Intimate Visualities and the Politics of Fandom in India

Michiel Baas

Tamil Nadu’s ‘superstar’ and thalaivaa (leader) Rajinikanth – one of India’s most popular actors – long kept his political ambitions to himself. In fact, on various occasions he had gone on record to underline that he had no interest in joining politics altogether. Considering the strong connections between  state politics and its movie industry, Kollywood – named after the Chennai neighborhood of Kodambakkam – this was surprising.

For an earlier edition of The Newsletter I reviewed Dhamu Pongiyannan’s Film and Politics in India (Peter Lang AG, 2015) in which the author argues that a connection exists between the roles Tamils depict, the social issues a movie touches upon, and the political ambitions of the star in question. These actors are not merely entertainers but, in their portrayal, also ‘saviours of the oppressed, protectors of the poor, messiahs of the malnourished, and deities of the downtrodden’.[i] This in turn helps them convert their star power into political capital. Well known are the cases of Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran (or MGR as he is commonly referred to) and his long-term partner Jayalitha who both served as Chief Ministers of the state. However, unlike more recent film heroes such as Vijayakanth and Sarathkumar, Rajinikanth’s political preferences and ambitions remained long unclear. This changed at the end of 2017 when the actor announced his entry into politics. It is now his intention to contest the 2021 state’s Legislative Assembly in all its 234 constituencies.

Roos Gerritsen’s Intimate Visualities and the Politics of Fandom in India offers incomparable insight into the politics of Kollywood, the aspirations of its stars and fans. In fact, in this ethnography the fans perform a far more important role than the former. Through the circulation of images of Rajinikanth and the involvement of his fans in the thousands of fan clubs that have been erected in dedication to his persona, Gerritsen brings to life what these fans strive towards, how they relate to their superstar, and what space and place they take up in public life in Tamil Nadu.

There are three ways to read this ethnography. First, it is an incredibly rewarding study of the functioning of Kollywood by means of a thorough engagement with fandom. Second, it offers an important addition to the gradually growing study of Indian men and masculinities. Mainly focusing on young Tamil men, Gerritsen provides powerful insight into the friendships and relations these men engage in, the ambitions they have for themselves, and the role Kollywood plays in their lives. Finally, with its focus on public culture in the form of billboards, murals, and movie posters it also interrogates how Kollywood by means of fandom and marketing efforts exists in public space. What is its message layered with? Taking urban change and the emergence of a new India with a burgeoning new middle class into account is crucial in order to understand what is going on here.

In the Introduction, Gerritsen notes how during a visit to Chennai in 2002 she was disappointed to find that the massive cut-outs of Tamil superstars had disappeared from public space and that vinyl billboards now dominated (p. 20). She uses this to introduce a particular predicament of visuality: what is it we experience when we encounter film-related imagery? The central argument in Intimate Visualities and the Politics of Fandom in India is ‘that the modes of proximity that fans aspire to and cultivate, engender advantages of different sorts’ (p. 21). Besides personally rewarding and potentially socially efficacious, ‘[f]andom on display indicates the double sense of display’ (p. 21–2). The first sense comprises the publicness of fandom which helps make it meaningful. The second ‘refers to practices of display that come along with fan practices’ (p. 22). Yet, Gerritsen is keen to underline that what she offers here is not an ethnographic account of fan clubs in Tamil Nadu. She did not study fan clubs; she studies in fan clubs.

It is not easy to do justice to the incredibly nuanced and precise arguments that follow, especially as the book leans heavily on long-term extensive fieldwork over a long period of time. The running theme throughout remains the questions what attracts fans to take part in fan club related activities, especially where it concerns social work varying from blood donations to schoolbook distribution – all in the name of the star admired. What follows is a structurally clear-headed approach to a complex and dense field. The first chapter discusses the figure of the fan in Kollywood by focusing on the question of control. In it Gerritsen suggests that ‘fandom … forms a continuous negotiation of intense affinity, affection, and excess versus justification, control, and denunciation’ (p. 56). She goes on to argue that ‘the figure of the fan, by its delineation as audience par excellence, reinforces and enshrines its opposite: the deemed proper, cultured audience, not in terms of class distinctions per se but in terms of behavioural rules in relation to cinema’ (p. 57). Towards the end of this chapter Gerritsen argues that ‘[f]ans self-regulate their image to prove fandom as well as to distance themselves from the same behaviour’ (p. 83). In doing so fans try to actively counter the stereotype of the excessive and rowdy fan that dominates public perceptions of them.

In subsequent chapters, Gerritsen continues to offer a nuanced picture of fandom and related activities. Chapter two focuses on the intimacy fans feel with their stars and the way this translates into the insertion of their imagery in familial or household situations. As she argues: ‘These images engender a relation with the star. In everyday spaces of the home, images were an important mode through which fans related to their star and made this relationship particularly personal and affective’ (p. 87). This also helps gain a deeper understanding of the complexity Gerritsen tackles in chapter three where the investigative lens is turned to the politics of fandom. Here Gerritsen investigates ‘the ways in which fans engaged in everyday politicking and mediation of desires and ambitions for presence and immediacy, and, on the other hand, for future gains’ (p. 117). She argues that fan activity ‘cultivates a form of fame in which their image-work of public generosity and visibility is needed to produce star and self’ (p. 118). In a particularly nuancing section of the book she argues furthermore that: ‘while indeed the fan club offers a space to seek power, at the same time it also articulates a fine line between what is allowed and what not, when and when not and by whom…. [C]ultivating an image of a serious fan goes through generations and spaces of performance as well’ (p. 137).

The final two chapters of the book touches upon the physicality of public intimacy and collective imaginaries on display. Gerritsen argues that ‘cinematic devotion and politicking coalesce and play out in the production and consumption of imagery’ (p. 158). Here she is particularly interested in ‘the possibilities and limitations of image technologies and what they evoke’. She posits that images ‘become central in the ways in which fandom is articulated as they are produced, used, discussed and remembered’ (p. 158). These images ‘are not merely a reflection of the desires, they become the desires, materialized and aesthetically produced’ (p. 185). With its focus on Chennai and its world class city aspirations, the pitfalls and complexities of this is made more concrete especially where it concerns so-called beautification murals. These murals are aimed at ‘rebuilding present-day Chennai and its image for an aspired future’. However, they also embody a certain nostalgia rooted in the concoction of a collective histories. In positioning the city as ‘world-class’ a different kind of urban aesthetic is envisioned that excludes fandom visuality and politics, in a sense relegating it to lower middle-class or even working-class ranks. Gerritsen proposes ‘that the beautification images seemed to constitute new social and political identities as well as reinforce political ideologies’ (p. 191–2).

The final two chapters as well as the book’s epilogue offer important insight to the third theme of this book. Intimate Visualities and the Politics of Fandom in India is an important addition of a growing body of work that investigates Indian urban change. It raises questions of what space and place there is for fandom within the context of a new India that ambitions a particular ‘world-class’ aesthetics. This does not align easily with the way fan billboards honor their hero’s birthday and/or seek to claim a presence in public space, perhaps even leading to political opportunities in the long run. In their desire to produce the fan along different lines – deviating from the stereotypical image of rowdiness, uncouth behavior, and unwelcome (disturbing) presence in public space – these fans also confirm something about their perceived position in Indian society. As such Intimate Visualities and the Politics of Fandom in India offers an important perspective of change, (new) middle-class formation, and urban aspiration.

[i] Michiel Baas, Tamil film culture and politics. Super star actors as charismatic politicians, The Newsletter, no. 80, 2018: 44–5.