All over the world, film stars, singers, sportspersons have fans, but the Indian fan is unique. And this is never more evident as when a Rajinikanth film is released. In the South, his fan associations go nuts with celebrations, to mark the release of a new film by ‘Thalaiva’—theatres are decorated, processions taken out, and astonishingly, many establishments declare a holiday! This would be unheard of in Hollywood—imagine Americans bunking work to watch a Brad Pitt film, or the latest superhero adventure. Southern fans are also prone to building temples to worship their favourite film idols, which is the height of fandom. When MGR and NTR died, fans reportedly immolated themselves in grief.
In South India, gigantic cutouts of film stars mar the Chennai skyline, and ridiculous rituals like bathing them with milk and offering garlands are par for the course. Rajinikanth does nothing to encourage or discourage this fan frenzy, he is a modest and very unstarry man, his only nod to vanity would, perhaps, be his (or his directors’ penchant) to be cast with younger and younger leading ladies.
A star in India gets unconditional adoration, even if he or she have done little to deserve it. They don’t necessarily have to be good-looking or particularly talented; they don’t have to do great films; they don’t even have to be nice people. Obsessive fandom, like blind love, is an inexplicable phenomenon.
In the West, this fandom takes on a negative hue, with stalkers harassing their favourite stars—mostly female. In the past, a Jodie Foster fan had attempted to assassinate the then US President, Ronald Reagan, but that was a one-off episode. Now there are stories of celebrities having their net accounts hacked and their personal photos stolen, or their sex tapes released, which is the dark and unpleasant side of fame.
In Mumbai, the one star who is rapidly reaching this high level of fan worship is Salman Khan, whom everyone calls “Bhai” and his admirers feel close to him, even if the nearest they have come to him is standing in a throng outside his apartment building. Rajesh Khanna in his heyday, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan also have fans waiting outside their bungalows to catch a glimpse of them, but only Salman Khan’s fans dress up in their new finery and queue up to see “Bhai’s” film as part of Id celebrations. Right now, he can do nothing wrong, and if he does, a stranger on the street will say with authority, “But Bhai has a heart of gold.” And a true fan believes he/she can never be wrong.