NO butter or flavoured salt to sprinkle over the popcorn. The cream doughnuts were certainly nowhere in sight. Yet, for a brief period last Sunday evening, the first floor of a South Delhi mall transformed into the famous Sathyam Cinemas of Chennai. I had shown up early for Mersal starring actor Vijay, fondly referred to as “Vijay sir” by me and “Joseph Vijay” by the BJP, and desperately looked for a cutout of him I could pose with to add to my collection.
For instance, I have a lovely picture from 2014, when I stood next to a cardboard version of the actor before a 7.15 am show of Kaththi in which Comrade Vijay illustrates the tenets of communism using an idli. Full disclosure, I am a fan. But there was no cutout of Vijay in South Delhi so I leaned against the postered wall and admired the familiar sights of home: A family squeezed themselves onto the cushioned seat outside Screen 3 and chirped happily in Tamil; hipster Tamils took selfies through the reflection of a mirror, and a veshti-clad (dhoti) uncle declared he needed to pee.
I have lived in Delhi on and off since 2012 and I have more or less watched every Tamil movie that passes by a South Delhi screen. My dutifully showing up to watch Mersal had little to do with the controversy around it and more to do with the love for movies that I have grown up watching. And, specifically, my love for Vijay sir. Yet it was only two years ago that I really learnt what it meant to truly love a Tamil filmstar from a woman named Eswari who I met on a sweltering day under a traffic light in Chennai’s T. Nagar.
We were both there to gawk at filmstars. Eswari had woken up early that morning to get decked up. She had applied a thin layer of turmeric paste on her face and had decorated her long braid with jasmine flowers. Much of this was in anticipation of making eye contact with Sivaji Ganesan’s son, the actor Prabhu. In fact, throughout our conversation, she referred to Prabhu as her man, as she cradled her one-year-old grandchild in her arms. “Happa, naan en aale pathittein (Sigh, I have seen my man!)”, she squealed.
Unlike Eswari, I have never met or even seen Vijay except on-screen. Once, I made a friend recollect in great detail a one-line story of his morning workout till he was exasperated. “Vijay was wearing a hoodie and he ran past me,” my friend said. “Then what happened?” “No, nothing.” “But surely he must have said or done something?” “No, he just ran past me!”
Predictably, this past week has been stressful as his fan but amusing as a South Indian. A few months ago, I interviewed fans of Rajinikanth to understand if they would have his back if he chose to enter politics. I discovered that the answer depended on how young or old his fans were. Rajini had made grand statements, this was followed by Kamal Haasan who met Arvind Kejriwal. Mersal was in keeping with a row of Tamil actors who have repeatedly hinted over years that they have political aspirations.
In that South Delhi cinema hall, I was intrigued and confused by Vijay’s latest flick — the film’s references to MGR (often in a poster in the background), the good vs evil premise, Vijay’s comment on nearly everything, including GST and climate change, and a song that said in no uncertain terms that “a Tamil will rule”. “We fall in love with actors in two-hour increments over and over again,” a wise person on Quora once said. I did too, over several years and so it seemed all the others with me in the cinema hall.
But whether they will show up to a polling booth to vote for an actor who promises better medical care on screen remains to be seen. For now, Tamils gleefully take part in the exercise of waiting eagerly for the two scenes that have irked the BJP the most, mouthing the dialogues, and cheering the hardest.