Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Film stars all over the world would envy Rajnikant. Not only does he have legions of fans who would kill or die for him, they also convert their devotion into ticket sales. What's the point of having fans who worship a star, but don't particularly care about catching his/her film on the first day, paying a premium for tickets?
The way Rajnikant's Sivaji (and many of his films before it) was received with unabashed frenzy-- bathing posters with milk, bursting crackers, prayers, and so on, was surprising and amusing to people outside the Tamil circles. This, crazy star worship, of course seems to be a regional phenomenon. In Chennai, when star-politician MG Ramachandran died, reports said that 30 people committed suicide and many more shaved their heads as a mark of grief. When NT Rama Rao passed away in Andhra, there were similarly hysterical outbursts of mourning, and more recently when Kannada superstar Rajkumar passed away, there were riots in Bangalore by fans who wanted the city to shut down in sorrow.
Fans in the South build temples to stars, worship them like gods, form fan clubs, and would lay down their lives at a word from a star. No politician in the South would want to rub Rajnikant the wrong way, because if he tells people not to vote for a leader, they will obey without question. It is astonishing that with such power, Rajnikant has remained down to earth, and has shown no signs of misusing his sway over the masses. He doesn't even need to fill his coffers with undignified endorsements, he earns ten times more than many Bollywood star and gives away a lot to charity. Off screen, he is often seen in simple clothes, rubber chappals, balding and greying head proudly on display. And his fans love him for his unpretentiousness, because on screen, he lives up to their expectations.
Bollywood may strut its stuff all over the globe, Amitabh Bachchan may have been voted star of the millennium by NRI fans, but that is no guarantee of the success of his films. He, Shah Rukh Khan and other stars may be able to sell products but they can't sell tickets. Aishwarya Rai may be called the most powerful Bollywood star by Time magazine, but she cannot get people to go and see her well-hyped films. Does anyone remember an instance of any release by a Bollywood star that was accompanied by such passion as the opening of Sivaji?
In the West too, stars have crazy fans who stalk them (John Lennon was killed by an obsessive fan), follow their lives in tabloids, copy their style and try to get their plastic surgeon to make them look like their Hollywood idols, but whoever heard of a church to worship Brad Pitt!
Believe it or not, there is apparently something called Celebrity Worship Syndrome, and the New Scientist magazine reported in 2003 that one-third of Americans were suffering from it. James Houran, clinical psychologist and joint creator of the Celebrity Worship Scale, is reported to have said that low levels of celebrity worship are "a form of social bonding, stress reduction, escapism and entertainment. At low levels, people tend to be happier, more personable and more outgoing." While at higher levels, celebrity worship has been linked with "depression, anxiety, body-image problems and addiction."
According to a piece by Erica Harrison in Cosmos magazine last year, "Social psychologists agree that the reasons are complex, but some issues seem to recur. One is that we're bored, and living through movie stars is a way of alleviating that boredom. Another is that we're searching for identity, the evidence for which is that teenagers (those lost souls of adolescence) usually score highest on the scale. Social fragmentation might also play a part: as family and community values are crushed by the cult of individualism and an omnipresent media, perhaps fantasy relationships are becoming easier to form than real ones... Perhaps Fame is the new religion, and celebrities our gods."
Rajnikant and his fans could be the subject of a very interesting academic study. We may think he is just another star, but his fans are on another astral plane altogether.
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