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Of Superstars & Demi-Gods

Being a South superstar comes with perks like no other… spontaneous fan clubs, a stupendous fan following and unquestioning loyalty. It also means growing a social conscience as Padma Iyer discovers

First Day First Show. Early morning shows. Drums and firecrackers. Milk abhishekams. Whistles and aartis. Coins tossed in the air. These are some of the scenes you witness during the release of the movies of some of the biggest actors in Tamil cinema. Fans of Tamil actors are not just fans, they are rasigars, they are devotees. They are staunch loyalists to their thalaivar. Their star is their leader; his words, their motto in life. And this frenzy is not restricted to the youth or college students. It cuts across age, class, caste and profession. Nothing else matters when you are a fan.

What sets apart the fans of South Indian stars, especially Tamil stars, is how organised the whole set-up is. They don’t just share their idol’s pictures and videos on social media or follow them on digital platforms; regardless of whether the star is on social media or not, regardless of whether he acknowledges their love or not, they remain doggedly devoted to him and his films.

Most actors have a district-wise set-up, so all the 32 districts of Tamil Nadu have some form of representation in the fan club world. The numbers per district and per city vary, but no matter what the numbers, it is an organised effort. Over time, and with an increase in the use of social media, some fan clubs use their online presence to spread the word about their star, his films and his social service activities.

The biggest actor with the biggest fan base today is undoubtedly superstar Rajinikanth. Take a look at these numbers. Rajinikanth has five million followers on Twitter. It’s not a huge number compared to his Bollywood counterparts. But every post the actor puts out gets 10-15,000 to over 70,000 ‘likes’. And with the release of his movie 2.0 round the corner, the craze around the star is at its peak!

At one point, the actor had 50,000 registered fan clubs. Today, they have all been converted into public forums. The All India Rajinikanth Fans Association has been renamed the Rajini Makkal Mandram. This change is in tune with the actor’s entry into politics. Again, this decision has been influenced by the fans, who had for long wanted their superstar to enter the political fray.

But the credit for organising movie star fans and using their energy for society at large goes to Ulaganayagan Kamal Haasan. He was the first actor who converted his fan clubs into welfare organisations known as Kamal Haasan Narpani Iyakkam. And his fans have always been involved in a wide variety of social causes and activities.

We spoke to CK Murugan from the Chennai wing of the Kamal Haasan Narpani Iyakkam. On working with Haasan, Murugan says, “Kamal sir is actively involved with the club. He meets us every year during his birthday and talks to us about being useful to society by doing welfare activities. He is very concerned about the enrichment of the society.”

When their leader is so committed to the welfare of society, naturally his fans will follow suit. Murugan adds, “We take part in social activities like helping students with their education, helping women start businesses, blood donation camps and organ pledging camps. We also sponsor medicines for an entire year for those in need. During Kamal sir’s birthday, we regularly go to orphanages and spend time there and provide food for the entire day.”

With such an organised set-up, one might assume that the fans and their clubs may have some film industry connections. Not true. Most members of the iyakkam usually have no direct connections in the cine industry but that does not stop them from spreading the word about their favourite movie stars. “We do our part through social media promotions and by setting up banners, posters across the city. Fans are the super power hence they strongly influence the business of a film with a big opening and to make a box office impression,” says Murugan.

Another important issue that continues to plague the Tamil film industry is piracy. “On our part, we don’t watch any films via mobile, CD or other any other medium that involves piracy. Films should have DTH, subscribed channel releases or through online platforms to avoid piracy,” says Murugan.

With changing times, come new stars. While Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan continue to have a huge fan base, the 1990s saw the arrival of Vijay, Ajith, Suriya and Vikram. And these four actors continue to have a very strong hold over the Tamil box office. Over the years, these actors have managed to influence and trend at the box office of neighbouring states as well. Vijay is a huge star in Kerala, while Suriya has an impressive following among the Telugu audience.

Thalapathy Vijay is not seen a lot in public but he never disappoints his fans. All his speeches at events and awards functions are dedicated to his fans. The actor, though not very active on Twitter, has 1.84 million followers. But his fans more than compensate for his subdued presence with their digital footprints. The measure of the actor’s craze can be gauged by just this single piece of information. His recent film Sarkar met with some opposition from the state government after its release. But his fans rallied behind him so much so that they took to social media to support the film and their Thalapathy.

Ajith is another actor who despite not being present on social media and not making any public appearances even to promote his movies, enjoys the adulation of his fans. The actor has never encouraged or supported fan clubs, but that has not stopped his admirers from getting together and making every film release of Ajith’s a celebration. Thala, as he is fondly referred to, has over 25 Twitter handles and over 100 Facebook pages dedicated to him.

Chiyaan Vikram has seen a lot of ups and downs in his career but the actor has never let failure drag him down, nor has he let successes affect the choice of films he does. For someone who has been in the film industry since 1990, it was not until 1999 that actor finally got fame when he did the film Sethu. The film showcased his acting skills and, from then on, every film he has done was an acting spectacle. The extreme physical transformations that he undertakes for his characters have become the highlight of his films. Unlike his counterparts, Vikram uses the visual medium of Instagram to connect with his fans. He has over eight lakh followers.

Suriya, who started off working with Vijay, went on to make a name as an actor who did different films and different roles. From playing a mainstream, commercial hero to physically transforming himself to play a hunchback, an elderly man or an ascetic, Suriya has given his fans several reasons to celebrate his films and his roles. Also, his charitable work in the field of education has won him several admirers. The actor has over 70 registered clubs that operate under the Suriya Rasigar Mandram, the official Suriya fan clubs association.

While talking to Sundar, who is part of Suriya’s fan club, we got some interesting insights. “I became associated with the club about three years ago. It was Suriya anna’s work and his films that attracted me. The fan clubs are present in every district in Tamil Nadu. We have the full support of Suriya sir and we follow his diktat. He is very active in the field of education and we too do a lot of work in that field. Recently, we worked for relief efforts during the Kerala floods. He donated `25 lakh for the relief work and we did as much as we could.”

As fans, there are always some expectations from their favourite star. When asked about that, Sundar had a very simple answer, “We just want to take a picture with Suriya anna. That is all we wish for. We will do anything for him.” So, does Suriya find the time to meet his fans? How does he interact with them? “He sends his thoughts through the office bearers of the various clubs. Of course, whenever we feel like meeting him, we arrange an event for him, we invite him and he obliges,” he adds.

While talking about piracy, Sundar says, “We do whatever we can to stop it. If we come across a website that is streaming movies illegally or anyone selling pirated VCDs and DVDs, we bring it to the attention of the authorities. But then efforts have to be taken from the industry itself. This is not something that cannot be stopped. If severe steps are taken, this can be definitely curbed and even eliminated. If this is done, there will be more people going to theatres and this in turn will benefit the industry.”

Another actor who boasts an enviable fan following is Silambarasan aka STR aka Simbu. He is not just an actor, but a singer, a music composer and a lyricist. He is also one of the most controversial stars in the industry. He always wears his heart out on his sleeve and that has been one of the main reasons for the loyalty and love of his fans. Though the actor is no longer on any social media platforms, his fans ensure that he and his films are trend-setters digitally.

One such fan of the actor is Praveen Kanna. For the past ten years, Praveen and his friends have been maintaining social media pages of STR. “There has never been any financial gain in doing this. We are fans of Simbu and that is the only reason we do it. This is an official set-up and we interact with the star through his close aide Hariharan Naidu. There are around 2,000 fans clubs for Simbu, with around 40-odd that have been added recently.”

Like his counterparts, Simbu has been involved in social welfare activities and his fans follow in his footsteps. Praveen says, “We do a lot of social work but we do not use Simbu’s name as we have been instructed to do the work anonymously. I have been part of his fan base for a decade. There are two teams – the fan clubs that manage the ground work and the online team which handles the digital part. I am a lecturer in an engineering college and my only focus is to spread the work and word of our hero.”

Since Praveen is part of the digital team, it was natural to quiz him about film piracy. “There is a copyrights media team that handles all issues regarding piracy. We support this team by giving updates about any links and download sites that have pirated content. And we do this only not just for Simbu’s films but for all Tamil films. Of late, since songs are released on secure streaming platforms like Saavn and Gaana, piracy of film songs has declined. There is a better check on illegal streaming and downloads. This should extend to the movie business as well, especially by producers,” says Praveen.

When one talks of Simbu, how can one not mention Dhanush? Like Simbu, Dhanush too comes from a film background and is multi-talented. He is not just an actor, but a lyricist, music director, singer, director and a producer as well. He also has a National Award under his belt. He is one of the few actors of this generation who has a decent following among Hindi audiences as well and has also made his international debut.

Nandha, who is the president of the Online Dhanush Fans Club in Karnataka was very candid when he spoke about his favourite actor. “It is Dhanush sir’s acting and songs that motivate us fans and have drawn us to him. Also he is very involved with the fans not just via various digital platforms but he also meets us once a month and we get a chance to take a picture with him and meet him.” The actor has over 1,500 fan clubs all over India and eight online fan clubs that work closely with the actor. “Every film of Dhanush is like a festival for us. We celebrate it with cutouts and banners,” says Nandha.

To understand how the fan universe works, look no further than Vijay Sethupathi’s rise and popularity. The actor has been working in films from 2004, but it was not until 2012 that he found recognition. And with recognition came fans. Raam KPN, President of the Vijay Sethupathi Welfare Association of Kovilpatti, has some interesting things to say about the actor.

“When we decided to start a fan club for anna, we asked for his permission. But he kept refusing, saying that he is still not that big a star to have a fan club or any such association. But after persuading him several times, he finally relented. His simplicity and the fact that despite his fame, he still behaves as though he was a member of our family is what has drawn us to him,” says Raam.

Raam, who is a short-filmmaker and a civil engineer by qualification, says that as someone who is involved in cinema it was always his wish to see actors who did roles that were relatable. “Vijay anna has given us that. The films he does are not larger-than-life but about people like you and me. He is more than just an actor, he is an inspiration. In person, he doesn’t give the impression of being a star, instead, he is like one of us.”

The simple demeanour of the actor extends to the work done by his fan clubs as well. “We started with just promoting his films. We never put out cutouts and posters as that is something Vijay anna didn’t want us to do. He didn’t encourage us to spend money and instead motivated us to use the funds for good use. Since then, we have been doing just that. During the release of his film, we distributed saplings to the people who came to theatres to watch his film. This was done by fan clubs all over. We also organised a helmet awareness drive. We also organise blood donation camps on his birthday. I personally have taken up the responsibility of the education of six children, all in the name of Vijay anna.”

“Vijay Sethupathi says his name may fade with time, but the work we do on his behalf will remain forever. That has been a guiding light for us and all the fan clubs,” says Raam. With time, the actor and his fan following have grown and now there are fan clubs in every district in Tamil Nadu, and the neighbouring states of Kerala and even Maharashtra. The fan clubs have now been converted into welfare organisations and their purpose is to work towards the betterment of society.

This kind of adulation is not something we see in Hindi cinema. But then that is what sets the Tamil film industry and the fans apart from the film industries not just in India but all over the world.

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