A young actor with a promising career ahead of him takes his own life. A social media war erupts. The film industry is ripped into two unequal, jagged-edged halves. One side gets trolled mercilessly, is convicted of murder on social media, and loses Twitter followers in lakhs while the other, spearheaded by one star, gains almost the same number of followers.
Cut to the ’70s. It is summer, we are in Vijayawada, which is basically hell on high-flame. We are visiting aunts (both sisters and neighbours) who haven’t spoken to each other in a decade. And have even built a wall that has been growing by half a foot each year between their once border-free houses.
The bone of contention: one is an ANR fan while the other is NTR’s.
For the unenlightened, those initials belong to Akkineni Nageswara Rao and N T Rama Rao respectively, erstwhile Andhra Pradesh’s first bona fide celluloid superstars. My grandfather tries to mediate.
“How do you expect me to make up when that’s the kind of stuff she does?” says Older Aunt, pointing a trembling finger in the direction of the street.
Out there, with no concern whatsoever for the impending heatstroke, is the younger aunt. A diabolical grin on her face, she is neatly applying steaming-fresh buffalo dung to an oblivious ANR as he stares out melancholically from the poster of his summer release, thereby putting a malodorous end to any chance of peace talks.
Today, family lore has it the grandsons of these aunts are carrying on the same campaign, albeit virtually, from their university dorms in Dallas and Miami, to defend the honour of the grandsons of NTR and ANR.
NT Rama Rao was pretty much the igniter of the Fan-Devotee Movement in Telugu Land. In the ’50s and ’60s, in a succession of mythologicals, he played a blue-tinted Lord Rama or Krishna Paramatma to such mesmerising effect that people figured why go to temples to pray when you could do that in a cinema hall near you. At roughly the same time, the Tamils found a corresponding screen saviour in MGR, also playing God, albeit in human form: a non-smoking, non-drinking upholder of moral values, omnipresent for the common man. Nageswara Rao and Sivaji Ganesan formed their counterpoints respectively, playing the identifiable average babu/thambi, with the same problems as the front benchers. And so it came to be that you couldn’t love one without hating the other.
Maybe it’s because of these beginnings that, while all of India loves films, southerners love them in 140 point, all caps, bold, italic, underlined. And in this curious two-pronged love, devotion and hatred play equal parts. As demonstrated by my prototypical aunts forty years ago, no fan of Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Ajith or Mahesh Babu is true-blue by merely venerating his Ulaga Nayagan/
Megastar/Thala/Prince on bended knee with incense and camphor till the end of time. That is entry-level stuff, meant for amateurs. What confirms beyond question the professional fan’s love and devotion is his equal, if not greater, hatred for his hero’s perceived rival – Rajinikanth, Balakrishna, Vijay and Pawan Kalyan respectively. It is a love not unlike Lex Luthor’s for kryptonite, or Arnab Goswami’s for Bofors.
Take the case of a big south star raided by income tax authorities not too long ago. So incensed were his fans that one of them created a fake Twitter account and arranged for a quick heart attack for his rival as revenge. Hey, what’s a Fan if he can’t settle the score and restore the balance in the cinematic universe!
There is no denying that this hitherto uniquely Southern phenomenon has caught on in the North. While the fan of yore could love Dilip Kumar without wanting to perpetrate irreparable damage to the families of Dev Anand or Raj Kapoor, today, adoring Salman Khan can’t be done without abhorring SRK.
It might be worth checking the dates on the spread of this infection to the Northern reaches of our country. They would most likely coincide with the release of Bhai’s 2009 hit Wanted – a remake of a Telugu movie made by that sinuous Southern son of the soil Prabhu Deva.
Now, following Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt, Ranbir Kapoor, the ‘old guard’ with roots going back to pre-Independence India are Enemy Number One for film fans on Twitter. Instead of pouting in a horror-inducing selfie of the day, kingpin KJo is pouting at home in silence. Twitter has anointed him the Narada-Shakuni figure who is behind the death of this young actor, if not directly, at least in the role of aider-abettor. Johar has unfollowed everyone except SRK, Akki, Big B and a couple of other folks who matter. It is the passive-aggressive Bollywood equivalent of our beloved leader not sending the Chinese premier birthday wishes. Does anyone care? Yes, all of Twitter seems to. Enough to mock him, troll him and bay for his Bolly-blue blood. Johar’s close buddies, party regulars, part of the YRF-Dharma brigade who wink and snigger on his cringeworthy show, are sulking, too. Monkey See, Monkey Do.
Doing the exact opposite, gloating, screeching and condemning, as is her wont, is Kangana Ranaut. Except now the decibel level has trebled. Ms Ranaut is this close to galloping off on her wooden steed from Manikarnika and beheading all the nepotistic murderers of Bollywood.
So, in this sad saga, who is the hero and who the villain? I don’t know about that but I sure can tell you who the idiot is. From the manavadus and thambis who started the trend in the ’50s South to the Pan-Indian Twitter warrior today, hating/adoring, blaming/worshipping, convicting/absolving, trolling/venerating alternately the same two sets of stars with rabid vigour, it is the Fan.
KJo and gang are no more the dastardly villains bent on world domination than Kangana Ranaut & Co the knights in tinsel armour slaying nepotistic dragons. Both parties are equally self-serving, insecure, callous thugs who sport slightly different garbs and employ slightly different methods of intimidation and suppression to maintain status quo. If KJo’s smirky, smarmy gang wears Prada, speaks the Anuja Chauhan brand of Oye-Bubbly Hinglish that presumes there are no non-Hindi speakers in our ancient land, uses networking, dynasty, subterfuge, back-scratching, veiled threats and one-sided contracts that exploit newcomers to monopolise the industry, Kangana Ranaut, Rangoli Chandel (the Goebbels to her Führer), Akshay Kumar, Payal Rohatgi, Anupam Kher, Prasoon Joshi, Paresh Rawal & Co use that weapon of all weapons, Patriotism, and have aligned themselves openly, fawningly, with the powers that be to beat, bully and stomp out dissent.
So who do we choose then? Well, no different from the choice we need to make with regard to who should be in charge of our lives, land and future: anyone but the two seemingly inevitable options.