Rinku Kalsy’s For The Love of a Man delves into the psyche of the fans of Super Star Rajinikanth
It is said that we Indians care about only three things: cricket, politics and Bollywood. We might as well add “fair” and “beautiful/ handsome” to that list. So it is interesting that one of the biggest cultural icons in India today is a dark, balding 64 year old year Tamil actor who was a spectacular failure in Bollywood, has shied away from a political career and has certainly never played cricket for the country.
A lot of ink has been split in trying to decode the metamorphosis of Shivaji Rao Gaekwad into “Thaliavar” Rajinikanth, but not much has been written about his fan clubs, whose numbers run into lakhs, according to some accounts. Yet Rajini himself declared at the time of his Twitter-breaking debut in 2014 that “I have always believed that my career graph is a miracle I owe my fans.”
A chance incident led to Amsterdam based film maker Rinku Kalsy’s interest in the cult of Rajinikanth, prompting a visit to Chennai in 2010. Watching the First Day First Show of Enthiran turned out to be that proverbial life changing moment, as she spent the next 4 years traversing the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu, meeting countless Rajini fans and surviving on a heavy dose of the superstar’s movies.
Rinku, Thanks for talking to My Big Red Bag. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a film maker?
I owe my interest in movie making to my father, who was an architect and a painter. He introduced me to classical music, to Nouvelle Vague and to the cinema of Satyajit Ray and Alfred Hitchcock. We would watch movies every week and spend hours discussing each shot, and this gave me an appreciation of lighting, sound, camera angles, scene construction, editing and numerous other aspects of film-making.
Strange as it may sound, I did not pursue a career in cinema right away. Instead, I went to Hong Kong after college to work with the aviation industry. But after my parents passed away, I decided to return to my first love and enrolled myself for a course in film-making in Amsterdam.
Shortly after completing my studies, I established my own film company called Anecdote Films. As an independent film company, I had the creative freedom to choose my projects, be it commissioned work for television or otherwise. From a film on Vandana Shiva’s organic revolution called Web of Life to a documentary on girl trafficking for the Human Rights Organization in Hague, and another one with Annie Perkins called Mila’s Journey about a Dutch woman’s travels to India in the 1960s, my films have mostly been about the journeys that people undertake – physically, mentally and emotionally. The tremendous potential of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me!
I love documentaries. To me, real life is much more interesting and bizarre than any fictional story can ever be. It is very important to me that my work be unbiased and objective, so I avoid working with a voice-over or narration. I believe that the two pillars of documentary film- making are research and relationships. These are real people who reveal themselves to you, and you must give it time in order to win their trust.
How, and when, did you first think of making For the Love of a Man?
The idea came when Joyojeet Pal (our Producer and an old friend) was working with Microsoft Research in Coimbatore district on a project to increase children’s access to computers. He discovered that RajInikanth’s role as a software engineer in Sivaji had an unintended benefit – many more rural kids in Tamil Nadu were now keen on a career in computer science! This made us think about the strength of Rajinikanth’s influence throughout the state and the various ways in which he appealed to people across ages.
We started researching this subject and in 2010, while I was in Amsterdam, I read in an online Indian newspaper that Enthiran was releasing. I instantly decided that the best way to understand more about this phenomenon would be to be in Chennai for a First Day First Show. Within two weeks I was in Chennai.
Tell us a little bit more about the four years you spent travelling for this film.
My first shot for For The Love of a Man was the paal abhishekam (pouring of milk over statues of God) that I witnessed at Albert theater in Chennai before the screening of Enthiran. I was overwhelmed by the amount of people present there, and the minute they saw me filming with my camera, a lot of them just came right up to me and collectively shouted Superstar Vaalgar (Long Live Our Superstar). They were delighted to share anecdotes about Rajinikanth, and they said that his humility and simplicity was the biggest draw for all his fans. They enacted his style-moves and gave me his punch dialogues.
These past four years I have met such amazing people. During my research I came across the Facebook online club called SuperStar RajiniKanth (SSRK), who were very helpful in connecting me with some old fans and fan clubs around Chennai.
I had so many heady experiences but what I treasure most is the love that I received from the fans. Their patience, kindness and generosity continues to amaze me. For instance, we met Ravi Anna through SSRK – he is an auto rickshaw driver as well as the head of the Saidapet district fan club. There was a day when we wrapped up shooting very late in the night, and Ravi refused to let us drive back on our scooters. Instead, we were dropped home by him and his friends in an entourage of four rickshaws, obviously with Rajinikanth’s music keeping us company!
There have been so many such stories!
What is the typical Rajini fan like ? Is his fan base primarily men, or does it also include women?
It’s really difficult to pin down the typical Rajini fan to a single archetype – there are 60 year slum-dwellers who have loved him for over half a century, and then there are young teenagers who express their fandom through online social media. G. Mani, a Rajini fan, remarks in our film:
It is never rich businessmen who are in our fan clubs, it is almost always poor boys from the slums.
The one thing that we kept hearing during filming is that the fan clubs give many young men, especially those who are not well off, some semblance of a social life. Organizing the clubs’ social activities, arranging parties in their respective neighbourhoods and genial fights to display the “mostest” fandom whenever a Rajini film is released – all these gives a much needed sense of belonging to these youth, as also a chance to stand out from amongst the millions.
The fanbase includes many women, and we noticed that at least in recent years, many of RajIni’s films are very family-friendly, so he is aware that many of his viewers are children and women. However the fan clubs are almost entirely male, and there is an evolutionary reason for this. In the 50s and 60s, film fan clubs in Tamil Nadu doubled up as political vehicles for film stars. It is worth remembering that for almost five decades, every elected chief minister in Tamil Nadu has been associated with the film industry – so the tie between politics and fan clubs is very deeply entrenched. Since the work of political organization was often seen as a male domain, and film theaters themselves were a fairly gendered space, the fan clubs have largely been male.
Is Rajinikanth also featured in your documentary? Does he know about these fan clubs, and how does he react to their devotion to him?
Yes, there is a brief sequence with Rajinikanth, who not only knows about the fan clubs, but also interacts with them fairly often. Several members of the fan clubs, especially those who have been following him for a long time, have pictures with him. Rajini’s relationship with his fans is very interesting. For several years he has been insisting that they pay attention to their families instead of devoting their time and money to the activities of the clubs, but ironically, this makes them even more devoted to him, and by extension, to the fan clubs!
I can’t stop thinking about the story that you narrated about a fan – a rickshaw driver who sold his chawl overnight, at a substantial loss – to print digital posters of Rajini’s latest film. When I think of Rajini’s cult of followers, I’m immediately reminded of a Godman (not that it’s Rajini’s fault!). Are there any broad cultural markers that lead to, or can explain, this obsession with Godmen and Superstars in India?
In itself, fandom or cult of personality is not unique to India – there are fans of many hues all over the world who would do some pretty incredible things for a person or an object ( Think of the lines outside an Apple store when a new iPhone is launched!). One characteristic that sets aparts Rajinikanth’s cult of followers is that they come from all age groups- so seeing a 60-year old man go dizzy over a film star can appear a little bizarre!
As for the reason for this extreme devotion, it is worth remembering that iconization is central to Indian culture. In fact, one of our interviewees makes this point about the birth of the atheism-based Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, which led to the creation of the DMK and AIADMK, both of which systematically raised fan clubs for stars like MG Ramachandran:
When the Dravidian movement said there should be no God, it never said there should be no Heroes.
So you can say that our society simply replaced the idol of the god with the cutout of the star. The act of treating another person as superhuman, either because of what they do or who they are, almost comes naturally to us because of the devotional culture that we grow up in. And this what sets apart the Rajini fan from the Beatles or Harry Potter follower.
Do you follow the film scene in India (both mainstream and indie)? Which Indian movies, or film-makers, do you enjoy watching?
I have grown up watching Indian films. My favorite Indian filmmaker from the current generation is Dibakar Banerjee. I admire his fantastic use of irony, and I love all his films. I was also captivated by Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely - it was disorienting, gritty and possibly the best Indian film noir I have watched.
I’ve also enjoyed watching some of Anurag Kashyap’s movies, my favorite being Black Friday.
A Kannada film called Lucia by Pawan Kumar, Ship of Theseus by Anand Gandhi, Rajat Kapur’s Ankhon Dekhi and Baasha by Suresh Krissna (my favorite Rajinikanth film!) are other films that I like.
There is currently a lot of debate about India’s Daughter – have you seen the movie, and what do you think of it? Any films or documentaries that you think did a more noteworthy job of depicting the realities and struggles of Indian women (or women in general)?
I have not seen the documentary India’s Daughter so I will not comment on it. But personally I do not agree with bans on films. I see it as a restriction on freedom of speech and I feel there is no space for such a thing in a functioning democracy.
I liked the contradiction and contrast in Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, Rajesh Jala’s documentary on the widows of Varanasi called At The Stairs and a 4 hour long series by PBS called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide which was shot in 10 countries.
Can you suggest a Rajini starter kit : a few Rajini movies that someone who is new to Rajini’s body of work should see?
I think Rajini’s body of work needs to be partaken in phase. The first phase would be Young Rajini, and here I would definitely recommend some of his B/W movies with Kamal Hasan, such as Moondru Mudichu, Aval Appadithan and 16 Vayathinile. The second phase would be the Rising Prodigy – Netrikann, Thillu Mullu and Billa encapsulate this period very well. And finally there is the Superstar, who is best captured in movies like Baasha, Padaiyappa and Enthiran.
Finally Rinku, when do we get to see For the love of a Man in India?
We shot the final scenes of For The Love of a Man in December 2014 during the release of Rajinikanth’s Lingaa. We are in the process of editing the 400+ hours of footage that we have gathered over the last four years. We have pooled in our life savings to make sure that the story of Rajini’s fans gets told in the best way possible, and are now seeking to crowdsource finances for post production through a campaign on Wishberry. We are looking to raise Rupees 4.5 lakhs by 27 April 2015 to help us with editing, sound design, music composition and other post production aspects. Contributions can range from 500 to 250,000, and we are giving away some very special rewards to all our contributors.
Our plan is to get the film ready for release within the next three months, and then take it to various international film festivals. We will most certainly do screenings in India, particularly in Chennai – I owe it to all the fans of Rajinikanth.
Find out more about how you can help get For The Love of a Man ready for release by following their Wishberry campaign here. Every bit counts, so go ahead and spread the word – if for nothing else but for the love of a rare movie dedicated to movie fans!
All images courtesy Rinku Kalsy/For The Love of a Man. Please do not reuse or reproduce without prior written permission.