to care about it. My parents hold the same view as well.” While Janaki’s father is a scientist with the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, her mother is a radiologist.
Naveen did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him.
Janaki says it was an impromptu decision by the two of them to shoot the video, mainly for “fun”, as both of them love the 1978 song by Boney M. “We practised for two hours and shot the video on the top floor of the Medical College Hospital known as the house surgeon quarters. Since we had just finished classes, we danced in the scrubs itself. We uploaded it the same day.”
She adds, “I can’t quite explain why it went viral. Maybe all (factors) like the hospital background, the scrubs, the evergreen music came together and it looked good. We realised it had gone big when Brut India (a digital video publisher) featured us.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines