She came up to me as I waited for my car at a Mumbai hotel a few years back, the real-life person behind a social media ID with which I had exchanged a handful of tweets over time. She (let us call her X) was disappointed when she discovered that I had just finished recording a TV interview with John Abraham.
Bumping into John as he left the set of my show would have meant notching up two stars in one day for her. As the winner of a contest run by a film producer in collaboration with a corporate house, X had just spent some time with a major actor as her prize. An unplanned encounter with another would have been a windfall, she explained.
It was a routine polite conversation with a random star-crazed stranger that will sound familiar to any journalist who has covered films. The tone changed though when X decided to confide in me. Being a huge fan of Ranbir Kapoor, she was furious with Deepika Padukone for splitting up with him, she said. So she sent multiple entries to a contest where the prize was a chance to dance with DP. She won.
“There were others there, but I made sure I was standing next to Deepika,” said X, “and while we were dancing, I stepped hard on her feet to hurt her, then I pretended it happened by accident. How dare she break my Ranbir’s heart.”
I have no clue whether such an event actually took place or was a fiction created by X, but the pride with which this creepy youngster narrated it to me was disturbing.
That chance meeting popped back into my mind as I watched Shah Rukh Khan’s Fan last week. Some analysts have called the film a risk for SRK because it is songless and, in comparison with most of his blockbusters, understated. To my mind though, the risk of the project lies in another of its elements.
Imagine Ranbir Kapoor telling X to get a life. That is pretty much what Khan does in Fan in which he plays movie star Aryan Khanna and his lookalike Gaurav Chandna who calls himself Junior Aryan Khanna, impersonates the actor on stage and at one point, when his idol snubs him, turns into a psychopathic stalker. In short, Chandna is a nut.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus says: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” You could add another creature to his list: the fanatic. All-consuming fandom is, and perhaps always will be, completely incomprehensible to those who have never felt such passion for distant figures they are unlikely to ever meet in person.
For the record, possessed fans do not necessarily see their deity as a far-away being, assuming instead that s/he is reading their words or hearing them somehow and imagining that some day they will indeed meet.
A reporter colleague recalls interviewing Rajinikanth fans outside a theatre after the first day first show of a new Rajini film in Delhi. Off camera they admitted to being highly disappointed, on camera on a live show they praised the film to the heavens. Why did you not speak the truth, the journalist later asked? Because we cannot upset Thalaivar, they replied in all seriousness, as if they were genuinely convinced that Rajinikanth was glued to that particular news programme on that particular channel to see what they in particular had to say about Kuselan.
Bizarre? Inexplicable? Perhaps that is why Gaurav Chandna in Fan dispenses this punchline to explain it away to Aryan Khanna: “Rehne de, tu nahi samjhega” (Forget it, you will not understand).
Khanna, who is furious at the intrusion into his life and clearly does not want to understand, offers Chandna this advice that could well be seen as coming from Shah Rukh Khan himself: establish an identity for yourself beyond me, make something of yourself instead of being just a fan.
It is natural to wonder if SRK maniacs are pleased to hear these words from their hero. Is it not suicidal for a star not to pander to even his most maniacal fans?
Without fandom, can there be stardom? Chandna, who seems not to recognise the role of Khanna’s talent and hard work in his success, offers this answer in the film: “Main hoon toh tu hai” (I am, therefore you are). And: “Gaurav hai toh Aryan hai, Gaurav nahin toh Aryan kucch bhi nahin” (Aryan is who he is because Gaurav exists; without Gaurav, Aryan is nothing).
Curiously enough then, Fan seems to be gently chiding the leading man’s core constituency: not sane supporters who respect his art and are drawn to his charisma, not mere admirers, but devotees. This then is the risk the film holds.
It is a risk worth taking. After all, extreme fandom can pretty quickly turn from a non-aggressive fixation to verbal or even physical violence. Fans who watch the same film 25 times in the week of its release, deem it their duty to ‘make’ it a hit and build shrines within their homes, are just a hop, a skip and a jump away from the ones who take it upon themselves to spew venom at a star’s rivals online, who try to intimidate critics before a release and afterwards troll those who wrote negative reviews.
They are so mired in their own infatuation that earlier this week they lacked the discernment to realise that Ram Gopal Varma was, in all probability, having a lark at their expense with his tweets mocking Rajinikanth’s looks, posted possibly after more than a couple of shots of whatever it is RGV consumes before he tweets.
Offline, they have built actual physical temples to Amitabh Bachchan and Khushboo, and bathe giant likenesses of Rajini in milk on the morning of each new release. They sent letters written in their own blood to Rajesh Khanna and threw themselves at the Beatles’ cars. They weep at concerts and faint at premieres. And when it gets worse, they are that stalker claiming to be Taylor Swift’s husband, against whom she had to get a restraining order from a Los Angeles court; that woman who scratched John Abraham and told him with satisfaction that she now had his blood and skin under her nails; that man who allegedly followed Shruti Haasan around, finally turned up at her Mumbai home and assaulted her.
This is not admiration, it is obsession to the exclusion of sense, sanity and self-respect. Psychologists say such people see the star as an extension of their own selves, and derive their self-worth from her/his achievements. Witness their excited online chatter, for instance, about how “our film is a hit” and “we did it”.
As mediapersons we often end up being abused, praised, harangued and harassed by such people. To be honest, the word that comes to mind for them is “loser”. The problem with that label though is that it is a casual expression of irritation that fails to consider the dangerous aspects of fandom.