How the media turned Saravana Bhavan Annachi’s crime into salacious gossip

In 2001, the Tamil media went on a slut-shaming spree from the moment the story of the murder emerged.
How the media turned Saravana Bhavan Annachi’s crime into salacious gossip
How the media turned Saravana Bhavan Annachi’s crime into salacious gossip
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Jeevajothi. That was a name that captured the imagination of the public in Tamil Nadu in 2001, invoking different feminine personas for her. It was an eventful year for the state as J Jayalalithaa had to step aside from the Chief Minister’s chair and name O Pannerselvam for the post. It was also the year that saw the statue of Kannagi, an epic heroine from Tamil literature who epitomized an avenging wife, being removed from its pedestal on Marina in Chennai, rather surreptitiously, raising a public outcry.

If the 20-year-old Jeevajothi was likened by some to Kannagi for taking to task an extremely rich restaurant owner, P Rajagopal, then 54 years old, for murdering her husband, it was the kindest of all epithets heaped on her. For otherwise, the Tamil media went on a slut-shaming spree from the moment the story of the murder emerged. Till then, Rajagopal was a man with humble beginnings who rose to dizzying heights in business. His story was portrayed as a rags-to riches success tale in newspapers. But Jeevajothi turned that exalted image upside down, prompting Tamil magazines to investigate the salacious side of the rapacious restaurant chain owner.

Media trial of Annachi and Jeevajothi

Soon, skeletons started tumbling out of Rajagopal’s closet. The media found out that he had a second wife, living in a posh bungalow, and that she was once the wife of an employee. One of the magazines even tracked down the former husband, then doing some menial work somewhere far away from the humdrum of Chennai. The story was well received as details around ‘Saravana Bhavana Annachi’ and his intimate affairs hit the public domain. (Annachi, meaning elder brother in Tamil, is a sobriquet given to businessmen, particularly grocers, from the Nadar community).

Till then, the newspaper reader only knew Annachi as an astute businessman and a strict disciplinarian, who took care of his workers and their families kindly, even arranging foreign trip as incentives for good work. He was known for his simplicity, benevolence, religiosity – he was an ardent devotee of Kirubananda Variar, whose photograph adorned the wall of every restaurant he owned – and his culinary knowledge, all of which had been written about extensively. So, when new insight was given to his private affairs, the public turned voyeuristic.

It was in that process that Jeevajothi’s name too was sullied. She was portrayed as a Saravana Bhavan employee’s young daughter who had given in to Annachi’s demands, and that he was unable to let her go because he had fallen for her. There was another theory that he wanted to take her as his third wife as per an astrologer’s advice that forecast a glorious future in business. But the dominant trope of the day was that he fell for Jeevajothi’s charms.

Rumours circulated that there were many more employees’ relatives who were being specially cared for by Annachi, which besmirched the reputation of every worker in his restaurants. Footfalls started declining for the first time.

The manner in which Jeevajothi’s past was recounted in the pages of the Tamil newspapers and magazines also highlighted the arrogance and sense of entitlement that Annachi had displayed after making money in abundance. For he had refused to take ‘no’ as an answer from the young woman and even conspired to eliminate her husband, Prince Santhakumar, whom she had married against her parents’ wishes.

A business empire which stood strong

Till then, Saravana Bhavan was the No. 1 restaurant brand, patronised by the middle and even upper-middle class. Its popularity, in part, stemmed from the perceived hygienic surroundings in which the vegetarian food was prepared and the cleanliness of the staff, which Annachi was apparently very particular about. The quality of the food served was highly rated by diners, who would flock to the restaurants. Finding a table during peak hours was a challenge, but they would not mind waiting. Most neighbourhoods in Chennai had their own branch, besides multiple towns and cities, and even overseas where patrons started casting suspicious looks at the bearers and other staff.

When the story unfolded, it became clear that Annachi had the police in his pocket. It was an open secret at that time that policemen were not charged at his restaurants – it was a common sight to see men in uniform placing their orders, finishing their meals and leaving without paying the bill. So Jeevajothi’s complaints were not entertained by the police, and Prince Santhakumar was killed and the body was dumped in Kodaikannal. But by the time the case was heard by a court in Poonamalee and the verdict was delivered in 2004, the Tamil magazines and newspapers had lost interest in the story of Annachi.

The salacious stories of his secret pursuits had been enough for people to make up their minds about him. He was demonized and the women who were named were slut-shamed as one publication after another vied to get the next big newsbreak in 2001. Apart from depending on police inputs, many publications went about their own investigations, tracking down people who would tell a story. Say, like how Annachi, who started out as a cleaner at a restaurant after dropping out of Class 7 in an obscure town, reached Chennai to start his own restaurant, and veered away from his path of business growth to cast his eyes on his employees’ wives.

The media narrative had been so engrossing and curious that The New York Times revisited Annachi’s life in 2014 and published a story under the title ‘Masala Dosa To Die For.’ By then, New Yorkers had become familiar with the vegetarian fare that he had been serving Chennaiites since 1981. Between 2001 and 2019, his business empire has been taken to further heights by his two sons who have started several branches overseas, though the restaurants in Chennai have lost to many newcomers.

Annachi has led a normal life for the past 18 years, except for some brief periods of incarceration. As he is locked up at the age of 71 for his crimes, Jeevajothi has reason to rejoice. She has moved on with her life, and has settled into her own married life. But not much is known about the other woman, the second wife, whose photograph had appeared in the newspapers at that time. It seems like the media has also moved on, for we still don’t know what happened to the other characters who were key figures in the media circus 18 years ago.

Views are the author's own.

G Babu Jayakumar is senior journalist living in Chennai.

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