There is something unique about the all male-clubs that forms the brotherhood of Rajinikanth’s fandom. Last heard there were 55,000 clubs, apparently frozen as the man himself did not want to see any more of them being set up.
Amsterdam based Rinku Kalsy and Michigan based Joyojeet Pal came together to make the documentary For the Love of a Man, a five year long project that was released at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. It follows the lives of a select group of working class fans in Tamil Nadu who have mortgaged their home and sold the family gold and whose life revolves around the star. In this interview, Rinku Kalsy explains the mania and magic that forms this fraternity which is like none other and which is now obsessing over his latest film, Kabali.
What did you learn about Rajinikanth from your 2015 documentary film For the Love of a Man?
We learnt that Rajinkanth can do a lot for people just by being himself. For his fans, Rajinikanth has an aura such that they equate a great sense of well-being and self-fulfillment just with a glimpse of him, a picture with him, or in many cases even an experience of a dialogue or two from a film that they feel speaks to them directly. In this, the fans attribute an elevated persona to the star himself and what he can do.
How would you describe this phenomenon?
The phenomenon is part aspiration, part male-bonding, part frenzy. It is about aspiration because many of the fans are relatively poor and excluded from the story of development and wealth in the country. While of course there are fans from across social strata, fan clubs generally tend to be comprised of men from low or lower-middle class families. So for a lot of these men, the day that a major film releases is for instance the day that those fans themselves are in the spotlight in their respective neighbourhoods. So being in a fan club can be a means of social aspiration. In this the aspirational element is also seen in the way that people see Rajini as one of their own. Part of Rajini’s legend comes from the fact that he comes from humble origins, which in turn extends into his present-day simplicity — thus he comes across as the same simple man who did not change from being an ordinary citizen (like his fans) even as he has aged. Arguably he would not have the same larger-than-life persona had he been from a film family, or a wealthy background.
Secondly the phenomenon is about brotherhood. Fan clubs provide a kind of organization that people can be part of. Whether or not you feel a certain way about Rajinikanth himself, being in the fan club means not just the brotherhood on the day of a film release, but more consistently a group of people to be part of in general. Fans are sometimes those key people in a village or a neighborhood who can get things done, especially in rural areas or small towns where other forms of organization may not exist – the fan club can become the de-facto locus of power.
Finally, the issue of frenzy is basically about the party atmosphere that one is in during a film release. Here, you have the very natural reaction of becoming part of the party once you are thrown into it. Screaming and celebrating during a Rajini film is now part of the ritual of watching a Rajini film, so people go for the film for that experience, even if they are not fans themselves.
Why does an ageing superstar command this kind of fan adulation that appropriates Hindu rituals of worship (oblations of his posters with milk, aarti, floral showers, body piercings) in a state which at one time politically marched towards atheism?
There are two parts to this question, let me take them separately. Rajinikanth’s ageing is part of the paradox of fandom – on one hand, he is ageless, because he looks on screen like he did 40 years ago. In that he is perhaps an ultimate sign of everlasting masculinity. However, on the other hand, his open embracing of his ageing also becomes part of his legend because he comes out openly looking like an aged actor. In real life he does not wear a wig or attempt to dye his hair, which is very common among stars trying to maintain an image of youth. So when Rajini comes out openly looking like himself, he strengthens the aura around himself because he comes across as not trying to, or interested in maintaining an illusion of stardom.
On the issue of Hindu rituals, you probably need to look back to the origins of the fan movement. Even in the early days of DMK’s propagation of atheism as part of their political vision, film stars started to replace Gods as a focal point of devotion. There is a history of stars being treated like Gods right from MGR’s time. The rituals are simply part of that adulation. When we spoke to fans in the film, they said simply that people will do these rituals in a range of life situations such as when one has some troubles, or wants to thank God for something good. So the fan may see it as no different for doing some penance to pray for a good outcome from a life situation such as passing an exam and then perhaps doing the same thing by praying for a film’s success. One fan for instance said that people have not seen any image of God, so God is whatever one decides to make of the image – and for him that God was Rajinkanth.
Is Rajini a bigger star because of his fans or because of his super star status bestowed by his acting abilities?
Fans have a big role in his stardom. If you see the average Rajinikanth film today, it cannot just have any script. The script has to be attuned to Rajini’s image, and this is because of the fans. They cannot accept a film that does not show Rajini in the way they want him to be seen. So in every film, he plays a larger than life character. This is perhaps not very different from a Salman Khan film – those also always show Salman as a superhero. The point is, the fans themselves will go several times to see a film when it releases, so even that itself has a very large revenue value.
Of course you can say that it would not be true had he not established himself as a competent actor and succeeded in a very competitive film industry.