Fan clubs

Hero worship

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Fans of Rajinikanth bathe his banner in milk in Tiruchi. Today, most big star releases in the south are greeted with such frenzy. Photo: R_ASHOK

December 9,1978: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran being greeted by his fans at the Madras airport upon his return from a global tour. MGR’s star power was the key to his political career. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

December 7, 1984: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao addressing a public meeting in Tenali. Several stars in the south have tapped their huge fan following and used films as a stepping stone to politics. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Although Kannada stars Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan did not directly enter politics, their actions were always carefully orchestrated. Here, Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and other film stars at a rally in 2004. Photo: V. Sreenivasa_Murthy

A makeshift shrine in Bangalore for Vishnuvardhan. Photo: K_Murali Kumar

“Fan of Kannada people” Raja’s auto decorated with the colours of the State and pictures of its film stars. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The fan phenomenon is uniquely south Indian, and if there is one single feature that characterises all fan activity, it is the fans’ acute sense of entitlement. The fan is so invested in the image that he feels entitled to be its guardian, ensuring that the star himself does not digress from it.

FOR the most part fans cheer, and are deeply moved by, flickering shadows. They matter because they make stars.

The film historian Eileen Bowser points out that in the early 1900s, American production companies were wary of revealing the names of actors for fear of losing them to competitors. It was viewers who “harangued the theatre managers with questions about their favourites, who wrote to studios, who asked for photographs, who sent in proposals of marriage and less proper invitations”. Thus was born the fan, before the star system was instituted. Today, it is difficult to imagine what cinema and its stars would have been without the hysterical fan. For one thing, Rajinikanth’s aura would be considerably diminished without footage of fans bathing his cut-outs in milk.

The four south Indian States and the Union Territory of Puducherry are home to a unique variant of fandom, which is organised and hypervisible. Each State—and perhaps every region within the State—has its own variant of the fan club. Nonetheless, across the southern States, including Kerala, we see the signs of activities by fan clubs on the streets. These range from leaflets, wall posters and cloth or vinyl streamers to bronze statues and giant plywood cut-outs of screen idols. Known as rasigar manram (Tamil) and abhimana sangha/sangham (Kannada/Telugu), a typical fan club is formed by a group of 10-25 young men in their late teens to early thirties who are poor or from the lower middle class. Fans of female stars are not impossible to find, but it is usually the male star that is the centre of fan activity. If estimates by journalists are accurate, the membership of these organisations runs into several millions. The Tamil superstar Rajinikanth alone reportedly has a hundred thousand clubs with a total of million-plus members.

In the name of the star

Fan activity is carried out in the name of the star—presumably to promote him—but not all of it is approved by him. It is a myth that fans are remote-controlled by stars or their offices. The star is a facilitator, an excuse almost, for a range of activities that are at times utterly meaningless displays of cinephilia and at other times overtly political. By definition, a fan is a creature of excess. Organised fandom’s distinguishing feature is its insistence on “going public” with its numerous excesses. Obsession with cinema and its stars is acted out, quite literally, in the streets. A secret admirer or a moderate devotee is no fan at all in the abhimani universe.

For decades now, extreme actions by fans have been reported from different parts of south India. When the Tamil superstar M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) died in December 1987, as many as 31 people reportedly committed suicide. In the early 1980s, fans of the Kannada star Rajkumar were accused of rioting during the “Gokak agitation” demanding special measures for the protection of Kannada. More recently, in April 2006, the star’s death from natural causes brought Bangalore to a complete standstill. Several people died in the rioting that accompanied the undeclared bandh. A few years later (December 2009), the death of Vishnuvardhan, Rajkumar’s younger contemporary, too resulted in an impromptu Bangalore bandh, albeit a less violent one. In Andhra Pradesh, fights between fans of competing stars have been witnessed since the late 1970s, if not earlier. In the 1990s, competing associations of “Megastar” Chiranjeevi’s fans fought with each other too.

Fandom is not just about fights and riots. Fans are, of course, movie buffs who spend the better part of their evenings in and around cinema halls: watching films, decorating them (or damaging them) or simply hanging around talking about cinema and its stars. The relatively high density of cinema halls in south India is a necessary condition for the emergence of fans’ associations. However, fans also participate in a wide range of activities that are completely unrelated to film watching. These range from acts of charity (feeding the poor, blood donation, disaster relief work, etc.) to electioneering. An anthropologist studying the fan phenomenon wrote that he was surprised to find that active members of fan clubs did not watch films regularly. Evidently, a fan club is not the poor man’s film society. Young men do not join or form fan clubs only to watch films. To understand what the fan club is all about, it is useful take a historical detour.

Emergence of the fan club

The film scholar Theodore Baskaran states: “The tradition of fan clubs ( rasigar manram) in Tamil Nadu goes back to the silent era, the late 1920s. Hollywood stars like Eddie Polo and Elmo Lincoln, whose films were hugely popular in south India, had an organised fan following in T.N.” Even in the 1940s and early 1950s, there were reports of fan-like activity (riotous behaviour at cinema halls, mobbing of film stars, etc.). However, present-day fan clubs, which come with governing bodies, official stationery and other trappings of registered societies, are traceable to 1953, when the first fan club dedicated to MGR was formed. This is likely to have been the progenitor of fans’ associations of the (south) Indian kind.

The year 1953 was something of a watershed for south Indian cinema and politics for other reasons as well. MGR inaugurated his long political career in that year by joining the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). It was in 1953 that the Telugu-speaking districts of Madras (earlier known as Madras Presidency) were carved out into the Andhra State, the first linguistic State of the Indian Union. Born in the same year, the linguistic State, the star-politician and the fan club have remained linked to each other in complex ways ever since.

In the MGR instance, the link between fans and party politics—forged by the film star’s crossover to politics—is strong and direct. So much so that it attracted the attention of social scientists as early as the 1970s. The political scientist Robert Hardgrave Jr notes that MGR’s manrams were the foundation on which the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (later renamed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK) was formed when the star was suspended from the DMK in 1972.

Developments in other parts of south India suggest that the film star who nurtures political ambitions is not a necessary condition for the growth of fan clubs. In other words, fans are not always political cadres in the making. Take the case of N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) whose fans campaigned actively in the 1983 Assembly elections, which made him the first non-Congress Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Although fans’ associations had become a noticeable presence in the State as early as 1964, no major Telugu film star had expressed an interest in politics until 1980, when NTR made vague noises about serving the people. It was only in 1982 that NTR made public his intention to enter politics. Rajkumar, the biggest Kannada film star ever, did not join politics at all.

Language, caste, politics

While fans are not always or necessarily engaged in party politics, there is no denying that fandom of the organised, south Indian variety has links with socio-political mobilisations. Fan activity grew in direct proportion with the expansion of mass politics, and in the southern States, language was one of the axes of mass mobilisation. Lisa Mitchell, in her study of the Telugu language and politics, draws attention to the changing profile of the bhashabhimani (one who takes pride in one’s language) in the 1950s, from the connoisseur of literary works to the street agitator who may not even be literate. M. Madhava Prasad argues that from the 1950s the south Indian troika—MGR, NTR and Rajkumar—became representatives of entire linguistic communities. The fallout of this development is the dovetailing of the bhashabhimani and the abhimani, or fan proper. In present-day Karnataka, we can see street memorials for film stars decorated in yellow and red (the colours of the Karnataka flag) while declarations of commitment to Kannada are accompanied by images of film stars. On the busy roads of Bangalore city, there is a good chance of encountering the bhashabhimani “Auto Raja”. Calling himself a “fan of the Kannada people” ( Kannadigara abhimani), Raja drives an autorickshaw decorated with the yellow and red (Karnataka) colours and images of film stars and literary figures.

Caste, too, is an important factor in fans’ associations. At times we notice a strong correlation between the caste of the star and his fans, but since there are far fewer stars than castes, it is impossible for stars to survive with single-caste constituencies. Complex caste alliances and antagonisms are often manifested in fans’ associations. Indeed, these organisations have a history of being sites for caste-based assertions and mobilisations. This is strikingly evident in the career of Chiranjeevi. The star himself is Kapu by caste and stood out in a film industry dominated by Kamma stars. His fans’ associations in the 1990s became one of the sites for the formation of a broad anti-Kamma, anti-Telugu Desam Party (TDP) alliance in parts of Andhra Pradesh, including Vijayawada city. To this day, fan publicity of films featuring Chiranjeevi’s extended family, which includes his son Ram Charan Teja, brother Pawan Kalyan and nephew Allu Arjun, is often accompanied by images of Vijayawada’s popular Kapu Congress leader, Vangaveeti Mohana “Ranga”, who died in 1988.

Casual observers come away with the impression that the fandom is all about irrational and premodern loyalties. This is partly because of the excessive nature of fan activity and partly because of the language of devotion deployed by fans themselves. Fans refer to their stars as elder brother ( anna), prince, king and boss and speak of the families of their idols as dynasties.

The unrestrained use of religious and feudal terms to describe the fan-star relationship is both amusing and somewhat disturbing. Notwithstanding the hyperbole, there is overwhelming evidence of fans’ relative autonomy. Instances of fans violating the star’s injunctions and appeals are plentiful. Most major stars, Chiranjeevi and Rajinikanth included, faced overt or subtle forms of fan boycott/rejection of their films. There are stories of film directors going into hiding for fear of fan violence after the release of films that did not go down well. The climax of the Telugu film Bobby (Sobhan, 2002) featuring the Telugu actor “Prince” Mahesh Babu had to be changed because of protests by his fans. In 2000, Mohanlal fans’ association prevented the star from accepting the position of director in Kairali TV. From media reports it appears that the association had given the star a bit of career counselling, telling him that acceptance of the offer would damage his career!

Not even the star’s political preferences are replicated by fans. Well over a decade before Chiranjeevi announced his decision to enter politics, his fans in coastal Andhra were supporting the Congress, largely because of the criss-crossing of caste and politics in the region. This was in spite of warnings from the leadership of the official Chiranjeevi fan club and the star himself that they should remain politically neutral. In the 2004 general election, when Chiranjeevi decided to endorse the film producer Ch. Aswini Dutt, contesting on the TDP ticket from Vijayawada, his fans from the constituency protested so loudly that the star had to retract his endorsement.

Active and reactive spectatorship

The fan is a reactive viewer: like all viewers he consumes cinema but his response to films and stars is excessive. The whistling and cheering is but one part of the story. If there is one single feature that characterises all fan activity, organised and unorganised, it is the fans’ acute sense of entitlement. The cinema in India was relatively open to poor and lower-caste customers, and entry-level thresholds—economic and cultural—were low. “Gandhi class” tickets were cheap, and illiteracy was no bar. This history of the cinema—as a space which was accessible to a wide cross section of viewers—made it an important public institution by the 1940s. The film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha proposes that the cinema hall in India has been a space where the “ticket-buying spectator automatically assumed certain rights that were symbolically pretty crucial to the emerging state”.

In fan activity we notice highly developed notions of entitlement that encompass not only what the fan can do in the cinema hall (whistle, dance, throw coins at the screen, etc.) but also what the star ought to be doing in the film and, at times, in life too. As a result, some of the biggest south Indian stars have reified screen images and a limited repertoire of roles. Hell would break loose if a superstar were to die on screen. Kamal Hassan, whose model Aamir Khan emulates faithfully in Bombay, is the exception to the rule. The expectation of Kamal being hatke (different) all the time is such that he has played the role of an old woman, George W. Bush and another eight characters in the same film.

The origin and growth of fans’ associations are coeval with a crucial development in both cinema and politics: the turn to populism. The kind of cinema that spawns fans’ association is, to begin with, populist at the story level. Our hero fights an assortment of villains who are easily identified as the enemies of the people, ranging from landlords to industrialists to corrupt police officials and politicians. Further, the films unfold along anticipated lines, giving the viewer the impression that the fiction exists for his/her sake. When they make their grand entries into the fiction, it is not unusual for stars to wink, salute and directly address the camera, as if to reassure the audience that they will get their money’s worth.

Fan-devotee

In the 1990s, Chiranjeevi gave up on trying to balance his formula films with middle-brow “class films”. The commercial failure of these experiments apart, the reaction of his fans to them was far from positive. The star himself told an interviewer that screenings of his award-winning film Aapadbandhavudu (K. Viswanath, 1992) were stopped by fans who were unhappy with his role in the film. Looking back on his “class” film experience, he said half jokingly, “Even the man who pays three or four rupees [to watch a film] thinks he owns the star and has a right over him.”

What then do we make of the proclamations of the fan’s loyalty to his star? The film scholar Richard Dyer argues in his study of Hollywood stars that there is a complex interplay between “star-as-image” and “star-as-real-person”. Screen images are authenticated by drawing on the (often fabricated) biographical. In stardom’s “hall of mirrors” (Dyer’s phrase), it is virtually impossible to distinguish object and reflection/illusion. Closer home, M.S.S. Pandian’s classic study of MGR, titled The Image Trap (1992), traces the continuities between the on- and off-screen images of the star-politician. When we juxtapose the work and metaphors of Pandian and Dyer, what we get is a viewer who is trapped in the hall of mirrors. How then do we explain the difficulties stars routinely have with their fans? Looking at the image trap from the perspective offered by fan activities, it is possible to suggest that the fan is wilful in his insistence that the fiction is true. The game does not end with the creation of the image. The star has to live up to it. At issue here is not “belief” in any simple sense of the term. Every fan knows that Rajinikanth is not a youth with cool hair but a bald, old man and the film itself is only a work of fiction. But it is necessary for all stakeholders to remain faithful to the image, to maintain appearances. Because the appearance is what has drawn us to the star. The fan is so invested in the image that he feels entitled to be its guardian, ensuring that the star himself does not digress from it. So, there can be no screen death or experimental role, no smoking or drinking in public, no supporting candidates or political parties without prior approval, and so on. Devotion is donated conditionally, if and when the star lives up to the fan’s expectations. As K. Balagopal, human rights activist and commentator on Andhra Pradesh affairs, jokingly put it in an essay on NTR, populism often lands gods in trouble.

After the fan club

The street-corner fan club, which rarely impacted box-office collection even in the past, plays an increasingly marginal role in the new economies of film, which revolve around non-box-office-related revenues. There is precious little star-related branded merchandise in south India. In the good old days, fans enhanced the star’s prestige and stature. For his part the star anchored projects and became the reason why investments were made in them.

Today’s megastars do so few films that they neither keep the industry’s wheels moving nor feed their fans’ cinephilia. Cinema itself is morphing into an entity we do not yet fully understand, and film viewers are migrating from stand-alone theatres to multiplexes and also television, computer and cell-phone screens. Chances are that new interfaces will become pretexts for the onward journey of the reactive consumer even as fans’ associations stagnate or decline.

S.V. Srinivas is a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society and ICCR Visiting Professor of Indian Society and Culture at Georgetown University for 2012-13. He is the author of Megastar: Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N.T. Rama Rao (2009). His latest book on south Indian stardom, Politics as Performance: A Social History of Telugu Cinema , is published by Permanent Black.

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