Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fans do not make a following

Source: The Hindu

Photo: M. Periasamy

Spontaneous expression: At a theatre showing “Sivaji”.

A week of cathartic images; fans going delirious, jostling queues, offerings of milk and flowers, NRIs soaking in the fun — the scenes of the first day first show of the film “Sivaji” crammed our television sets. While cameras panne d and mobbed the crowds in Chennai theatres, it remained ignorant of places where there were hardly any such celebrations. A huge billboard of Rajini in front of the Casino theatre in Chennai was the only sign of “Sivaji” being screened there. Otherwise there was hardly any fanfare and certainly no milk was flowing. Casino screened the Telugu version of the film and understandably did not have many takers. It looks that image, even if it is that of Rajini, is still not free from the word. Fans were, after all, not so blind as the television commentators made them out to be. Even if it amounts to two weeks of waiting, they would rather wait than watch a Telugu-speaking Rajini.

Simplistic notions

In one of the television shows, a young film critic from Mumbai simply shrugged his shoulders and declared that the catharsis as seen is nothing new to Tamil films or fans. His casual comments simplistically connected films, fans and politics. Names from Annadurai to Jayalalithaa were thrown in the rings of discussion. The subtext of the conversation was that the film crazy South cannot distinguish fantasy from real life. Things often blur and at times reach the irrational, they said. As the conversations continued, images of people pouring milk and jumping around Rajini’s images were juxtaposed.

For, those who are familiar with Tamil politics and film history would know that one of the biggest flops in politics was Shivaji Ganesan, the thespian. His fan following and box office performances matched that of M.G. Ramachandran, but none of those could be converted to votes. The political party he started quickly folded up. Annadurai, who many think is the architect of the film-politics coalition, lost his second election in Kancheepuram. Not all of MGR’s films did well at the box office. There were a considerable number of flops. Rajinikanth himself had to eat humble pie when he urged voters to vote against a particular party. Fans did not listen to him. Jayalalithaa’s ascent in the party was not instantaneous. Her stint as parliamentarian and propaganda secretary cannot be overlooked. She was also not the immediate successor of MGR. Vijayakanth is still toiling. Sarathkumar, another popular actor, lost elections in Tirunelveli. S.V. Sekhar, a comedian, lost as an independent and BJP candidate but was elected as a member of the Assembly only after he joined AIADMK. He was elected from Mylapore constituency, which many think is a Brahmin stronghold. It was not enough to be an actor, the kind of politics one was part of was more important.

Nature of public spaces

Revelry in theatres is about cultural practices in public spaces. Theatre is not a closed space of performance where one restrains till the end and stands politely and applauds. The audience, be it a vocal performance or a film screening, burst out in appreciation even in the middle of the show as it happens. To express in a spontaneous manner, unbound by the unwritten codes is rather common in popular cultural practices. What was hitherto immanent to people who enjoy the performance has now been showcased as the urban ethnic by television. The ceaseless quest to pick and produce peculiar images masquerades as a discovery of urban culture. The downward gaze conveniently separates the gaiety as an image for circulation while the moorings are overlooked.

Comfortable co-existence

Nothing could be more revealing than the image of the bald and un-shaven Rajini overlapping with the fair and lovely poster picture of him. The fans are comfortable with Rajini as he actually is as well as with the made-up hero screened in the film. The image is not all that overwhelming. They are not suspicious of the image nor consider it manipulative. The fantasy conveniently coexists with the real and the ability to discern and differentiate never vanishes. Suspicion about cinema is age-old and it has always struggled to achieve the status of legitimate spectacle and source of pleasure. When “Sivaji” fans are having simple fun and inventing the theatre space as their own, it can be left to remain just that.

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