India: where a movie star is more than a movie star

Why did 60,000 film fans riot in Bangalore following the death of an old actor? Alexander Zaitchik reports from New Delhi.

Alexander Zaitchik

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New Delhi — For two days in April, Bangalore looked like Baghdad.

Following the death by heart attack of the south Indian film icon known as Rajkumar, grieving fans shut down the nation’s knowledge capital. Bangalore’s streets, usually imagined as paved with hi-tech gold, were on 12 and 13 April turned into a stage for tear gas, gunfire, burning cars and bloody street clashes between police and 60,000 of Rajkumar’s supporters.

The final body count: eight, including a young policeman killed and strung up by outraged fans attempting to gain entry into their hero’s funeral.

To a bemused world, this fiery convulsion triggered by the death of an old actor was just another example of Indians’ idiosyncratic, borderline-religious love for their movie stars. This was also the local view in some quarters. According to an editorial in the the Hindustan Times, the state of Karnakatka had ‘completely lost its mind’.

Perhaps. But to see the Bangalore riots as just an extreme case of Hindu-tinged Bollywood fan-worship is an oversimplification. The use of ‘Bollywood’ is itself inaccurate, as the term applies only to those Hindi-language films produced in Mumbai. The majority of India’s films – whose audiences split down regional and language lines – are produced farther south.

Understanding what happened in Bangalore last week starts with understanding Rajkumar’s seminal role in the local Kannada-language film industry, based in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka.

‘Rajkumar was the face, hero and defender of the regional cultural identity’, says Stephen Hughes, an Indian film and culture scholar at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

‘His rise coincided with the assertion of Kannada language and culture, at a time when Indian film was dominated by films from the north. He was an elder statesman and father figure who carried a burden much greater than that of film star. He represented a culture under siege.’

That culture is under siege by India’s famously galloping eight per cent national growth clip, represented best by Bangalore, India’s fastest growing city. Bangalore today is an international city of billionaires and paupers, where the innovators of 22nd-century technology blast their Beamers passed 12th-century ox-carts.

‘As the New Bangalore has evolved’, wrote Johnson TA in the Indian Express, ‘Rajkumar and Kannada cinema have provided the vast majority of the local population their moorings and [acted as a] constant reminder of the local culture.’

According to Hughes, the riots should also be seen as a form of traditional public hysteria based in south Indian grieving practices. Through these, Karnakataka’s democratic masses sought to claim the maximum amount of public-political space for their hero and champion. ‘Rajkumar’s film fans form a sort of political cadre’, says Hughes.

Such cadres are common in Indian film and cricket fandom, and can be organised along regional, class and caste lines.

‘Being a fan is a vehicle for asserting an identity’, says Amit S Rai, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Florida.

‘The Indian film star is a nexus of political, economic and social forces that are in a state of radical flux. Events surrounding the star’s life or death easily flow from site to site, or from meaning to meaning.’

Indian public figures were eager to benefit from each of these possible meanings following Rajkumar’s death. The Karnakata government declared an official two-day period of mourning and made 13 April a statewide holiday. Dozens of local and national political leaders beat a path to Rajkumar’s home and issued statements in loving memory of the deceased actor, who was buried with full state-honours.

This was not enough for Rajkumar’s most devoted fans, who demanded immediate secession of all traffic and business activity – especially business activity representative of the rising wealth disparities in southern Indian boomtowns like Bangalore.

In this, the riots tell us something about the relationship between dialect films and class dynamics in a changing India, where regional cinema retains a central role in the lives of the poor, but is fading for the new middle class, with its more varied media appetite for proliferating cable channels, foreign films and the internet.

According to some in the Indian press, it was not a coincidence that Microsoft and other software firms were attacked during last week’s rioting. Although not an anti-globalisation crusader per se, Rajkumar last year called for more jobs for locals in Bangalore’s thriving IT sector, and remained a tireless spokesman for Kanaadan culture to the end.

‘The IT-fuelled boom hides several social ruptures’, editorialised the Times of India. ‘And these fractures were split open when Rajkumar passed away.’

The explanatory power of the ‘two Indias drifting apart’ theory is limited, however, by the fact that 20 years ago, years before the economic reforms that unleashed India’s current uneven boom, the Karnataka film board opted to edit out a scene depicting the dramatic death of Rajkumar, for fear that it would spark riots.

Whatever peculiarities of the riots arise from south Indian cultural politics and the resentments of Karnataka’s left-behinds, few deny that Indians generally have a deeper, more complex and more personal relationship with their film icons than Western audiences. Last week, when Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan spent three nights in prison on charges of illegal poaching, thousands of his fans spent nights outside his jail cell. In 1982, when iconic Bollywood leading man Amitabh Bachchan was injured on a shoot, the nation practically came to a stop. (But not for the Bachchan fan who walked half of the length of India backwards as a show of penance.)

Most closely resembling the regional stature of Rajkumar was the Tamil actor and politician MG Ramachandran. Following Ramachandran’s death in 1987, more than two million Indians followed his remains, 30 fans committed suicide and thousands shaved their heads in a show of sorrow and respect.

There are no lack of theories about the source and nature of this devotion. These theories usually touch on the religious nature of Indian society, the all-pervasive social presence of film stars, and the high emotional content of Indian life.

‘It’s difficult to explain logically’, said Nyan Bhushan, a New Delhi-based entertainment industry analyst, who also covers Indian film for the Hollywood Reporter.

‘Star-worship in India is spiritual. Audiences attach themselves to the personae of stars, who often play gods. They also relate very personally to the family roles played by stars, which is most roles. Amitabh Bachchan is a son to half of India, a father to the other half.’

The fact that Amitabh Bachchan, who gained fame playing Angry Young Man roles in the 1970s, has a temple in his honor in Calcutta speaks to the spiritual aspect of Indian fan worship. Dr Rachel Dwyer, author of Filming the Gods: Religion and Hindu Cinema, says Hinduism is particularly suited to generating intense attachment to stars.

‘There is a tradition of worshiping people in India’, said Dwyer. ‘The guru, the deceased family member, the cricket player. There is no problem worshipping people in Hinduism.’

Dwyer points to the concept of darshan, or ‘looking’ as an integral aspect of Hindu worship. ‘People go into a temple and “take sight” of the gods, and “give sight” in return’, she says. ‘There are parallels with how we experience cinema.’

The relationship between cinema and politics in India is a strong one. Politicians eagerly seek association with film icons; often stars shift seamlessly into politics, as done most famously by MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. Even when they do not seek formal office, actors become elder spokesmen for their fan base and agitate on behalf of their interests, as in the case of Rajkumar.

‘There are two things the poor in India do in numbers not seen anywhere else in the world’, said New Delhi-based actor Oroon Das. ‘They vote, and they go to the movies. When the two mix, actors can easily become Evita-sized figures for the masses.’

But unlike a secular populist such as Evita, do Indian fans actually see their favorite stars as godlike?

‘This is a country with something like 300 million official deities’, said Nyan Bhushan, the analyst. ‘Why not add a few more?’

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist in New Delhi.

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