25 April 2016

Good Fans and Bad Fans

My Mirror column yesterday:

Watching Fan made me think about the lives of Indian film fans, both on and off the silver screen.

Narcissism is integral to stardom. But in Fan, Shah Rukh Khan has gone where no superstar has gone before: he has played, in the same film, two versions of himself. As Aryan Khanna, the superstar, he looks like his contemporary self (and the footage supposedly from Aryan's early years in the industry is Khan's own). As Gaurav Chandna, the fan, Khan presents a persona that echoes his own screen self from an earlier era, the crazed young stalker of Darr and Baazigar.

The figure of the film fan has appeared in Hindi cinema before, but in every previous instance I can think of, fandom has been a route to romantic fantasy. Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi (1971) cast debutant actress Jaya Bhaduri (who had just graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India) as a schoolgirl besotted with Dharmendra. Bhaduri's Guddi is a charming mix of precocious and innocent - confident enough to use filmi acting as a way of tricking the adults around her, and yet so dumbstruck by Dharmendra's screen image as to decide that she will be a lifelong adoring Meera to his unseeing Krishna.

Mukherjee's tone is gently pedagogic about the psychological impact of films on society - there's the sly scene in the beginning where the teacher tells Guddi's class to produce a "paanch pannon ka lekh" on 'Janta ka swabhaav, us par cinema ka prabhaav' and then promptly opens her copy of a Hindi film magazine to read while they write it. Dharmendra plays himself, with his friend Gulzar's script enabling him to add to his public persona this additional layer of the socially concerned film star who goes out of his way to undo the impact of his reel life on his fans' real lives. Gulzar and Mukherjee want us to see Guddi's emergence from fandom as a painful but necessary coming of age.

Fandom is an infantile state of being in the 1999 release Mast, too - just not one from which escape is encouraged. Instead director Ram Gopal Varma creates an infantile star to match the infantile fan. The schoolboyish Kittu (Aftab Shivdasani) runs away to Bombay to meet his idol Mallika (Urmila Matondkar). When he discovers that the superstar is actually a sweet, sad orphan kept under lock and key by her evil mamaji, the scene is set for the ultimate fan fantasy - the fan rescues the star, and she recognises him for the wonderful creature he is, and they live happily ever after.

Rajat Kapur's 2003 Raghu Romeo also features a crazed fan 'rescuing' his heroine. But if Mast entered entirely into the fan's imagination, Kapur's film is a sharp and often hysterically funny takedown, presenting the fan as someone unable to differentiate image from reality. Vijay Raaz, playing the eponymous Raghu with a perfect hangdog expression, kidnaps an uppity television star (Maria Goretti) ostensibly to save her from a hitman. He keeps the actress in captivity for days, driving her up the wall by insisting on treating her as the pious housewife she plays in the daily soap he watches obsessively. Many things happen, but Kapur's resolution to Raghu's fixation with 'Neetaji' involves not just her clear romantic rejection of him, but also her screen death.

is different from these, because Gaurav's relationship with Aryan cannot be subsumed easily under the category of romantic love. He does not only love Aryan -- he wants to be him. Fan's premise is much closer to the real-life phenomenon of organised fandom in India, which is overwhelmingly made up of all-male fan associations focused on male stars. Many such fans model themselves on their heroes; those who manage 'duplicate' status can sometimes build a career out of performing the star's hit dances, just as Gaurav does in the film. It is a strange combination -- a mode of self-promotion that the fan presents as altruistic support of the star. (One such group of Salman Khan lookalikes in Nagpur featured in the insightful 2014 documentary Being Bhaijaan.)

Narcissism apart, Fan plays too much to its imagined audience of fans, with unending chases and fisticuffs between the two SRKs making the film drag. But its plot taps astutely into what the film scholar SV Srinivas, in his superb book about the Chiranjeevi phenomenon, has described as "conditional loyalty". "The fan is a loyal follower and devotee only if the star lives up to the expectations the fan has of him..." writes Srinivas. "This [sense of entitlement] results in a situation in which fans become the guardians of the star's image and resort to drastic actions in his name."

The irrationality of fans -- usually jobless young men -- is linked to potential criminality: black-marketing tickets, rioting or 'rowdyism'. Srinivas documents attempts by Telugu stars to school the fan into becoming "a responsible admirer committed to socially purposeful activities". It is this spectre of the criminalised fan that Fan summons up. It makes some token gestures towards suggesting the star's fallibility as a human being. But by presenting Gaurav as an infantile fan gone rogue, the film becomes another part of the pedagogic machinery by which SRK the star wants to 'reform' his fans.

Gaurav spends his whole life duplicating his hero, and when his hero finally talks to him at length, it is only to lecture him about living his own life. But Gaurav, it seems, can only step away from Aryan by dying. Is death the fan's one original act?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 April 2016.

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