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.