Thursday, April 20, 2006

"We mobilize ideas, not people"

Following up on my snarky post about the NPR story on Rajkumar fans going berserk in Bangalore...

What annoys me about the focus on violent fan behavior is the manner in which well-intentioned journalists and commentators continue to marginalize fan practices as a whole. And what is *really* irritating about online publications and blogs which have commented on the Rajkumar episode is their complete neglect of other modes of fan expression that are a click or two away. A couple of clicks is all it takes to encounter a vast networked realm of participatory culture surrounding various aspects of Indian cinema. But no, it is the rowdy fans who make easy targets. Nothing complicated about that - they're rowdies, they're working class youth with no jobs, they're auto drivers who are prone to drink and get into brawls, they're not educated and hence easily lured into violence by politicians with vested interests. Here is a brief take on why this isn't productive at all. More in the days to come...

"We would never venture into street battles, that's for sure. We mobilize ideas, not people." So said the moderator of an online fan group I was chatting with a few days back. Interestingly enough, this was when Rajkumar's rowdy-fans were burning buses, police vans, and disrupting everyday life in Bangalore. While Rajkumar wielded considerable political clout, he never entered politics. To get a sense of cinema's connections to the realm of politics proper, we need to shift our gaze eastwards, towards the state of Tamilnadu. And it is in relation/opposition to fan-politics in TN that we need to understand the emergence of the Internet as a vital new space of participatory culture surrounding Indian cinema.

On September 14, 2005, Tamil film star Vijaykanth announced his entry into politics by converting his fan association into a political party. The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK, National Progressive Dravidian Party) was launched at a conference organized by the Tamilnadu Vijaykant Fan Association, with the secretary of the fan association, S. Ramu Vasanthan assuming the role of general secretary of the DMDK. The fan association’s flag has been adopted as the party flag as well. For several months preceding this conference, members of the fan association worked tirelessly to publicize and raise funds for the conference. Pointing to the fan association’s preparedness for political activity, one news report noted, “what stood him in good stead was the organization and structure of his fans' association, which is built in the form of a political party with units at the village, panchayat, town, district and State levels” (Subramanian, 2005).[1]

Around the same time in 2005, fans of renowned music director A. R. Rahman were hard at work organizing a concert in Bangalore. These guys managed everything from promotions and ticket sales to stage construction and crowd control on the day of the concert (October 8, 2005). As part of their effort to gain recognition as the “official” Rahman fan group, they also decided to present Rahman with a gift—a montage, composed of thumbnail images of all his album covers, which formed the contours of his face. Faced with the prospect of buying expensive software, a group of fans (who run a design company called went on to develop their own software. After many sleepless nights of painstaking coding, they finally got to meet Rahman and present the gift. A few days later, they learned that Rahman liked the gift and planned to display it in his studio in Chennai. This is a story of fan activity that mainstream media completely ignored.

Acknowledging these fans’ perseverance, technical and marketing savvy, and global network established through online activities, Rahman and his team have decided to collaborate with them to promote and organize concerts in different cities worldwide, evolve new modes of music distribution, and work together to tackle piracy.

Violent conflicts between Vijaykanth fans and cadres of political parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), cinema halls being vandalized, and film stars contemplating a career in politics by mobilizing their fan associations certainly make more sensational copy compared to a group of highly educated, technically skilled fans who discuss film music on the Internet. To those familiar with the history of cinema’s links to politics in states like Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh, Vijaykant emerging as a political candidate is no great surprise. Indeed, when one raises the question of fan activity in Indian film culture, the standard response, among journalists and academics, is to point to Tamil and Telugu film cultures where fan associations devoted to former stars like M. G. Ramachandran and N. T. Rama Rao have played pivotal roles in their political careers. As the editor of Filmfare explained to me, “you’ll find crowds outside Amitabh Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan’s house. But never that level of passion as you’d find in the south. There is no organized fan activity around Bollywood. No one asks Shahrukh to float a political party or threatens to commit suicide just because his film flops!”

But continuing to frame fan activity in Indian film culture in terms of devotional excess or in relation to political mobilization in south India will only mean turning a blind eye to the many important transitions in the way cinema is experienced today, and the ways in which the new media industry is inviting and structuring participatory culture. And new forms of imagination, sociality, and production of locality that the Internet has enabled in the Indian context.

[1] In an earlier interview, Vasanthan had explained the fan association’s preparedness for political activity: “only nominally our movement works as a welfare organization. In fact, it functions like a political party. We have 35,000 units and each unit has at least 100 members” (Subramanian, 2004).


  • I never knew about the rahman fan stuff! .. M too a great fan of rahman but i never knew the story behind the collage!

    By Blogger Varun, at 4/21/2006 2:03 AM  

  • Varun - you should join the group then!

    By Blogger Aswin, at 4/21/2006 6:39 AM  

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