What led to the phenomenon that is referred to as the ‘fan-war’ today?
If there’s something that rabid fans of Vijay and Ajith do effortlessly, it’s to take advantage of the relative anonymity that the Internet offers, and troll and abuse anyone who doesn’t idolise their stars the way they do. While the issue has been mostly unaddressed, with the stars themselves choosing to stay mum, the fans have had a free rein. The latest to fall victim to the barrage of vicious abuses that the trolls hurl, is Dhanya Rajendran, Managing Editor at The New Minute, who had posted a tweet comparing experiences of watching Jab Harry Met Sejal and Sura. The Vijay fans, who took umbrage at the tweet, employed the choicest abuses – often sexual in nature – and as they are wont to do, began a hashtag (which we will not publish here) to further harass Rajendran. When Silverscreen contacted the spokesperson for actor Vijay, he refused to comment, while a fan association head revealed his futile attempts to contain the abusers.
While this is the first time that the trolls have come out in mass numbers to abuse a journalist, several instances of fan wars on Twitter between fans of actors Vijay and Ajith have occurred in the past. Hashtags like #MentalVijayFans, #AjithPaysToDegradeVijay, #DrunkardAjithAndMentalFans and #ROFLStuntsOfVijayNa were created, and made to trend.
On September 5, 2015, when the hashtag #DrunkardVijay was trending, 19-year-old Raja*, a student of B.Com, was busy on his mobile phone, tweeting negative comments about Vijay, and devotedly retweeting tweets with the hashtag.
I ask him why. What drives him to be so hostile and intolerant?
His reply was quite like a ping pong return – “Vijay Fans idhey dhan panranga, avangala keka maateengala?” (Actor Vijay’s fans do the same, won’t you ask them?).
After some patient prodding, and many ‘hmmms’ and ‘ermmms’, I get, “Enaku Thala Ajith dhan number one. Adhey madiri Twitter layum avar number one ah irukanum” (Thala Ajith is my number one, he has to be number one on Twitter too.)
When I wonder how degrading Vijay would help him achieve that, he thinks for a minute. Then hands over the phone to his friend: “Eh poda, enna solradhu nu therila!” (I don’t know what to say, man!)
And that, is a sample of the species that populates social media wars, and generates those hashtags. Resembling scrawls left on historic monuments, or bathroom stalls, these hashtags find a rather large following on the Twitter. They trend nationwide. So we’re told. They’re run mostly by college-age men-children. So we’re told. The truth is that facts, figures and any kind of demographics about the Who and Why of fan wars are hard to find. What’s clear is the presence of a culture of mockery and hate among fans of Kollywood celebrities. It’s not limited to Ajith and Vijay fans. But these two camps (along with their sub-camps) have become emblematic. How does adulation or even just film appreciation, become a cultural phenomenon? Why does the love for one celebrity become hatred for another? And finally, does the celebrity control the fan and fan club, or is it actually the other way around? We take a look.
Popular perceptions: who and why?
Hero worship of film stars. Internet trolling. These two distinct cultural phenomena combine to form a third: fan wars on social media.
A “troll”, in internet slang, is “someone who deliberately upsets others by starting arguments or posting unnecessarily inflammatory messages on blogs, chatrooms, or forums”.
They’re the bullies in the playground who love making that sweet kid cry. Psychologists tell us that trolls are inherent sadists, and represent one tenth of the population. Some studies conclude that Internet trolling may even be a safe outlet for desires that would cause real harm otherwise. Others suggest that the anonymity of the Internet allows users to indulge and develop their ‘darker’ desires, desires which would have normally stayed suppressed because of real consequences in the real world. And this article on ‘Why Women Aren’t Welcome On The Internet’ catalysed a global discussion on cyber-misogyny and online harassment, and the real damage it causes. In fact, since abusers feel less restricted, the abuse is often more frequent.
Popular online movie reviewer Prashanth deals with fan abuse on Twitter almost daily. He says, “Usually, I choose to ignore the hate. But when someone really crosses the line, I give it back to him, because I just can’t see him get away with something as cheap as this. Most of these trolls are students, who are immature. For them, Twitter is a way of expressing their views. Sadly, their views are just plain abusive.”
Kaushik, a journalist with 17k followers on Twitter, adds, “They don’t think twice before shooting off and typing all sorts of crap and using filthy derogatory language which any decent person would think really hard before using in the real world. Most of these people are jobless and just wait online for someone to type out something even mildly critical (but acceptable) about their star.”
Trolling is so common that new users (newbies) are often told: ‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’. Trolls are out to gain attention, and responding to them only gives them more incentive to continue. Or, as GB Shaw once wrote,
“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
Sreedhar Pillai, noted journalist, with over 280K followers on Twitter, says he is trolled and abused almost every day. He adds, “Not much can be done about it, unfortunately. Trolling has become a part of being active on social media. I see no point in replying to each and every one of these abusive fans or preaching to them. They already have their mind fixed on this. Trying to be reasonable with them is a waste of time. The best option is to ignore them and move on.”
Out of the mouth of trolls
How do these abusive fans explain their motivations? The simple answer is, they don’t. But in their refusal to answer, there are glimpses of a method to the madness, a logic to the immaturity.
Naren* is quite the artist. He specialises in photoshopping images with Ajith’s picture and creating ‘troll’ memes out of them, which he then shares on Twitter and WhatsApp. “Personally,” he says, “it’s not like I hate Ajith. Just like Vijay films, I watch Ajith films too, on the first day. But honestly, only to make fun.” Asked what he wants to prove by doing this, he replies, “I want Vijay to look the best even on social media, so I do all this.” And then comes a really interesting statement,
“I am pretty popular among my friends for this, you know.”
I ask Saravanan*, a fan-war regular, whether this obscene banter between fans would make his favourite star happy. He says,
“I don’t know. I don’t think they even check such pages. It’s just an ongoing argument between fans, I don’t think the actors care.”
Who controls whom?
Raja doesn’t want to talk about it. Naren admits that he gains prestige among his peers. Saravanan admits that fans are well aware that there could be zero connection between what they do, in the guise of devotion to the actor, and what the actor wants. So, who is really in charge here? In Chiranjeevi’s words,
“Even the man who pays three or four rupees thinks he owns the star and has a right over him.” (SV Srinivas, Interview, Madras).
1953. The year MGR joined the DMK. The year Andhra Pradesh was carved out of the Madras Presidency. States formed on the basis of language. The rise of three major stars – MGR, NTR, and Rajkumar in three linguistically-formed States – Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada (M Madhava Prasad). 1953 was also when the first organised fan club, dedicated to MGR, was formed. Initially at least, the perception that the industry controlled the fans was true. Production companies and studios encouraged and funded Fan Associations. Free publicity for them, and guaranteed ticket revenues by fans who would watch the film repeatedly.
The star (as Srinivas writes) is often referred to as elder brother (anna), prince (Mahesh Babu), king, and boss (Thala – Ajith). A 40-year-old Rajini Fan Club leader from Madurai, Vellaichamy, says that in the 70s and 80s when a Rajini film was released, it was like a festival,
“The love and obsession we had for actors were a kind you won’t see elsewhere. Whenever a Thalaivar film was released, we used to decorate the theatre with flags, flowers, serial lights, massive banners and cut-outs. On the eve of the release, we would play Rajini’s hit songs over loudspeakers to set the mood for celebrations. It was like Diwali for us.”
Chiranjeevi tells SV Srinivas that there’s a difference between a hero and a star. Anyone can be a good hero. But each generation sees only one or two stars. Chiranjeevi knew he was a star when he saw the ‘devotion’ in his fans’ eyes. They would cut themselves to apply blood to his posters, were ready to immolate themselves when there was a chance of his film Alluda Majaaka (1995) being banned, and would undertake lathi charges if necessary. In exchange, Chiranjeevi feels an obligation to give his fans something that will make them ‘forget everything else’ for two-and-a-half hours.
It doesn’t end there. Fans didn’t like it when he made films with a ‘message’, geared towards a more ‘class’ (vs mass) audience. It was that which made him stick to making ‘massy’ films. A fan once wrote an angry letter to his fanzine, Megastar Chiranjeevi, about a scene in Gharana Mogudu (1992), in which a woman uses abusive language directed at him during a song. Saying that other actors’ fans were ridiculing the song, this angry fan said it made him want to kill himself. Chiranjeevi responded with this letter:
Dont’ pick fights with the fans of other stars. It is not good to do so. I have said so a number of times. Here (in the industry) all the heroes are very friendly and cordial with each other. You fans, being the admirers of heroes, should not abuse each other.
So, hereafter, I hope you will be an admirer I admire. Don’t even think of committing suicide.
– (Megastar Chiranjeevi, April 1992)
How effective are these words? Many believe that stars should publicly rein in the excessive fans. Kaushik feels, “To address this, the stars can send out press releases condemning this, tweet out if they are in the platform and also meet and greet with their fans whenever they get time, and guide them in the right path and direction. There is bound to be some positive effect at least.” But, Chiranjeevi and other stars might agree more with Prashanth, who feels otherwise,
“Ajith, Vijay, illa endha actor ah irundhalum seri, indha madri fans eh personal ah kooptu, biriyani potu, pesi puriya vechalum, ivanga nirutha maatanga” (Ajith, Vijay or any other actor for that matter, even if they personally meet each and every one of these abusive fans, feed them biryani and convince them to stop this, the fans will not stop.)
Even major stars like Rajinikanth can face overt or subtle forms of fan boycott. The climax of ‘Prince’ Mahesh Babu’s Bobby (2002) had to be altered to suit fans. And, in 2004, Chiranjeevi had to retract his support for a TDP candidate after stiff protests from fans. The greater their public devotion, the greater sense of entitlement fans can have. For their excessive loyalty, fans can claim to even be the guardians of the star’s image – overriding the wishes of the star, or the industry professionals.
Example: Distributors need to pull a film if the occupancy rate falls below 50 percent. But fans want a film to run till it reaches the 50- or 100-day mark. In 1994, Balakrishna’s fans burnt a distributor’s office over such a dispute. Fans can also take over theatres during ‘special shows’ when the cinema hall is elaborately decorated, with much slogan-shouting and whistling during the show.
Fans once caused considerable damage to a theatre in Hyderabad when the management refused to replay a song sequence (for the third time), and dispersed only after a cane-charge. (Srinivas)
What’s different about fan-trolling?
There is tacit approval for this because it serves as a carnivalesque social function. During a star’s birthday as well, fan clubs would carry out welfare activities like organising blood donation camps, feeding orphanages, and distribute notebooks to underprivileged children. It wasn’t uncommon for a leader of a fan club to become a prominent candidate for political office.
Then, the Internet happened.
Fans online use Machiavellian infiltration techniques to degrade each other. Example: users disguise themselves as fans of a star they actually dislike, and then post hate-filled obscene comments. Reflected fame becomes reflected infamy as the actor ends up getting indirect blame for this behaviour. Regardless of how venomous or malicious the tweets are, for the fan, it’s just one more way to express his ‘real’ love.
Meanwhile, my father peeps into my laptop screen as I write. He’s not media savvy, so it takes me a good thirty minutes to explain. He’s stunned. How can people be so driven by hatred? “To be fair, the competition between MGR- Sivaji or Rajini-Kamal was fiercer than any of these new kids these days. But never have I heard of any misconduct from the fans. How is there no regulation over this?” he wonders.
Perhaps because, the actors themselves engage in some mud-slinging? While there are documented instances of GV Prakash rolling in the dirt with troll-fans, often passing inflammatory remarks about Ajith and Dhanush, Vijay has been subtly taking down Ajith in his movies. Some of the dialogues in his films, seemingly innocuous to those who don’t follow the ‘wars’, scream solidarity with his fans. According to this blogger’s entry from 2005:
“The Vaa Vaa Vaa En Thalaivaa… number from his latest release Sachein has a line that goes Oru murai jeippadhu sarithiram aagaadhu. This is quite obviously targeted at his professional rival Ajith, highlighting the fact that Attagaasam has been his only success in recent times.
Ever since he yelled “Engadaa unga thalai?” at some goons in Thirumalai, knowing fully well that Thalai is the title Ajith’s fans use to refer to their idol after Dheena, Vijay has been taunting Ajith in all his movies.”
The blog goes on to add that Simbu too, in his movies, has taken unseemly digs at Dhanush:
“This bad culture of attacking perceived rivals has already crept into the next generation too. Simbhu’s ‘first-last’ line in Manmadhan was aimed squarely at Dhanush.”
But, John Mahendran, director of Sachein, says it was not a deliberate attempt to provoke Ajith fans. It’s all in their heads, he remarks, quoting an instance during the filming of Sachein when Vijay had wanted a scene involving car-racing removed as it could be misinterpreted as an attack on Ajith. “Honestly, having observed them at close quarters, there is no ill-will between them. Even the ‘Gundu Manga‘ song in Sachein was interpreted as targeting Ajith, but in reality, since Vijay was seen in an urban look throughout the film, we wanted him in a rural avatar in the song. He was not mocking Ajith.”
Ajith and Vijay though, haven’t been publicly supportive of each other (save for the rare, now famous instance during the shoot of Mankatha and Velayutham, when Vijay gifted Ajith a watch) the way Salman Khan has been, of Shah Rukh and Aamir Khan’s films (the three actors have equally rival fan bases in Bollywood). Closer home, Rajini and Kamal – whose fan bases were at each other’s throats once – would often declare their love and respect for one another.
Salman, a couple of years ago, had even threatened to quit Twitter when his fans wouldn’t stop trolling Shah Rukh and Aamir Khan.
How rich in culture n respect v were. Kya ho gaya yaar. Itni nafrat Pyar mein kyun ? If any 1 who follows me disrespect any of my faternity
— Salman Khan (@BeingSalmanKhan) June 9, 2015
I vil not b on this social net work any more. Bus khallas, khatam, wanna follow me n want me to b here to Pyar mohobbat se raho. Or I am out
— Salman Khan (@BeingSalmanKhan) June 9, 2015
Director John Mahendran, while insisting that his defence of the actors stems from having seen them share a cordial relationship off the sets, agrees that there needs to be a measure of control over fans. “The actors need to rein in the fans before something happens,” he declares, “As a mother would discipline an erring child, or as a teacher would [discipline] a student, I’m not sure why they haven’t done that yet.”
Having recently posted a few tweets slamming the fan-trolls who harassed Dhanya Rajendran, John adds that he was at the receiving end of abuse as well. “Answering them would mean I would have to stoop down to their level,” he says, “I might as well sit down, and come up with matching abuses. But, I just chose to block all of them.”