Fan (v): Increase the strength of (a fire) by blowing on it or stirring up the air near it.
Of all the definitions to the word “fan”, this one seems closest to explaining the actions of masses that worship/adore/defend a superstar/megastar in Indian cinema.
Cases in point: a) An AIR employee was taken to task by Mohanlal fans for writing a satirical review of Pulimurugan, prompting her to take down her post. The same happened to a journalist working in The Hindu for writing a negative review, and not surprisingly, for the same film; b) Wannabe celeb KRK and director Ram Gopal Varma were attacked by superstar and megastar fans with the choicest of expletives for making fun of them; c) (And this is just in general but,)If there is no other traction on social media, Mammootty and Mohanlal fans fill their time by abusing each other.
Social media has unleashed a disturbing and dangerous set of superstar fan clubs in India. These faceless warriors and self-anointed saviours of the matinee idols have conditioned themselves to think like their onscreen heroes—as preachers and misogynists. Most of them are young, impressionable and in their teens or early 20s. Two factors prompt them to be so daring—anonymity and mob mentality. And the stars in turn nurture this unprecedented fiefdom—they pay scads to keep them in good humour and probably to keep the bad press away. It’s a win-win situation for them. We focus on two of our bona fide ‘superstar’ actors, their fan clubs and their social media presence. Also, the pressing question, why not a fan club for actresses in Malayalam cinema? And are these actors accountable for their fans’ behaviour? Should they take a stand?
Mohanlal and Mammootty—the startlingly contrasting appeals
In Malayalam cinema, probably no two actors can command a fan following like that of Mammootty or Mohanlal. It’s a tradition that began decades ago—every household boasted of a Lal or a Mammootty follower. Fan clubs sprouted—with or without their patronage.
It’s also interesting to note the difference in fandoms between the Superstar and Megastar. There are theories that says the actors are worshipped on the following specifics 1) talent 2) geography 3) appeal/looks and 4) chaste.
They are compared to Sri Rama and Sri Krishna by fans. That’s what prompts a Mammootty fan to smirk at a photo of Lal’s son posing with a girl and remark— “Ah the typical son of a typical father.” Or Lal fans to brand Mammootty as stiff, rigid and arrogant as opposed to their genteel superstar. “Verbal abuse is a sign of unhealthy "fanism" and it will affect (has been affecting) movies adversely”, says Yamini, media consultant.
In all fairness, the average Malayali with his acerbic sense of humour and an unwillingness to accept and appreciate talent wholeheartedly has probably accepted Mohanlal without much of a litmus test, while Mammootty had to weather a lot of storms to reach the top. “A Mammootty fan can take a joke on the actor a lot better than a Mohanlal fan can ever take a joke on their idol. One reason might be that during their heydays Lal had a clear advantage over Mammootty when it came to dance and fighting skills. That has made them more conditioned to accepting their actor with flaws. That makes them more self-effacing than a Lal fan,” says Sreehari Nair, film critic.
During the release of Harikrishnans, the director shot two climax scenes—between Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam, Mohanlal won the girl and for rest of Kerala, Mammootty did the honours. “The wide implication being that Mohanlal held the predominantly Hindu region while Mammootty occupied the Muslim stronghold. It was a bizarre move and surprisingly the actors raised no protest,” recalls Nikhil K, a blogger.
They zealously guard their star’s box-office records. If you ask a Mohanlal fan, there's no way the Pulimurugan gross collection can be bettered by any Mammootty film either in the past or the future. When the producers of The Great Father announced on social media that it became the fastest 20 crore grossing film in the history of Malayalam cinema, Lal fans pooh-poohed the claims. There are limitless genuine and fake fan pages, not to forget distasteful ones like Troll Mammummi and Troll Lalappan which make a living out of maligning these actors. Even some of the movie groups on Facebook end up as star fans' troll spaces. That leaves a bad taste for a movie buff who takes their cinema seriously.
Between healthy and unhealthy fans
Worldover we have witnessed fans who take their obsessions too far: stalking (Selena Gomez), tattooing their name to the extent of harming someone (Monica Seles). But then there are fans whose actions are harmless, self-gratifying and like in certain fan associations, indulge in charity. There are fan clubs who provide free food and clothes to orphanages and old age homes, distribute school text books to poor children. That’s the healthiest outlet to show your love. Technically, fandom is in the service of someone else’s creativity rather than one’s own. So, when we are investing in their life more than ours, we are also in a way getting away from our core responsibilities. “When it goes beyond idle interest, then there is a problem. It’s a form of escapism. We are living vicariously through their onscreen characters as we identity with them. But when fans worry more about straightening out their idols life than their own, you know it’s a serious problem. Fandom is unsatisfying. It doesn’t return something specific to the individual,” says Chennai-based para-psychologist Thomas Mathew. It’s often the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves that prompts us to be a fan.
Rohit KP, a law student and a die-hard Mammootty fan equates the joy of watching his favourite actor performing on screen to a devotee worshipping his favourite God. “When I was in my teens, I would get angry if someone abused Mammukka, so much so that I wouldn’t rest till I gave him a piece of my mind. But now with age, it doesn’t bother me as I realise that such criticism doesn’t really pull down his worth”.
He does watch a lot of Mohanlal films too and admits that during the zenith of his Mammootty fandom, he would watch his films just to nitpick. He thinks while a Valyettan might be a mass film for him it need not be the case with a Mohanlal fan, and vice versa, say for a Ravanaprabhu.
“It works the same way religion works in India—it’s bizarre, unreasonable and illogical but it’s an act of faith. Another thing is that lot of young fans sort of channelise their energy by these methods and hope that it might give out a warning of sorts—my ikka, ettan is off limits.”
Short filmmaker Vishnu Udayan is as fascinated by Mohanlal’s Osho theories as his acting. The 23-year-old still gets upset when someone makes a body shaming remark about Lalettan. “I don't reply to any negative comments. But there are times when we are provoked into responding. Any healthy criticism is welcome.”
Male and female actors and onscreen images
Down South the fan-giri isn’t always associated with talent as much with a certain onscreen image. Rajinikanth is the most worshipped screen idol in India—his fans bathe his posters in milk, burst crackers, distribute sweets and take a day off from work on the day of his film’s release. This is one area his rival Kamal Haasan can never compete with, despite being a three-time National award winner and being in the marquee around the same time.
In Tamil Nadu, the biggest contradiction is between the worship of male and female actors. While they reserve extra affection to those who make it from nothing—Rajinikanth, Dhanush (dark, frail and relatable), they take an instant liking to fair-skinned actresses, even better if they are Mumbai imports. That’s one reason why actresses balk from experimenting because they are petrified of losing out on fans if they do any role that may be considered out-of-the-box (for instance, a sex worker, feminist or a character with grey shades). Khushboo had a temple built in her name. Simran took over from her for a while. Now the mantle has been passed on to Nayanthara, who enjoys an enviable paycheck and a steady fanbase. But even then, they come with a sell-by date unlike any of their male counterparts.
Women also make for soft targets on social media. The predominantly male fans are aware that a few profanities and personal comments can immediately make them defenseless. Thankfully, many women are no more taking these insults lying down.
The reason why Vijay (who enjoys a humongous fan following) refuses to experiment can be this fear of disappointing his dedicated following. Ajith who commands a salary as much as Vijay, has been in this larger-than-life mode for a while now. “If they don’t experiment, take risks, refuse to get beaten or play villain, refuse to get killed in the end or say sorry to a woman or cry, their fans will continue to worship them with this sense of machismo that also converts to such intolerance and sexism,” maintains Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, journalist.
In total contrast, Malayalis have always welcomed, encouraged their actors to push the envelope, think out of the box. Every time they fell back to mediocrity, they have been reprimanded.
Malayalam cinema that boasts of some of the finest actresses, never saw the kind of maddening fan frenzy or fan clubs for a Shobana or Urvashi or Manju Warrier. While even actors like Asif Ali and Jayasurya have dedicated fan clubs. But Ritwik R, who has reported extensively on Malayalam cinema, has another theory about this—“There have been only two bona fide stars—Mammootty and Mohanlal. Their fan clubs came up organically. While the rest of the actors have had paid fan clubs. The actresses never bothered to do that. Only Vani Vishwanath had one. It’s as simple as that.”
The sensible new generation
The new legion of actors - Dulquer Salmaan, Nivin Pauly and Fahadh Faasil - enjoy a more eclectic fan following. Their fans don’t come with the baggage of mindless stardom, the ones who are more tolerant to healthy criticism. Probably because their stardom unlike their ageing predecessors is still in the nascent stage. Dulquer, Nivin and Fahadh have more fans outside Kerala and their fans comprise of the educated, urban, discerning youth who take cinema very seriously. Another aspect is the kind of roles, they have done - grounded, relatable, stripped of the flamboyant alpha male heroism. There is a Fahadh Faasil who tells you to love his character and not him. He is one of the few actors who has publicly discouraged fan clubs— “Let them study now”.
Where do you draw the line?
It’s interesting to note that neither Mammootty nor Mohanlal have ever come out with a statement against the fan abuse that’s been occurring in their name. Should they take a stand? “Yes, because their silence is interpreted as consent, by the fans and the public,” says filmmaker Geethika Sudip. This is echoed by journalist Radhakrishnan, who says that since fan clubs are run, funded and patronised by the stars themselves, they should be held accountable. Till then battle lines will be drawn. In bold.
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