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Meera Chopra vs Jr NTR Fans: Why Does Love For A Male Film Star Often Manifest Itself As Hatred For Women?

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“Telugu films r best agree or die (sic)”, someone told me early last month, promptly ending that tweet with a skull emoji. All this because a mischievous friend posted a poll on Twitter asking ‘which south Indian film industry is the best?’ one bored night, and I was bantering with him. A couple of such insults followed and fizzled out. I moved on.

Meera Chopra, on the other hand, had no such luck. For saying something as inane as “I don’t know him…I am not his fan” about Telugu actor Junior NTR, she faced insults, slut shaming, rape threats, death threats and the usual pouring of abuse experienced by women who speak their mind online.

Even after tagging Jr NTR for intervention, registering police complaints and writing to the national commission for women, Meera is still receiving abusive messages — one reprimanding her for “provoking” the Telugu actor’s fans!

Quarrels between fan clubs are almost unbelievably common. Film fandom in south India is characterised by unquestioning devotion to the star and regular altercation with the ‘other’. The other here includes not just non-fans of said actor but also fans of any other actor. In the real world, SV Srinivas of Azim Premji University writes that once Chiranjeevi’s fan clubs “succeeded in driving away their rival Balakrishna fans and their allies from the Gandhinagar area.”

What we’re seeing online is the same war: For the occupation of territory. Except, this one is also violently misogynistic. And this misogyny comes in various forms.

Star fan clubs in real life tend to be an all-male affair. While there are women too these days, a vast majority of fans participating in organised fan associations tend to be men. Researchers find that they also tend to be young men between ages 16 and 30. This applies to fan clubs of female stars too, even if not proportionately so. Without female participation, these fan clubs are testosterone-charged environments seeking to assert their masculine superiority at every chance they get.

Their fundamental objection tends to be, “How dare you!” You’d expect that this would be in response to significant transgressions. But no. Fans take offense to just about anything. How dare Keerthy Suresh place her foot over Vijay’s in a choreographed picture. If you’re thinking that you can understand this because in Indian culture, keeping your feet on something is disrespectful, try this. Sobhita Dhulipala irritated Mahesh Babu fans by thanking him. Yep. Their argument was: How dare she not suffix her ‘thank you’ with ‘sir’.

It gets worse when women have an opinion. Everyone from Samantha, Sruthi Hariharan, Dhanya Rajendran to Parvathy have been at the receiving end of constant, targeted, pre-planned abuse for calling out sexism or speaking about harassment.

The stars themselves do little to rein in their abusive fans. When they do, it often comes unwillingly and late. They say things like, “I respect women” or “everyone must praise womanhood”, without actually doing anything to stop such behaviour. Only Ajith seems to have issued strongly-worded statements dissociating himself from such fans; though they don’t seem to listen to him either.

While personal attacks—typically gross overreactions to inane comments—get more visibility, the online fan environment is overall misogynistic and hostile towards women. Just recently, Ajith and Vijay fans locked themselves in an online war to trend #RemoveSareeOfActorAjith and #RemoveBraOfActorVijay.

Fans of Vijay called Ajith an ‘actress’ as if that’s the gravest insult. Ajith fans juxtaposed Vijay’s face on Vijay Sethupathy’s picture in his role as Shilpa, a transwoman, from the film Super Deluxe — to them, this insult was graver. Visuals of Ajith’s and Vijay’s faces photoshopped on to pictures of women being sexually assaulted crowded Twitter. Another fan with Ajith’s image as his DP posted an edited photo of Vijay’s to predict how he might look as he aged, describing each stage as a specific kind of cunt.

Not all fans are so blatantly misogynistic though. Some are more benevolent. Like the artist who made an illustration imagining what the team of Master, actor Vijay’s upcoming film, might be doing during the lockdown. While all the male actors of the film lounged and played games, Malavika Mohanan, a female actor in the film, was in the kitchen cooking. She protested. Vijay’s fans, of course, didn’t take that well.

While all sorts of fan wars happen online, and off, the undercurrent of sexism, misogyny, transphobia and, homophobia is unmissable. As Voltaire might say, it’s lamentable that to be a good fan, you must become the enemy of womankind.

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