Fan clubs and films

TRYST WITH TAMIL CINEMA: Sara Dickey.   | Photo Credit: Photo: K. Ganesan


Sarah Dickey who has ardently studied Tamil cinema over the years.

It is indeed a well-known fact that popular films have entered deep into the intimate textures of Tamil cultural and political life. Films have become a part of everyday lives of Tamils, and fan clubs too have played a prominent role in charting the political course of the State.

Sara Dickey, Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Bowdoin College, New England, Maine, the U.S., who probably was the first scholar to do an ethnographic study on the fan clubs in Tamil Nadu in as early as the 1980s, was in Madurai for fieldwork for her new project. Her published works are ‘Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, and ‘Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia,’ Kathleen Adams and Sara Dickey (editors): University of Michigan Press, 2000. She found the time to interact with The Hindu.

Excerpts from the interview:

How did the idea to study about film watching in Tamil Nadu evolve?

My M.A. thesis was on the Dravidian Identity Politics in Tamil Nadu, which focussed on the politics from the 1930s to 60s with accent on MGR. It also planned to look at cinema in the State, and fan clubs. Hence my Ph.D , titled ‘Going to the Pictures in Madurai: Social, Psychological, and Political Aspects of Cinema in Urban Working Class South India’ was on the impact of cinema on the film audience.

Why did you choose fan clubs?

See, none had taken films, film audiences and movie watching seriously. In fact there were works by Robert Hardgrave, Duncan Forrester and Karthigesu Sivathamby on Tamil cinema. The middle class critics have always been harsh on Tamil cinema.

Why Madurai and not an urban culture like Chennai?

Madurai is less cosmopolitan than Chennai, had slightly more representative areas, is a smaller city and is more conservative.

From the perspective of the urban poor how important are fan clubs ?

Fan clubs become a platform to address the issues of members of the working class and on the birthdays of the stars provide opportunities for them to engage in social service. Livelihood tools such as sewing machines and iron boxes are provided to the poor to mark such occasions.

Do the clubs have any say in the movie?

Viewers do have control over the movies but how strong the control is the question. In some cases the clubs have become so corporatised that even the stars do not have control over their clubs. Most of the films do not address the everyday problems of the poor. Only in certain cases does the mainstream textual content of the film deal with it.

Democracy and the fan club-electoral politics nexus in the State …

Fan clubs here serve as political launch pads in many cases. They can be seen as an extension of the political society. People never vote with full information and films do have a hegemonic impact — in MGR’s case it was phenomenal.

Any interesting finds during the study on MGR fan clubs?

During the process of my ethnographic study on the fan clubs I found a lot of fascinating things. It was quite interesting to note that MGR’s fans would always say he would never die. Even in 1989, a good two years after the former CM passed away, his fans still believed he was alive! He still lives in their hearts.

How are women represented in films?

During the 1940s and 50s we had strong heroines and films were also mostly heroine- centric with the story revolving round them, but in the later period it sort of became erotic. During the 80s and 90s both Tamil and Bollywood films had heroines who were more demure with restricted choice even in their acting styles. But now again stronger heroines are getting prominence. ‘Paruththi Veeran’ is an example.

About the projects that you are working on?

I am working on understanding the other side of cinema making and the marketing of cinema and how it has changed in the past 20 years. I am also interested in looking at the images of the audience and its transitions. The other major project is a study on the socio-economic class identities and relations in Madurai. I’m exploring the relevance of the theories of the West to Indian society. Concepts such as economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital would be studied.