Tamil cinema and its deep rooted ties with Tamil Nadu’s politics is a saga that began nearly a century ago.
In the 1900s, the Dravidian movement, Tamil Nadu’s progressive, anti-caste, anti-religion political revolution, was at its peak. Helmed by political leaders including Periyar and Annadurai, media — first plays and theatre, then cinema — was extensively used to garner and build a massive support base.
“The Dravidian movement replaced the caste system with atheism and used cinema as its medium of outreach. When atheism said no God, it never said no hero,” reads a snippet from ‘For The Love Of A Man’ — a documentary chronicling the lives of Indian superstar Rajinikanth’s fans.
While political leaders used cinema to propagate their ideologies, actors used public sentiment and portrayed themselves as the saviours of the poor to command large fan bases. Actor M.G. Ramachandran’s iconic song ‘Naan Aanaiyittal’ opens with ‘If what I declare happens, poor people will never be in pain. As long as I am alive, they will have no worries, they will not fall into a sea of tears.’ This cemented the actor’s image of ‘Puratchi Thalaivar’ or revolutionary leader. He went on to become the state’s chief minister for a decade between 1977 and 1987.
This tradition didn’t end with MGR. While younger and newer actors replaced older ones, what remained unchanged was how each of them came with a fan base that is rabidly dutiful to their heroes. The night before the release of an actor’s film, his fans typically mount a king size cutout of their hero, adorned with lights and garlands. They go on to pour gallons of milk over the cutout, a ritual usually reserved for idols of god. In some cases, fans also partake in kavadi attam for the success of their heroes.
Kavadi attam or the ‘burden dance’ at its extreme is a painstaking ritual where devotees pierce their bodies and tongues with sharp spears. Usually reserved for the Dravidian Hindu god Murugan, practicing this ritual for movie stars shows how deep their fans’ devotion goes. These hero loyalties take an uglier turn online. For years, actors Ajith and Vijay’s fans have had online and offline fights to prove that their hero is the better star. These “fights” turn into abusive trolling where the actors’ families and others from the film industry are targeted and harassed.
The milk and garlands, fan meetings and sometimes legal fees because of these “rifts” come at a huge cost but most fans are from oppressed caste and class backgrounds and often struggle financially. So, how do they afford these elaborate celebrations?
A scene from ‘For The Love Of A Man’ holds the answer. In an interview Mani, a peanut seller from Chennai, recalled how he mortgaged his wife’s jewelry for ₹60,000 to attend a fan event. He admitted that the money was his family’s savings over the years. Women in South Indian families usually save up in the form of gold and other jewellery so these can be mortgaged easily during emergencies and it is this same money Mani squandered in fan worship. Towards the end of the scene, one can meekly hear Mani say “Don’t tell her” referring to his wife.
This hero worship looks very similar to religious fanaticism.
In 2017, journalist Dhanya Rajendran was the target of an organized trolling campaign because she mentioned she had walked out of actor Vijay’s movie during the interval. She was then slut-shamed, received death and rape threats. In one outrageous incident that took place last year, a Rajini fan murdered a Vijay fan over a squabble on which hero donated more to a COVID-19 fund. This is only a glimpse of what happens in the world of these fans whose faithfulness to their hero — even when the same heroes barely notice them — makes them lose all sense of morality, responsibility and decency.
What is surprising here is the silence of these heroes which enables this public, brazen display of toxic masculinity. Despite having the power to hold their fans accountable, big stars often remain silent as their admirers use their heroes as an excuse to flaunt being abusive trolls. These actors also depend on their fan base to make their movies a ‘hit’ at the box office and maintain the image of a mass hero built off their fans.
This hero worship looks very similar to religious fanaticism. The Dravidian movement aimed to dispel obsessive worship of god, but instead, it only shifted this culture of all-consuming veneration to cinema actors. It can also be argued that the ingrained misogyny and abusive behaviour in these actors’ movies enable their fans to exhibit similar and worse behaviour in real life. As this hooliganism continues, it is time for actors to reflect on the effect of their popularity on young, impressionable people and use their power to demand better from their fans.