For The Love of a Man is a documentary primarily about Rajinikanth’s fans, directed by Rinku Kalsy, produced by Joyojeet Pal and partly funded through crowd-funding. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the obsessive world of the fans, and the extremes to which they go to show their devotion. Here we see the packed out fan shows at 1am in the morning on the day of a new Rajinikanth film release, 12 day long celebrations for the actor’s birthday and word-perfect recall of the dialogue from his films just as a taste of some of the extreme fandom on display. There are apparently 150,000 Rajinikanth fan clubs in India and the film looks at a couple of the clubs and a few of the fans in detail while trying to explain the phenomena that is Rajinikanth.
It is assumed that everyone has at least some idea of who Rajinikanth is, and while that is likely true for Cinemachaat readers, for most Westerners Rajinikanth is unlikely to be a household name. There is some discussion of the Superstar but it is minimal and I would have liked to see a little more of the background rather than just the bare tale of a bus conductor turned actor, turned Superstar. While there are a few excerpts from the Rajini’s films, these tend to occur when a particular movie is mentioned by one of the fans rather than in any chronological order and his rise to stardom is only briefly discussed. The other missing element is any input from the man himself which is understandable, but could possibly have given more context into the reasons why the fans behave the way they do.
Rinku Kalsy has picked an interesting group of people who all have in common their total passion about the Superstar or as they all call Rajini – Thalaivar. There is G. Mani, an ex-gangster who changed his ways after watching Rajinikanth and is now a peanut seller, N. Ravi and his brother N. Murugan who run sweet shops in a small Tamil Nadu town and started life as uneducated orphans but followed the principles espoused by Rajini in his films to turn their lives around, and Kamal Anand, a mimicry artist who earns a living by impersonating the superstar for various functions and gatherings. There is also an auto driver who keeps pictures of Rajini in the front of his auto where most other drivers have pictures of the gods and an online fan club called Superstar Rajinikanth or SSRK for short.
Here there is fanatical devotion at its most extreme but although the film shows the lengths these people will go to for their Thalaivar, there is little insight into why Rajinikanth fans are so obsessed with their idol. There are a few academics who talk about the Dravidian movement and secularism as ways to explain the deification of movie stars such as Rajinikanth, but these discussions are rather superficial and don’t delve into ‘why Rajinikanth?’ in any detail. There is no discussion of his acting skills or even of his many philanthropic acts that the fans are so keen to emulate. Rinku Kalsy and her experts refer to his scruffy appearance, darker skin colour and roles as a common man that were so different to those undertaken by previous movie stars such as MGR or Gemini Ganesan. The fans however refer to Rajinikanth as simply a good man and try to follow his altruistic principles as much as they can; often despite their own, frequently quite poor circumstances. The feelings here are deep and emotions run high. Even when simply recounting the period of time when Rajinikanth was ill and admitted into a hospital in Singapore, N. Ravi can hardly contain his tears as he speaks of his distress. He even sent his brother to Singapore to report back directly and describes this period as the worst time of his life.
Interestingly all the fans shown are men. There are a few women seen in the cinema watching Rajinikanth films, but for the most part the groups organising events for Rajinikanth film openings are exclusively male. G Mani’s long suffering wife Suganthi seems to take his fandom in her stride, including the revelation that he has pawned her jewellery to obtain money for another celebration and she doesn’t even seem to mind that he spends all of his income on his fan club rather than on their family. However the best line comes from the mimic artist who explains that despite making his living impersonating Rajinikanth, he himself is actually a Kamal Hassan fan!
It’s not all good works and birthday celebrations though. There is violence too, with a fans’ show resulting in broken windows at a cinema and G Mani’s mention of a long drawn out court case after a screen was destroyed at one of his fans-only screenings. It’s hard to understand even though I’ve seen the first night first show mania at first hand here in Melbourne, but the extreme reaction in Tamil Nadu suggests more than simple fandom. This is serious fanaticism with the followers believing that their hero can do no wrong and in many cases literally worshiping Rajini. One of the frequently expressed desires from many of the fans is that Rajinikanth should enter politics, not so unexpected given that many politicians in Tamil Nadu were movie stars but there is an absolute belief that he would bring better times for all in such a role.
For The Love of a Man is fascinating, at times disturbing and occasionally uplifting but does illustrate the intensity of fans in India. Like the banners and Rajinikanth cut-outs, the hero-worship is larger than life and really needs to be seen to be believed. The film was screened in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film festival and has been shown at a number of other festivals around the world but hopefully will get a wider release – well worth catching it if you can.