Obsessed Rajnikanth fans get their own cinematic tribute
The scene is in a theatre in Chennai. The lights go off and the screen flickers. The first images appear on screen, and the crowd goes nuts — jumping in their seats, screaming incoherently. There is pandemonium, and the movie hasn’t even started.
The object of this frenzy is a 62-year-old, balding man, known to his legion of fans as Anbu Thalaivar (beloved leader) — Rajnikanth, aka Shivajirao Gaikwad, a former bus conductor who is arguably India’s biggest film star.
People who don’t know Indian cinema beyond the concept of Bollywood are unlikely to know who Rajnikanth is. He is by far the brightest star in a constellation of actors in the many centres of regional-language films in India. West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Assam and Punjab are among the Indian states that feature a rich historical and contemporary cinema, usually in their people’s local languages, especially for the benefit of the millions of Indians who speak little or no Hindi.
These local film industries often are financially successful in their own right, with many stars in these markets taking a shot at Bollywood success where the big time means covering the whole country. Rajnikanth has acted in some Bollywood films, but is among the few to have achieved country-wide stardom in the southern Indian languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
A new documentary film depicts the millions of die-hard Rajnikanth fans who take their fandom to a level that seems to defy logic. “For the love of a man“, which is likely to release next year, chronicles the passion of these seemingly ordinary, lower-middle-class men who sell property to fund fan clubs, hold prayer meetings for the success of the actor’s films, and even look for wives based on whether they are Rajnikanth fans.
Amsterdam-based filmmaker Rinku Kalsy followed these fans for nearly three years to understand their obsession with Rajnikanth.
“For them, Rajni is God. There is no other explanation,” Kalsy told Reuters in a telephone interview from Amsterdam.
She was struck with the idea of making a film about Rajnikanth fan clubs because of a story that her childhood friend, Joyjeet Pal, a professor of information studies in Michigan, told her.
Pal, who also produced the film, was working in Tamil Nadu state on a research project on the usage of computers in schools.
“Whenever he asked children about computers, wherever he went in Tamil Nadu, they would talk about the laptop in Rajnikanth’s film, ‘Sivaji‘. They kept saying that they wanted to be computer engineers because in the movie, Rajnikanth was a computer engineer,” Kalsy said.
She said the idea that one person could have such an impact spurred her to fly to Chennai — where Rajnikanth and several of his fan clubs are based — in October 2010, in time for the release of his film “Enthiran”.
The actor, who still romances women more than half his age in his films, and is the country’s highest paid film-star, has made a career of playing the everyman. His characters are virtuous, and at times, fight the system.
Rajnikanth’s mannerisms, especially his style of flicking his sunglasses, have been imitated several times by many Bollywood stars. Earlier this year, Shah Rukh Khan, who is Bollywood’s biggest star, paid tribute to the “Thalaivar” in his film “Chennai Express”.
His fans, especially the older generation, belong to lower-middle-class families, typically live in slums, and barely eke out a living. But when it comes to their “Thalaivar”, they stop at nothing.
Kalsy said she met fans who sold family jewellery and property to fund their fan clubs. Whenever a film releases, or on Rajnikanth’s birthday, they organize blood donation camps, provide assistance to poor widows or distribute food to the poor.
“It’s all social service, and done in the name of Thalaivar. They stick by one another. And for many of them, who don’t come from a great economic background, it is about status in the society, that they are a certified Rajni fan. One man even told me that his only criterion while getting his daughter married was that the boy be a fan of Rajnikanth. How much he earned, and what his background was didn’t matter,” said Kalsy.
The filmmaker, who grew up in Mumbai, on a “healthy dose of Bollywood and Bollywood stars” said this kind of obsession was unseen. “I’ve heard of people travelling miles to meet Bollywood stars. But this transcends all that.”
In 2011, Rajnikanth fell seriously ill. He was hospitalised in Singapore and news updates on his health was sketchy at best. Ravi Anna, the president of one of the oldest fans clubs in Tamil Nadu, became incoherent, stopped eating and fell ill himself. The club pooled its money and sent his brother Murugan to Singapore, so that he could give them updates.
Murugan, who doesn’t know how to read or write, went to Singapore, stood outside the hospital every day, and sent his brother photos from there.
“When our mother died, the pain was there till the time we cremated her. But when Thalaivar was in hospital we had fear and pain for all 60 days. It was no ordinary pain,” Murugan is shown as saying in the documentary.