Two weeks ago when Naveen Razak and Janaki Omkumar, two students at Thrissur Medical College in Kerala, posted a 30-second video of them dancing to Boney M's classic Rasputin, they didn't think it would go viral. And they definitely did not expect to turn into ambassadors of communal harmony in the state where the idea of 'love-jihad' was first born.
"I feel like a star," said Naveen. Overwhelmed by phone calls, messages and curious journalists prodding him to know his 'feelings', the final year student said, "We just don't know how to handle this. It was only for entertainment"
Naveen and Janaki who are part of the dance group at the medical college wanted to do something for 'fun'. After their class, while they were still in their navy blue scrubs, they practised for two hours before shooting the video. Then, with the help of their friends, they shot the video as they danced in the empty corridors of the top floor of the Medical College Hospital.
The Instagram Reel, posted two weeks ago, has already got 8.5 million views.
The Viral Video
The song that Naveen and Janaki danced to has almost turned into an anthem on social media. Doctors and budding doctors are all posting Instagram Reels- short clips of them moving to Boney M's 1978 hit Euro-disco track, Rasputin.
The journey of Rasputin, the song, is quite an interesting one.
Boney M's tribute to Grigori Rasputin, the infamous Russian, a friend and advisor of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family was released in 1978. The song describes Rasputin, who became an important figure in the country's politics in the late 19th and early 20th century, as a political manipulator and a playboy. The latter is hard to prove.
The song, an ode to the mythos surrounding the man referred to as "Russia's great love machine", mixes traditional disco sounds with a three-stringed Russian balalaika for a fast-paced, cross-genre dance-floor classic.
The highly speculative lyrical biography of Grigori Rasputin was considered to be so racy that when Boney M. was chosen as the first major Western act to play in the USSR, Rasputin wasn't on their setlist. The Financial Times reported that despite the Tsarist Russia references, the song didn't make it to the 1978 Red Square concert due to its sexual lyrics. But no one could stop Rasputin into fast becoming a staple at clubs and dance floors.
Who was Rasputin?
There are many myths around Rasputin, the monk who exerted inordinate influence over Nicholas II and Alexandra, emperor and empress of Russia, during the twilight of the Romanov dynasty. In his biography, historian Douglas Smith argues that almost everything that we know about the "mad monk"— the hypnotic, wild-eyed, sex-crazed Rasputin-- as Boney M. paints-- was based only on rumours, fabricated by his enemies.
Born in a village in Siberia in 1869, he turned to religion early on in life. A young Rasputin already faced rumours, the locals believed he had mystical powers. Though not trained as a priest, Rasputin became a travelling pilgrim in search of Orthodox Christian religious devotion and piety. Years after wandering, he landed in St. Petersburg, the seat of royal power where he became known to Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra.
Here's a short animated film exploring the 'mysterious life and death' of Rasputin:
Rasputin would have become just another song that only 70s Euro Disco music fans would have heard of had it not been for the video game series 'Just Dance'. The game featured an elaborate, almost absurd dance routine set to the track. Gamers would attempt the routine and post it on YouTube, some of them went on to receive millions of views. The song caught on; it was playing everywhere.
Forty years later since it was first released, the pandemic and TikTok (The social platform now blocked in India) came together to give a new lease of life to Rasputin. The song, most likely for its catchy tune, became an instant hit as TikTokers and their pets danced to it. It inspired a number of trends — including one where, users show off how "big and strong" they are in tune with the lyrics, "There lived a certain man in Russia long ago...He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow...Most people looked at him with terror and with fear...But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear."
The song has been so popular in India that Bollywood music composer Pritam Chakraborty bought the remake rights of the song and used it for a song called 'I'll Do The Talking' in the film 'Agent Vinod'. The same song had earlier inspired a very famous number where Shah Rukh Khan featured from the movie 'Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa'.
And now, in Kerala, it has become the symbol of resistance.
Enter: The Rasputin Challenge
Days after the medical students' video went viral, a lawyer put up a Facebook post referring to their different religious backgrounds and cautioning Janaki's parents.
Sharing a still from the video on Facebook, an attorney at Kerala High Court and a right-wing symphatiser, 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."
Nimisha, referred to in the post, a dentistry student from Thiruvananthapuram was reported missing in 2016 and was found with surrendered Islamic State members in Afghanistan two years later. She had changed her name to Fathima after converting to Islam, following her marriage to Esa, a Muslim convert from Christianity.
Although the lawyer did not mention "love jihad" there was no doubt that he was referring to the unfounded allegations by politicians and authorities-- of Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage to indoctrinate and radicalise them.
The term 'love jihad' is used for an alleged conversion conspiracy for purposes that, according to allegations, range from recruitment into Islamic terror groups, sex trafficking to changing India's demography. Throughout the election campaign in Kerala, 'love jihad' became one of the major talking points.
The first reference to 'Love Jihad' traces back to a Malayalam newspaper article that raised the issue as a public concern. The Kerala Kaumudi article headlined 'Romeo Jihadis prowl with love traps' appeared in the newspaper on 5 October, 2009.
That one single post from the lawyer on the viral video spread like a wildfire and got others to join in.
As the hate post started doing the rounds, the students' union at Janaki and Naveen's institute, Thrissur Medical College, started shooting yet another video. They posted the video on their Facebook page where more students are seen dancing to Rasputin, with the title, 'If you are planning to spread hate, we intend to resist it'. Naveen and Janaki, too, appear at the end of the video.
The Facebook post lists out the names of the students who were part of it. Sreelakshmi, a member of the student union said, "Initially we were bothered by the Facebook post, how can even people think like this?" she asked, adding, "Then we decided to take a stand." "Now let them go and look for these students. They will have reasons to post more Facebook posts," she said.
It didn't take too long for colleges across Kerala to join in and show their support.
The Indian Medical Association's Kerala chapter began a dance competition. "It's time to showcase your moves to the rhythm of Rasputin," read the Instagram post. The poster for the competition encourages medical students to send in their entries of short Instagram reel videos where they are dancing to Boney M's Rasputin. The prize money is Rs 5,000 for the winner.
In between the entry videos that IMA, Kerala has been posting on Instagram, they shared yet another video in support of Janaki and Naveen. In the video, the students of Calicut Medical College are dancing to the same Boney M song.
Dr Deepak NS, the founder of Nirnayam, a collective of medical students and junior doctors, is also organising yet another #RasputinChallenge: Another dance competition. "Medical students from across Kerala started sending screenshots of hate comments that the video was receiving on our WhatsApp group. In the same group, we planned a dance competition to the Rasputin song," he said.
"It's only been two days since we opened the competition and we have already received over 25 entries," he said.
Many other colleges and politically affiliated groups in Kerala have also released posters asking for submission of entries to the #RasputinChallenge.
"I love the song, it's one of my favourites," Naveen said, before rushing back for his next class. "I love that I have so many followers now, but my phone won't stop ringing and I have to study too," the final year student of the medical college said.