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"For The Love of a Man" - Rinku Kalsy documentary
(Tuesday, 15th September 2015)

Rinku Kalsy’s documentary ‘For The Love of a Man’ shifts the attention from the movies starring the Tamil superstar to his numerous fans.

Rajinikanth is among the few movie icons who has been able to take his fans along with him on his singular journey from playing villains in the 1970s to becoming a supernova whose characters are the very epitome of virtue, honour and resourcefulness. As the documentary For the Love of a Manproves, the Tamil cinema icon is now at the phase of superstardom where his admirers make as much news as he does. The release of every new Rajinikanth movie is a semi-religious occasion: posters and cut-outs are propitiated with milk and prayers, the cinemas resemble prayer halls, and the ticket buyers behave as though they are witnessing a miracle.

Rajinikanth’s perceived grip over the hearts and minds of viewers is thought to be so complete that Tamil Nadu’s Bharatiya Janata Party unit and other Hindutva organisations have issued him a stern warning against signing up for a proposed biopic on Tipu Sultan. Hindutva votaries regard the former ruler of Mysore as anti-Hindu.

For The Love of a Man was premiered at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival. Produced by Joyojeet Pal and directed by Rinku Kalsy, the film examines the cult that has come up around Rajinikanth through the worshipful gaze of his mostly male devotees. It discovers the intimate love that the actor generates in his admirers and their tendency to relate their own lives to his own. The film also attempts to place Rajinikanth within the context of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, whose early tenets included a critique of organised religion. As one commentator points out to the filmmakers, nowhere has it been said by Dravidian leaders that a human being cannot be worshipped. Excerpts from an interview with Kalsy. 

The fanaticism of Rajinikanth’s followers is a well-documented phenomenon in India. Why did you feel that the subject lent itself to a documentary?
The idea for the project came from Joyojeet.

Joyojeet was working with Microsoft Research in Coimbatore district on a project to increase children’s access to computers. He discovered that Rajinikanth’s role as a software engineer in Sivajihad an unintended benefit – many more rural kids in Tamil Nadu were now keen on a career in computer science. This made us think about the strength of Rajinikanth’s influence throughout the state and the various ways in which he appealed to people across ages.
Perhaps elements of the phenomenon are well documented, such as the connection between Dravidian politics and fanclubs, but that rests either in academic circles, or at the very least primarily in the South. There are elements of it – such as the connection with devotional ritual, with social aspiration, that are not understood.

We felt that the film has to be understood within a larger context of the diversity of fans in age groups, and how for instance technology is changing fandom – we see for instance lifelong fans who feel they are being made irrelevant by Facebook since that is now a means of marketing, rather than the frenzy outside a theatre.

Were the Rajinikanth fan clubs enthusiastic about appearing in a film about their icon?
Yes, the starting point was N Ravi, the sweet shop owner and guy who arranged a climb up 1,300 steps of Sholingur temple to pray for Enthiran. The fans were generally enthusiastic, in part there is a certain performativity to being a fan, so being in front of a camera was not unusual to them, it’s a continuation of what many of them already do for the releases. Perhaps the most complicated part was asking people to reflect on what they do. In a sense it is like religion, it’s hard to ask someone to be reflective of why they love God, who that figure is to them in their lives, or why they do what they do.

On what basis were the Rajinikanth fans shortlisted?
The first two characters, the brothers in Sholingur, were the ones we selected first because of the climb and because they’ve been doing similar stuff for years, including the massive birthday celebrations. The other characters selected were picked based on either elements in their story that were interesting – such as the impact of fandom on their families (the peanut seller), a range in generation (the older auto-drivers and the younger Facebook group kids), visual elements of fandom (the mimics).

The film doesn’t delve into Rajinikanth’s history as an actor, nor are there interviews with the directors, especially the dialogue writers who have significantly contributed to his screen image.
We realised early that Rajnikanth as a phenomenon is an entirely separate movie unto itself, and if we went into that, the fans themselves would be reduced to an afterthought rather than be at the centre of the film.

Like with other mass heroes such as Chiranjeevi and Salman Khan, there are unsavoury aspects to Rajinikanth’s image, such as a regressive attitude towards female characters. His followers appear to be mostly men. How you dealt with this issue?
This definitely came up – because we were three women in the crew, and the fans, often in mob situations, were mostly men. So initially we had real concerns about safety and the gendered elements of our being there. But we never faced any uncomfortable situation during the shoot.

The taming of women arguably goes beyond Rajni films – if you think about it, Indian films have a warning when someone smokes a cigarette, but nothing when someone disrespects or abuses a woman, and it’s an inability to go beyond a patriarchal way of pitching to an audience which at the theatre level has largely been male.
But even that is changing from an economic perspective, since the theatre audience is turning into a co-ed space more and more as we have a urban multiplex culture becoming more economically valuable than the single theatre (and largely male) being the main driver of a film’s economics.

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