Just how raucously the release of a new Tamil film has been celebrated can often be gauged by the size of the puddle of milk at the entrance of a theatre. The bigger that puddle on opening day, the more the milk that has been expended in the ritual shower of the hero’s giant cardboard cut-out, glorification verging on deification.
In the film’s release, the distinctive stamp of the rasigar mandrams—literally, “associations of fans”, a uniquely Tamil phenomenon—is everywhere. The young man pouring the milk is a card-carrying member; so are the young men holding his ladder steady, and those setting off firecrackers, and those filling the theatres for the first few days, dancing and whistling and throwing money at their hero on the screen.
Beneath all that devotion to chaotic merrymaking, though, the rasigar mandrams are surprisingly well-organized marketing strategy bodies (who, after all, simply happens to have a few kilolitres of milk on his person at a film premiere). They volunteer their time to manufacture posters and high expectations; less often, they volunteer their energy to engage in fisticuffs with rival mandrams. And invariably, the large mandrams are entirely male affairs, often fuelled by the very masculine activities of communal drinking and the hero-worship of machismo.
Funded as they are by the actors they deify, mandrams exist for nearly every star; even a first-time actor, an industry insider grumbles, “will have an All India Rasigar Mandram present at the premiere”.
“When I wrote my first song in 1977, four people came up to me and said: ‘Give us Rs25 apiece, and we’ll go to the theatre for your film, spread out, and when your name comes on the screen, we’ll cheer and whistle’,” says Randor Guy, a popular film historian and writer of screenplays. “I had to tell them that I didn’t really want a Randor Guy Rasigar Mandram.”
But the rasigar mandrams are more than just hype machines with a weakness for buying dairy products in bulk. “When mandrams first began coming up in the 1960s, they were a part of the political scenery,” Guy says, mentioning in particular the mandram of M.G. Ramachandran, the dashing film idol who ascended to the chief ministership of Tamil Nadu. “Some mandrams claim to be social welfare units, although how much social welfare they do, I don’t know.”
Today’s mandrams are still political animals by nature, waiting only to hear the word from the star of choice before they leap with a roar into the fray. When “Captain” Vijayakanth launched a political party in 2005, the cadre of the All India Vijayakanth Fans Welfare Association turned into a mouthwateringly captive base of voters. By what seemed like the most natural extension of duties, the association’s general secretary, S. Ramu Vasanthan, became the general secretary of the party.
The most muscular of these creatures is the All India Rajinikanth Fans Association, a constellation of roughly 100,000 fan clubs that waits breathlessly to be told by Rajinikanth how to vote and waits even more anaerobically for the day when he will enter politics. (This year, in expansive, laissez-faire spirit, Rajinikanth asked fans to vote as they liked, but he has indicated nothing about his own electoral ambitions.)
The mandrams, moreover, are politicized as well as political. Last year, when Sathya Narayana resigned from his position as the president of Rajinikanth’s association, the news was reported with the barely restrained glee of film journalists who know the whole story but cannot tell. One website claimed that Narayana had been “rested”, the quotation marks vehemently inserted and quite at odds with Narayana’s plaintive statement that he was suffering from kidney failure.
Perhaps because of that controversy, Narayana’s replacement, a former classmate of Rajinikanth’s named V.M. Sudhakar, refused politely to talk to Lounge. “I am only here temporarily, and really, the head of our association is now Rajini sir himself,” he said. “You should just speak directly to him.” In the vast universe of feats that are easier said than done, “just” speaking directly to Rajinikanth is at the uppermost end of the scale, and Sudhakar knows that as well as anyone.
In a way, the nominal presidents of these associations enjoy a rare, heady brand of power: On the one hand, they have unparalleled access to the star, and on the other, they command the allegiance of the millions of fans under their purview. In another way, though, this power is severely circumscribed: Most presidents won’t make even the simplest move without first having it sanctioned by their hero. The hand that rocks the box office rules their world.
KOVAI R THANGAVELU
Head, Kamal Hassan Narpani Iyakkam
In 1979, when Thangavelu and some of his college friends wanted to start an official Kamal Hassan rasigar mandram, they approached the actor for permission. “Kamal sir said that he didn’t want a mandram, but he suggested the idea of a service or welfare organization,” Thangavelu remembers.
Kovai R Thangavelu. Head, Kamal Hassan Narpani Iyakkam
So that same week, the group went to a slum in Coimbatore, where they lived, to clear ditches and pick up garbage. “We took photos of the entire process, and we showed them to Kamal sir,” Thangavelu says. “Only after that did he give us the permission to start the organization.”
Thangavelu still lives in Coimbatore, but once a month—“on the 28th, wherever in the world Kamal sir is at the time”—he comes to Chennai to set up a videoconference between the star and the iyakkam’s (organization’s) district-level presidents and secretaries. In south India, Thangavelu estimates, there are 15,000 fan clubs, with a total membership of 800,000. “And our president is Kamal sir,” Thangavelu insists. “I am just nominally in charge.”
Thangavelu slipped into this “nominal” position in 1989. Every day, he puts in 2 hours of work for the iyakkam, responding to emails or coordinating blood donation drives or whatever else the day demands. But his full-time career involves running a cable television network as well as a jewellery wholesale business in Coimbatore. “Kamal sir always tells us to take care of our own work first before attending to the fan affairs,” he says.
The blood donation drive is the iyakkam’s signature activity, so much so that, in Coimbatore’s hospitals, patients needing blood are first directed to the iyakkam’s blood banks. So far, its members have donated nearly 400,000 litres of blood. “Kamal sir was the first to donate, way back in 1985, and of course, at that time, we just followed him,” Thangavelu says. “If he’d shaved his head bald, we’d have shaved our heads bald. He gave blood, so we gave blood. We only realized the utility of it much, much later.”
From a cabinet, R. Satyanarayan, an earnest volunteer, pulls out stacks of little books that list the iyakkam’s blood donors across Tamil Nadu, classified by blood group and, in many cases, with printed mobile phone numbers. Satyanarayan saw his first Kamal Hassan film when he was nine years old, and he finally saw the star in person at the premiere of the cult comedy classic Michael Madana Kamarajan. “By which time, I had already set up a chapter of the iyakkam in my hometown of Rasipuram,” Satyanarayan says.
Satyanarayan reserves nearly as much respect for Thangavelu as he does for Hassan. “I met Thangavelu sir when I was 12 years old, when we’d gone from Rasipuram to Coimbatore to see if we could set up our own chapter,” he says. “Kamal sir consults him on so many things. They talk virtually every day.”
At which Thangavelu smiles bashfully, murmurs self-deprecating things, and deftly turns the conversation back to the actor. “Kamal sir could have turned this into a political organization so easily if he’d wanted to, but he preferred to keep it a social welfare organization,” he says. Then the official mask slips, and for a moment Thangavelu channels the pure awe of the true fan: “He’s so talented. He can do anything in cinema—he can sing, he can dance, he can direct. He really does things with a difference.”
Honorary President, Ilaya Thalapathi Vijay Narpani Iyakkam
Of all the members of the 37,000 fan clubs belonging to the Ilaya Thalapathi Vijay Narpani Iyakkam, Chandrasekhar can accurately claim to have known Vijay the longest: right from the moment of Vijay’s birth, at a government hospital in Chennai. “That was all I could afford at the time,” Chandrasekhar says.
SA Chandrasekhar, Honorary President, Ilaya Thalapathi Vijay Narpani Iyakkam
If it is an odd feeling to head your own son’s fan association, Chandrasekhar does not betray it. He insists, in fact, on calling them “followers” rather than “fans”, an emphasis that hints vaguely at the political. “In the last five years, since I have been in this post, this is how I have tried to mould the association,” he says. “I want them to think beyond cinema. They have to be useful to society even on the days of the year when no film is releasing. There’s more to life than just whistling or pouring milk on cut-outs.”
Before Vijay became a superstar, Chandrasekhar was a film director: “I was directing or producing four movies a year.” His cinema had the stamp of a pedant, and he admits as much. “My films could sometimes be dry, but that was only to make people think,” he says. “I wanted to spread a certain social awareness, because in Tamil Nadu, what people see in the movies, they translate into real life.”
In the last six or seven years, Chandrasekhar has occupied himself so thoroughly with his son’s fandom that he has managed to direct only three movies. “I travel a lot. I’m off to Erode this weekend to donate four computers to a government school, for instance,” he says. “When I go on these projects, I always notice that Vijay’s fans call me appa (Tamil for father) too. Even in the letters he gets, people write in asking: ‘How is our father?’ Not ‘your father,’ but ‘our father’.”
Unlike other heads of rasigar mandrams who shun all political talk for fear that it might be mistaken for the views of their leaders, Chandrasekhar returns repeatedly to the subject. The impression that, over the longer term, he is girding his son’s loins for a political career is inescapable, particularly when people familiar with the filial dynamic say that Vijay does nothing without first consulting his father (“That’s a good thing,” Chandrasekhar says. “It is a sign that you defer to your parents and elders”).
“You know, when Vijay was first applying to kindergarten in various schools, one school asked on the form for his religion, his caste, and so on. For every one of those categories, I simply wrote ‘Indian’,” Chandrasekhar says. “There are parties now for every caste and every religion in India. And that is not a good thing.”
M ‘SURI’ SURYANARAYANAN
President, All India Chiyan Vikram Fans Welfare Association
The first Vikram movie that Suryanarayanan saw was also the first Vikram movie ever. Back in 1990, when En Kadhal Kanmani released, Suryanarayanan and Vikram were simply friends who had met through their wives, who had studied social work at the same institute. “In his struggling years, he was doing bit roles, and he had a major accident also,” Suryanarayanan says. “Those were tough years.”
M ‘Suri’ Suryanarayanan, President, All India Chiyan Vikram Fans Welfare Association
At the time, Suryanarayanan worked as an office manager for the Minerals and Metals Trading Corp., or MMTC. When Vikram finally attained box-office fame, at the turn of the century, MMTC seemed to be edging towards privatization, and Suryanarayanan was fretting about his job and about the dismal prospect of moving out of Chennai. “At that time, in 2002, Vikram asked me if I would head up his fan association,” he says. “So I took voluntary retirement and jumped right in.”
Out of an office papered with posters and photographs of Vikram, Suryanarayanan manages 16,000 fan clubs in the four southern states, each club with a membership of at least 25. In Chennai alone, there are 4,500 Vikram fan clubs. “There’s no regular fees, just a nominal Rs10 to join,” he says. “Then, when a club does any charity work, or when it puts up banners and posters for a movie release, it does so at its own expense.” The charity work, in the case of Vikram’s mandram, has included sponsoring nearly 50 heart surgeries for children.
Although he insists that his position is voluntary, Suryanarayanan works nominally on Vikram’s personal payroll; one member of the club says that Vikram provides Suryanarayanan with a car and pays for his mobile phone bills. For a couple of hours every day, Suryanarayanan comes into the office and potters around. “A lot of letters come in, asking for photos, so I respond to those,” he says. “Sometimes, fans from towns like Trichy or Kanyakumari land up, not even knowing if Vikram is in town, just taking a chance to meet him. So I have to make them happy somehow.”
With the air of one narrating a parable, Suryanarayanan tells the story of a fan who recently visited Chennai from Tirupur with a single intent. “He came just to show his support to Vikram by painting the outer compound walls of the office,” he says. The vivid murals, still glowing from the freshness of their paint, depict Vikram in assorted cinematic poses, and Suryanarayanan gazes upon them with undisguised, almost paternal pride. “Aren’t they terrific?”