On Rajini's stardom

This is an extension of an exchange that I had with Zero on twitter from here. I thought I’ll also touch on some things I wanted to talk about during Endhiran’s release.

The general point that everyone seems to agree with is that a star like Rajini and the media feed on each other to push their own agendas. What many don’t quite agree is that the same is true of the fans who are incomparably ‘politicized’ than those of, say, Bagavathar. Whether it’s organic or not, a star’s fan in Tamil Nadu (the one who engages in ‘marketing’), post MGR, mostly tends to have ambitions that far exceed the star/star’s film’s success [1]. The ‘fans’ who sustain the spectacle of fandom created by the former engage in it purely as an act of aggrandized consumption [2]. I think, for these fans, their relationship to the star does in fact offer a rather distorted understanding/experience of the film that isn’t necessarily ‘productive’ (from an understanding they could have had otherwise, even as ‘fans’ of a different kind – different from either). For they both construct a discourse that normalizes the inclusion of a film’s externalities such as ‘budget’ in its appreciation (at least in its most primary mode). Because they know what’s external for the film is, nonetheless, essential for the spectacle.

While it’s true that marketing muscle is an inextricable part of star power, it used to originate from the star -- he’s usually the top of the pyramid. It may not be the case anymore. The star’s image has now been hijacked and remodelled to meet ends that probably don’t serve the star himself. So a different kind of spectacle is manufactured in which the star is an auxiliary mechanism to propel, in this case, the producer. The interesting thing is, there isn’t much resistance to this. Or so it seems, given how many 'fans' actually mention Maaran’s name alongside Rajini. It’s quite an anathema for an erstwhile Rajini fan [3].

The least that can be established is that Rajini’s star power and the ‘marketing muscle’ that he’s supposed to possess ‘naturally’ did not save Baba [4] (let alone the election results in 2004). And there’s little reason to believe that his waning star power gathered momentum, like it did in the 80s, as he aged further from then, by his fans’ efforts or some such. While he may have had the potential for resurgence, he probably could not have done it on his own (even with what could be called ‘good’ films). What the Sun corporation has done is to re-articulate the dormant fanaticism of Rajini fandom by suggesting normativity of the exaggerated, and in presenting that it’s both a matter of pride and Tamilness even. The ‘new age’ yuppie fans badly needed the re-articulation to legitimize their publicized indulgence -- and lend some elitist charm -- in activities that were otherwise relegated to the ‘uncultured’ [5].

Shankar’s own claims of grandiosity (especially one that’s perceived in the north Indian media) further exotified -- what is perhaps a matter of shame (my personal opinion) -- the participation in the spectacle of Rajini fandom. Ultimately it translates into a desire to seek the film’s success and break box office records at any cost (literally) in order to sustain the spectacle. This collective participation is enabled by simulating a cloud of consensus in all forms of media. This is the point of departure for ‘real’ star power from what is manufactured.


1.That his contemporaries who tried to follow the same model and that only Rajini succeeded to a great extent (intentionally or not) is what sets him apart.

2. It’s not unlike the self-elevation common in other kinds of fan mentality (among certain ‘fans’).

3. It's different from producers/distributors who used to be the auxiliary beneficiaries in Rajini’s older films. This ‘paradigm shift’ is also, incidentally, a mark of public acceptance of corporate greed and profiteering (as discussed in the podcast with Krishna Ananth).

4. It’s debatable (and a different point altogether) as to whether Baba failed because it wasn’t as good as Endhiran. But then, it only undermines the argument of 'star power'.

5. People in videos like this seem to be have been desperate for an excuse to do something like this or it’s just the old ‘bhangra envy’.

Day Dream: News Media Production and Consumption in India

This is a new podcast program titled pagal kanavu (day dream). The title is open to interpretation but it's generally supposed to reflect the broader motivation behind something like this. The program is done in colloquial Tamil [1].

In this episode:

I talk to writer, journalist, academic, activist Krishna Ananth about 'Radia Tapes' and try to understand the current milieu in which news media are produced and consumed in India and its wider implications. It was recorded about a month ago (I know). I've split the conversation into 3 parts for easy download/listening.

Edit: There seems to be a problem with the audio player embedded earlier (playing part 3 in all players even after editing it several times). I'll try to fix it soon, meanwhile please download and listen from below.

Part 1:

2'-8' 'Radia Tapes' scandal - a well known secret
9'-13' Press's erstwhile approach to corruption
17'-19' Public perception of conteporary news media; corporate power
20'-25 Media outlets' collusive attitude in corporate profiteering
29'-32' Media's actual clout
36'- II Media's contribution to public discourse

Part 2:

'1-6' Media's contribution to public discourse (contd.)
7'-10' People's contradictory expectation of 'real' news and its cynical dismissal
10'-13' Activists, NGOs and lack of alternatives
15'-21' The much apprciated virtues of corporate corruption and 'meritocracy'

Part 3:

1'-7' The 'educated youth'; why some of us complain? What's achieved?
8'-18' Would the marginalized people of urban India turn the Maoist way? Why/why not?
21'-23' The missing ingredient in a large scale anti-establishment movement
23'-29' State and demography of aspiring journalists (media producers).
(There's a small technical problem between 34'-34'40")

Download as mp3: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

1. It would probably sway between 'proper' Tamil sentences to complete sentences in English depending on the guest.

Tamil Research: vocabulary of Tamil humour

தமிழர்களின் தற்கால அரசியல் கலை இலக்கிய வாழ்க்கைமுறை பற்றி பெரிய ஆய்வுகள் இல்லை என்ற நிலை போய், இன்று அவர்களின் ஒவ்வொரு அங்கமும் theorize செய்யப்பட்டு வருகின்றது (ஆங்கிலத்தில்). (இதையெல்லாம் யாராச்சும் மொழிபெயர்ப்பு செய்யுங்கப்பா.) இதனால் ஏதும் பலன் இருக்கின்றதா என்றறிய சில பல ஆண்டுகள் ஆகலாம். ஆனால் அவற்றால் பெரிய சேதம் ஏதுமில்லை என்றே நம்புகிறேன். ஆராய்ச்சிக்கு உகந்த பல தலைப்புகளில் இதுவும் ஒன்று என்பது என் எண்ணம்: தமிழர்களின் இன்றைய நகைச்சுவை பேச்சு வழக்கில்(லும்) ஊடுருவியுள்ள திரைப்பட வசனங்கள். கௌண்டமணி காலத்திலிருந்து தொடங்கி இன்று வரை என்று ஒரு இருவது ஆண்டுகள் வைத்தால் முதுகலை பட்டமே தேறும்.

Note: the following is not a translation but has the gist of what's above (and more).

Finding a theoretical analysis of the most prominent aspects of Tamil life -- film, politics, education, caste and lately, 'youth behaviour' -- is no longer a challenging task. The analysis may not be particularly useful for all, but many of them have really valuable field work data. Ironically, though, this apparent burgeoning of Tamil studies is probably not because of the diversification of academic interests among Tamils who are travelling abroad (although they have contributed to it quite a bit). Because, most of the research is actually done by non-Tamil scholars abroad. They probably feel like Darwin when he landed on the Galapagos Islands -- full of peculiar animals with unique behaviour. They had to be 'understood' and explained.

The MGR phenomenon was so peculiar that people like Robert Hardgrave wrote a paper on him four years before he became the Chief Minister. It's almost customary then to dedicate a small section if not an entire chapter to MGR (and Rajnikanth) even if the research is on ecological preservation of the Nilgiris. Essential or not, Tamil films are being studied and its salient features are scholastically documented and deconstructed. One area that hasn't still received its due attention is perhaps Tamil film humour and its influence on Tamil speakers' vocabulary.

I haven't lived in the 'west' long enough to know if there were verbal memes like 'more cowbell' before the 'explosion' of media sharing websites. But I have lived through the good years since Youtube's launch (and similar sites around the same period) to suggest that memetic humour here -- in 'real' life -- is very often inspired by 'regular people' in the internet than films. It is quite unlike what is prevalent among Tamil speakers.

Two very obvious reasons I could think of: 1. Lack of programmes dedicated to (re)airing funny clips from films (Tamils now have an entire channel dedicated for that). It's only after youtube[1] you have a space where a specific moment is replayed and recursively referenced to elevate a funny moment/dialogue/expression from a film to a meme. 2. Most English films do not lend themselves to be clipped the way Tamil films do. What is called a 'comedy track' in most Tamil films are sketches within a film; they do not in anyway affect the linearity of the main narrative. So people don't have to establish the plot context, characters' specific idiosyncracies etc., to enact a scene and evoke some cheap laughter. I haven't seen 90% of the films that feature Vivek and Vadivelu, for example [2]. But I know pretty much all their 'comedy scenes' at least until 2006.

The role of television, as noted above, is very crucial in imbuing film-inspired memetic humour among Tamil speakers. It's further evidenced by the fact that it's virtually impossible to find older people (say above 45) using references from films of their era. If any, it's the younger people who use such lines from old films (ex: 'ek gaun mein'). (And now it's gone meta -- films are ruining it for everyone by using them in their films [3].) An exhaustive study in the field could point to other factors too.

Anyway, what I wanted to say was: it will be an interesting research topic to study film based memetic humour among Tamils (could be in linguistics, film studies, anthropology, cultural studies etc.). And the reason I wrote a less than half-assed proposal type blogpost with so much obvious detail -- much longer than the Tamil version -- is to make life harder for someone who already thought of it and is working on an actual thesis proposal (haha, sucker!).


1. Again, I used Youtube only as an identifier for all such sites.
2. I probably have seen 90% of Goundamani's films in their entire length.
3. 'enna kodumai sir idhu,' first featured in Chennai 28, is perhaps the most sucessful in recent times. Aside: to say Nayanthara is disgusting when she tries to be funny by saying "vandhuttanya, vandhuttanya!" is being very kind.

Some(thing) about a dog

(Read bottum up.)

பெண்களுடைய அலறலும் குமுறலும் இல்லாமல் என்னய்யா thriller? ச்ச, இதைக்கூட புரிஞ்சுக்காம இருந்தா நானெல்லாம் படம் பாத்து என்ன புண்ணியம்?
..wait, it's a 'thriller' about women getting abducted in Madras? thoo! But it's true, you cannot make a thriller without victimizing women.
"A 90 mins thriller with no songs and background score," says Gautham Menon -- oh no, I may have to show some respect to this guy...
...and தொட்டி நாய்கள் (you know, from Reservoir Dogs) is still available for registration?
Gautam Menon's next film is titled 'Nadunisi Naaygal' (நடுநிசி நாய்கள்). I hope the story is not about the time he got bit by a bunch of...
28 Jul

ps. I might remove one of the tags later

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