Rajinikanth is not the only contemporary star in India to command intense adulation, but his is perhaps the only one reminiscent of the kind of mania that stars like M.G. Ramachandran once commanded. Even today, fans can be seen lining up at MGR’s Samadhi in Chennai, cocking their ears against the granite walls, because legend goes you can still hear the ticking of the watch that he wore when he died. Salman Khan’s fans don’t just model themselves in his image but will defend his actions, be it alleged drink driving or making offensive sexist remarks, in as aggressive a manner as possible. Then there are the fan clubs of stars like Nagarjuna and Chiranjeevi for whom adulation is a serious vocation. The relationship between a fan and his/her object of affection has always evoked curiosity and interest, and there have been various attempts to understand the phenomenon. Shah Rukh Khan’s latest release, simply titled Fan, was yet another exploration of this dynamic although, ironically, it failed to connect with his own fans. The movie, with a total budget of 105 crores, collected 84.10 crore at the box office, according to Bollywood Hungama website
The answers, however, remain elusive. Film-maker Rinku Kalsy attempted to answer this question by turning the spotlight on the fans of Rajinikanth in her film For the love of a Man. “...Ravi and Murugan, sweet shop owners in Sholingur, Tamil Nadu...organized a climb up a rocky mountain to a temple to pray for the success of Enthiran. When we talked to them about this, their explanations were simply that people do things to pray for children, to save themselves from illnesses or problems. For them, that same form of penance is reasonable for a film star, because they see him as something worth praying for - and they equate that at the same level as something that the average person may only do for their immediate family."
For most fans, the object of their affection serves as a repository of their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. He may be the symbol of masculinity they aspire to, or perhaps they connect with his do-good persona. The times we live in also have a role to play in what the fan sees of himself in the actor. Film writer Jai Arjun Singh points out the appeal of the vigilante character, the justice seeker during the 80s as exemplified by Amitabh Bachchan’s character in the 1984 release Inquilab. “In the end, the leading man kills the politicians by spraying them all with bullets." He equates the satisfaction the viewer must have felt at that time with catharsis and says, “Movies can serve as therapy, if done well... Whether it is Amitabh Bachchan or Dev Anand or Rajinikanth, they have all served as a function for the audience to access their hopes."
A star’s appeal can stem from several factors, key among them being the characters that they portray as well as aspects of their off-screen life. Bachchan’s angry young man symbolized the frustration that the ordinary man felt with the system throughout the 1970s and the 80s. Shah Rukh Khan made it possible for us to accept that men too can cry but it was his real life story, the middle class boy who rose to dizzying heights of success that made him so loved by fans. If Bachchan represented socialist India, Khan was the perfect representative of the post-reforms India.
In southern cinema, the appeal is more direct. “Both Rajini and MGR were not just rank outsiders but from the bottom of the pyramid as such, who rose to the heights that they did. This helps establish an immediate connect," feels Ambi Parameswaran, founder of Brand-Building.com. Kalsy’s film features a fan who considers Rajinikanth his guide as his films helped him out of a life of potential crime. Both Parameswaran and Kalsy draw a strong parallel between personality cult worshipping in India and the adulation around stars. “There is a long culture of ‘cult of personality’ style worshipping…it also must be explained in terms of the Indian propensity to raise leaders to larger than life status," Kalsy said.
The Mumbai film industry is bigger both in terms of numbers and appeal compared with its southern counterparts but it would still be hard-pressed to come up with stars that command the kind of adulation a Rajini or MGR do. In recent years, Salman Khan is the only one who can claim a certain parallel but even then, he would fall short. “Salman plays to his star persona in a knowing way, but colluding with his fans in this so he doesn’t come across as too smart. He is a great comedian and plays the innocent (man) well. His fans love his look too, which is seen as a model of masculinity," explains Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian culture and cinema, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, said in an email interview. In fact, in all his films since Dabangg (2010) Khan has played different versions of the same character, the lovable buffoon with a heart of gold who is the perfect brother, perfect son and, of course, lover but a surprisingly chaste one (Khan doesn’t kiss in any of his films). In fact, a 2014 documentary Being Bhaijaan attempts to de-code this curious mix of Khan’s appeal, where macho meets convention. The image is an interesting contrast to the bad boy persona the actor enjoys in his real life, plagued as it is with issues, both legal and personal.
But this very same persona which helps make them such stars can also be the albatross around their creative necks. The image becomes the most important part of the star and every film has to be made keeping that in mind. This often ends up compromising on the quality of the film but one wonders if that is even an issue as long as the money keeps coming in.
If one were to compare fan behaviour between the Mumbai film industry and the south, then the latter definitely trumps the former, but the link between the fan and star in southern cinema is more nuanced. This involves politics, the Dravidian movement and the use of cinema as a tool for spreading political messages. C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, was a script-writer who used movies as a medium to spread his party’s political ideology centred around atheism, social justice etc. In a piece written for Scroll.in in May (click here), columnist T.M. Krishna explains this connect. “The stories that were told via Tamil films were part of the Dravidian philosophy and consequently changed people’s thinking. The novels or short stories that were adapted, the screenplay, song-lyrics were drenched in the Dravidian philosophy... It is here that C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi and M.G. Ramachandran created an identity for themselves." The article further states, “When a cinemagoer watches a film, he/she is unconsciously connecting the political and cultural, film personalities with the power of change." Actors like Karunanidhi and MGR played ordinary men who defeated the system on the strength of these values and it is this persona that they carried with them onto their political lives also. Interestingly, Kabali, too is a political film replete with references to Dalit identity and politics, though this is more a reflection of the director, Pa Ranjith’s political sensibilities. The Mumbai film industry, however, has no such political parallel. In fact, most stars from here who tried a career in politics, have suffered severe setbacks.