From Thalaivar to Bhaijaan, fan culture has turned into hero worship of actors in India.
I still find it difficult to watch the last movie of the Harry Potter franchise. I still have an emotional breakdown every time, as I had in 2011. This attachment became personal over time. They ceased to be fictional/book characters or movie stars for me. I grew up with them, witnessing every ounce of their happiness and shared troubles.
I am one among the many faces who constitute this fandom. However, I never thought about defining that connection on a personal level. This relation is termed a parasocial relationship. Relationships we form by consuming media about that person. The urge to know everything about our favourite characters or movie stars has developed this notion.
Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl pioneered the concept in 1956. Quite an early discovery, huh! The parasocial relationship is where one is in a relationship with their favourite artist/celebrity. We emotionally invest ourselves, dawdling our time only for them to never know about our existence. Sad, right? But we still do it.
We all have wished to be a part of our favourite gangs, whether Thomas Shelby’s Peaky Blinders or the trio from 3 Idiots. Imagining being part of our favourite show/movie is called parasocial interaction, and thinking about the characters is a parasocial relationship. Though parasocial relationships are prevalent nowadays, they may have severe effects like obsession and stalking. Remember when Varun Dhawan’s fan threatened to kill his partner Natasha. Scary much!
A more relatable example of parasocial relationships is the fandom that exists within the confines of KPop. Like who isn’t aware of the boyband BTS and their massive fanbase? Amidst breaking and creating new records, they have gained a dedicated and engaged fanbase called ‘Army’. So what if BTS endorsed pyjamas cost over ₹8000, the fanbase will still buy them, and their company will keep selling them because of the loyal fans. The Beatles have rightly started the trend of boy bands with One Direction coming in, and now it’s BTS.
The nature of parasocial relationships has evolved over the years. It has come to bloggers, YouTubers, influencers, gamers, and so on. Switching between Sandeep Maheshwari to Technical Guruji, we have seen it all. Nevertheless, discussing the OG parasocial relationship is never out of trend. So let’s take a look at how parasocial relationships are now existing in Indian cinema.
The Indian film industry speaks for itself, being the third-largest in the world. Though divided into segments, fans left no stone unturned to prove their love and loyalty. Fan culture forms a significant arena of the film industry. Films like Guddi (1971), Om Shanti Om, Fan, and so on have attempted to capture what being a fan might look like. But the reality is far from it.
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) November 12, 2021
Bollywood has captured fan culture from the lens of an obsessive fan. However, fandom consists of people from every walks of life. Vilas Ghate is one such name who collects memorabilia of his idol Rajesh Khanna and dreams to create a museum for him. Ghate has devoted his life to Kaka’s journey and aspects of life. At the tender age of 10, he witnessed Rajesh Khanna delivering the iconic dialogue, “Pushpa, I hate tears.”
Talking about the Thalaivar, aka Rajinikanth, his fandom explains the larger-than-life hero concept of India. In the book Intimate Visualities and the Politics of Fandom in India, Roos Gerritsen captures the humongous fandom of Rajinikanth. From billboards to fan clubs, it has fan tales that have even manifested the stars’ success. Though the book talks about the political narrative of Indian fandom, especially in Tamil Nadu, we get a glimpse of Thaliavar’s fan culture. What else does one need when fans do aarti and abhishek of the theatres and Rajinikanth’s cutout. A God-like feeling!
Indian fandom has even dedicated temples to their favourite stars. Amitabh Bacchan, Khushboo Sundar, Kichcha Sudeep are few to have temples built after them. Now that’s the uniqueness we are talking about in this fandom. Fan culture has made stars, idols for fans. As rightly said, Indian fandom is founded not in reason or the head but in the body’s desire, in the passion of that organ so often celebrated in Hindi film titles; dil or heart.
In instances, fans have paid theatre rents, ensuring their stars’ movie is a blockbuster. When tickets to Prabhas’s Baahubali benefit show were sold for ₹6000, fans proved their point. Actor Balakrishna’s fan paid ₹1 lakh for a ticket of Gautamiputra Satakarni. The fan’s gesture to save up for a year and contribute to his idol’s cause is something. But sometimes, it can go overboard. We all remember Rajinikanth’s fan wanting him to donate a kidney and eventually jumping off a building or when Kareena Kapoor’s fan gifted her a diamond set worth ₹40 lakhs. Well, that’s something, isn’t it?
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Fans connect to them in a sense where logic is different for everyone. They witness a part of themselves through these actors as a lived experience. Indian cinema is more than just entertainment. Fans celebrate films as festivals with rituals for their stars’ good luck. Amitabh Bachchan’s fans organized vigils and went on pilgrimages when the actor was injured shooting Coolie in 1983.
Bollywood is incomplete without Bhaijaan and King Khan. The aura they imbibe is something extraordinary. These names need no introduction. Ranging from local to international, fans anticipate a mere glance of them. From idols to fashion icons, from celebrities to brands, fans endorse every aspect of their lives.
Madhav Prasad explains the phenomenon of darsana concerning actors. It refers to “a relation of perception from within the public traditions of Hindu worship, especially in the temples but also in public appearances of monarchs and other elevated figures.” This is related to fans flocking around residences and studios of their cinematic idols is an example of darsana.
Shan Ghosh from Nagpur is known as Junior Salman. Not only does he resemble Salman Khan, but he also imbibed himself as one. The documentary Being Bhaijaan showcases the lives of three fans of Salman Bhai and how their lives revolve around Khan. Shan, Balkan, and Bhaskar also plan to establish the Being Salman Foundation in Nagpur. Shan describes how he is thankful that he resembles Salman Khan, which has given him an identity as an artist and a chance to be groomed. The documentary highlights the extent to which a cinematic idol can influence individuals and the love and respect fans adorn their hearts for them.
It aims to portray what fan culture in India can be and the difference between western fandom cultures. It showed the lack of personal identity and living in the fan bubble. Shan and Balram portrayed the imagery of toxic masculinity and hollow ideas about life and relationship. Youth is engrossed in keeping tabs on their favourite stars. And the advent of social media has eased the process. This leads to utopic expectations of a perfect life with glitz and glamour. It has also raised concerns about body image with six-pack abs or a zero figure. Is it worth it? Dedicating lives for someone who will probably never know about you?
An urge to follow the idol to maintain the parasocial relationship in Indian Cinema has paved the way to the merchandise market. It is now week 4 of me successfully hiding my not-so-needed purchase from Kay by Katrina because I wanted to show my support for Katrina’s endeavour.
The Great Indian Fandom Conference organized by Godrej India Culture Labs at Mumbai was one of its kind to manage this in India. Platforms like these have provided a professional space for fans to represent fandom cultures and opportunities to the queer community, imitating stars like Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit.
The changing scenario of fandom culture has made scholars study fandom literature as a research subject. Fandoms are transforming into a participatory nature with time. The emergence of fan fiction has channelized the notion of creativity with a potential career aspect to it. Though we can see emerging trends in Indian Cinema fandom, the basis of cinematic idol worship is what sustains our industry given prospects of study and innovations.
Note: The author is part of the Dec ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.