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In the Name of My Hero

Fandom and its changing nature in Chennai

Published: September 22, 2013 5:27:21 am

Fandom and its changing nature in Chennai

The year was 1984 and India was in tumult. But Tamil Nadu’s aggravation was peculiar. Its beloved chief minister and movie star,MG Ramachandran,suffered a stroke on October 5 and had to be hospitalised in New York. His fandom,however,ensured that he led his party to victory in the assembly elections. Three years later,MGR,the biggest star in the history of Tamil cinema,died,leaving legions of fans flailing. One fan had built him a temple; a hundred others set themselves on fire. MGR and his phenomenal fan club had spawned a culture of hero worship and fanaticism that many Tamil actors would mine in the decades to come,stoking their egos,fuelling their films at the box office,and occasionally,gathering political momentum.

Today,smaller stars,fewer films and changes in the socio-cultural milieu have served to divest the rasigar mandram (fan club) of its chief function — idolatry and theatre-mobbing. Tamil heroes are no longer larger than life,no more than their fan clubs are. As fans await an actor’s next release,which could be a year away,they fill the void with welfare activities,organising medical camps and raising funds. “Fan clubs are losing their relevance,” says A Stephen,a film educationist and researcher based in Dindigul,Tamil Nadu,who studied them for his doctoral thesis. One reason,he says,is the shrinking number of theatres. “Tamil Nadu had 4,000 theatres,but now the number stands at just over 1,000,” he says. Where theatres were temples of celebration — male fans would congregate,perform paal abhishegam (libation of milk) on the actor’s cutout,burst crackers and break into loud song-and-dance — today’s multiplexes are not conducive to these rituals. “It costs more to be a fan now. Tickets for Rajinikanth’s Endhiran,for instance,sold for up to Rs 1,000,” he says.

At the office of the ‘Chiyaan’ Vikram fans “welfare” club in T-Nagar — the role of Chiyaan in the 1998 film Sethu first won him critical acclaim — fans say they will pay any price and wait for any length of time for his next film,director Shankar’s I. But there are moments when the weariness slips through. “We won’t feel like celebrating any festival until the release. The day sir’s film releases,we will wear new clothes,go to the temple and cover the city with banners,” says Satish Kumar,an engineer who counts himself among the five lakh-plus registered fans of Vikram.

Even as the city corporation is busy tearing down film posters from Chennai streets — they can only be put up three-to-four days ahead of release — the walls of the fan club office are a montage of Vikram’s photographs,photocopies of his awards and flattering portraits sketched by fans. Women are conspicuously absent from the script here. “It is the action hero who is respected and has fans,” says S Lokesh,a 23-year-old sales coordinator at a private firm who moonlights as a fitness instructor. Vikram’s focus on the physical form inspired him to join a gym.

For other fans,the transformation runs deeper. MKP Ramesh,in charge of the north Chennai division of the club,was a drunk. “I used to beat people up. After I joined the club,Vikram sir made me join a rehabilitation facility,” he says. “He visits me every now and then without warning.” Ramesh runs a waste paper segregation business and is married.

The irrevocable power of films to colour the minds of the audience is the silver lining in a declining industry. “Completing 100 days at the box office is a rare feat now. Many films which stay on that long don’t have a star cast. Take Kumki or the recent Kedi Billa Killadi Ranga,” says ‘Film News’ Anandan,a film historian and veteran journalist. “Fans cannot ensure the success of a film anymore,” he says. Nor can they guarantee political progress. Actor Vijayakanth,who floated the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and went to the polls riding on his enormous fan base,is a long way from earning the title of “the dark MGR” that he so covets.

Ilaya Thalapathi (the junior commander,named after Thalapathi Rajinikanth) Vijay,too,expects to join politics when the time comes. His fan club is headquartered at his parents’ old house in Virugambakkam,not far from the oldest studios in Chennai. But it is empty most of the time. Says R Ravi Raja,secretary of the all-India welfare association of Vijay fans,“Most fans have jobs. They help out with club activities in their free time.” The association encompasses 63,000 fan clubs across India and over 16 lakh fans — arguably the largest following any Tamil actor after Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth has had.

“Fan clubs are like headaches,anyone can have one,” says KV Damu,an auto driver from Velachery who will soon assume the post of district head of the association. “But we are not fans bred on money. We generate our own funds.” For Damu and others like him,holding a post at the fan club is a social marker. Vijay is more than a hero to them; he is a leader. “He looks and talks like one of us. For this,we will follow him everywhere,” says G Shanmugam,a civil engineer from Ambattur. Vijay’s fans may well be the last of the romantics,still sacrificing goats,chopping off fingers and even giving up their lives for his cause. When his latest film,Thalaivaa,ran into trouble in Tamil Nadu,the fans were restless,but abided by the star’s request to desist from protesting.

Fans today are locked in a false relation with their idols,says G Ravindran,head of the department of journalism and communication at the University of Madras. As stars get picky about roles and take a longer time to complete projects,the disconnect between them and their fans grows. Says K Hariharan,director at the LV Prasad Film and TV Academy in Chennai,“Actors must make films regularly to merit a loyal following. Between 1976 and 1986,Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth each acted in 120 films.” Today,stars do a film a year at most.

The pressure to pander to hero-worshippers is what prompted Kamal Hassan to turn his fan club into a social welfare association back in the Eighties. Others have since followed suit. Ajith ordered his fan clubs to disband in 2011,ahead of the release of his film Mankatha. The deconstruction of heroism is evident in a section of the Tamil film industry that now makes independent films inspired by global cinema,and yet,Madras cinema,an aesthetic set by Mani Ratnam where the packaging of the story is more important that the story itself,continues to look to the stars,says Hariharan. Because audiences always need their deities.

by V Shoba

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