The South Indian film fan may not be as obsessively fanatic as he is often made out to be, says A. SRIVATHSAN.

Rajinikant, the megastar of South Indian films, after getting discharged from a hospital in Singapore recently, wrote a letter to his fans. He profusely thanked them for their wishes and prayers, which, he said, cured him, including kidney ailments. He affirmed his loyalty to the fans and promised to be their entertainer as always. A month before, when he first fell ill and was admitted in a Chennai hospital, some of the worried fans went on a fast and a few tonsured their heads. Some ate food that was served on bare ground as a form of penance and many carried fire pots praying for his recovery. There was even a report of an attempted suicide by the head of Rajini's fans association in Coimbatore in a bid to donate his kidney to the ailing actor. Fans were repeatedly requested to remain calm and await the good news of their star's recovery.

This, in a sense, is a repeat of what M.G. Ramachandran's (MGR) fans did in 1984. After hearing about MGR's failing health, more than 100 people attempted self immolation and thousands expressed their grief in many intense ways. Earlier, in 1967, when MGR was shot at by his colleague, in no time thousands thronged the hospital and about 20 rickshaw pullers drove their rickshaws from Bangalore to Chennai — a distance of 200 miles — to meet him. When MGR died in 1987, 31 committed suicide and more than a million participated in his funeral.

Universal phenomenon?

There are incidents in Bollywood too. Amitabh Bachchan, celebrated by some as the actor of the millennium, has a large fan base across the world. In 1982, during the shooting of “Coolie”, he met with an accident and suffered severe intestinal injuries. In Bangalore, fans assembled at different parts of the city and went about raising slogans wishing him long life. Millions prayed for his recovery and it even had the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rushing to the hospital in Mumbai to personally enquire about his health.

In comparison, the responses of the south Indian film fans, particularly the Tamil and Telugu fans, and their bond with the actors have been often described as excessive, hyperbolic and irrational. The reasons for their obsessive behaviour when it was not attributed to their lower class affiliation, was explained in terms of their bhakti — attachment that emotionally enslaved. If it was not seen as adulation, then it was seen as an act for profit. Films, fans and fanaticism, in the eyes of the critics, constituted the natural axis of fallacy.

Fan clubs are more complex and fans themselves are not gullible and naïve adulators as they are made out to be. Studies have often shown fans across the world are not passive consumers. They shape the actors as much as the actors mobilise them. What suits the fan alone is picked, circulated and celebrated. Instances of changing the narration of the film or its ending to confirm to the fans' expectations in Tamil films abound. Whenever actors had overlooked this two-way relationship, they have miserably failed. Rajinikanth's career is dotted with embarrassing flops and so was it with MGR.

Actors may claim or create an impression that their writ runs over their fan clubs. But actors such as Kamal Haasan, another Tamil actor with a large fan base and a contemporary of Rajinikanth, had learnt their hard lessons. In the 1990s, when Kamal Hassan declared that his fans must disband their clubs, not many took his diktat. In Madurai, as Sara Dickey, who studied film viewing in the city points out, his fans continued to run the clubs and activities. Ajith, another Tamil star recently made a similar announcement. Fans appear unperturbed.

Economics would only partially explain this story. It is true that actors' financial support to the clubs, if any, is only marginal. As a survey of 150 fan clubs in 1999 (A. Stephen, Rasigar Manrangal) showed, more than 85 per cent of the clubs were funded by the fans themselves. Hence when an actor orders a wind up, fund is not an issue. Fans keep their associations going for various reasons.

The fan clubs could emerge, as what S.V. Srinivas calls, out of Cinephilia — a passion for films. But they quickly transform to have a life of their own. Neither have they remained the same over time. A typical fan club made of small numbers works more like a neighbourhood collective, where membership and occupying a post serve as social markers. It provides an alternative form of identity, gathering, camaraderie and male bonding. It creates opportunities to invent new spectacles which both resemble and rival the religious ones. Fan clubs outgrow the stars. Neither do they automatically transform to become an actor's political base. If there was an exception, as M.S.S.Pandian's analysis shows, it was MGR.

A filmgoer in 1945 complained in Pesumpadam, a Tamil film magazine, that the fans who were watching “Sivakavi”, one of the most popular movies of yesteryear, created a ruckus in the theatre. The fans sang the songs as they played on the screen and made it difficult for others to follow, the reader sulked. Reports of fans throwing money at the screen were common. The creation of a spectacle and the means to stage it are drawn from the palette of forms that is regionally available. Lighting camphor, throwing flowers, offering milk, body piercing, dancing and suicides are not limited to films and fans. They are pan regional and cut across politics and religion. It pervades the sacred, profane and the funerary. In future, if fans choose to light candles in the beach, tweet and paint Facebook red or blue, they cannot be constructed to have become progressive. It is just that the palette of expressions has expanded.

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Rajinikanth concluded his letter to the fans by thanking them for showing the world the extent of love they have for him. “I would soon appear in “Rana” (his forthcoming film) and entertain you,” he promised.

Elusive political success

Chiranjeevi couldn’t gain any mileage out of one of the largest network of fan clubs in the country.

Chiranjeevi, the superstar of Telugu films credited with more than 3,000 fan clubs, was proved wrong when he imagined that history would repeat itself in Andhra Pradesh. Many commentators thought, like N.T. Rama Rao, the actor who was elected as the Chief Minister by his fans and supporters in 1983, Chiranjeevi too would be voted to power. They had reasons to think so. In 2008, when Chiranjeevi launched his political party Praja Rajyam (Peoples’ Party) in Tirupati, millions of his fans attended the event. They arrived in 18 special trains and thousands of vehicles. To the surging crowd, the megastar who had by then acted in 138 films explained that the party was formed as “an alternative to the Congress and Telugu Desam Party.” Looking at his cheering fans, he said “you have been carrying me for 30 years on your shoulders” and he would now like to “play a bigger role in ushering a change” in their lives. In the 2009 Andhra Pradesh assembly election, Praja Rajyam won only 18 of the 294 assembly seats. In February 2011, Praja Rajyam merged with the Congress.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012