Bollywood Newbie brought up a really interesting topic in my post on Aamir’s birthday yesterday. What identity does belonging to certain fandoms give you? This is kind of a high level fan study/media meaning making topic, so I want to hear what you all think, but I also want to give you some framework for the discussion first.
Fandom, or anything we do as a public presentation of our identity, has two levels to it. First there is the inner feeling, why we enjoy something within ourselves. I already talked about that several times in terms of why I am a Shahrukh Khan fan. I enjoy his sense of humor, I feel like he respects me as a woman, I am inspired by the way he approaches his personal life, and so on and so on.
But there is a second level when we are talking about fandoms as a community. You can use fandom to identify yourself, to claim membership in a certain kind of group, or to make a statement to an “enemy” group. It is a way of being in, or of being out. Fandom as a public statement, not just as a personal feeling.
It might be easier to think of this in terms of appearance. Think about dying your hair purple. On the one hand, it might be about (for instance) purple being your dead grandmother’s favorite color and so you dye it in her honor and it has nothing to do with anyone else, you are blind to any public statement it is making. On the other hand, you may only be dying it purple because of peer pressure, all your friends are doing it, you don’t really want to, but you pretend you do and convince yourself you do because you want to be part of the “purple” group.
(Remember when Kat had the purpley highlights for New York? That was both because it looked cool with her hair and skin tone, and because it signaled to the audience that she was a free-thinking western type of person, not a shy traditional Indian girl)
Most often it is a combination of the two. You like the color purple, you are sick of your current hair style, but you also want to signal to other purple-hair people that you are like them. And you want to signal to natural-hair people that you are different from them. It makes a statement, it makes you feel like you are a certain kind of person that you aspire to be.
Fandom is increasingly become one of those “statement” options for people. Doctor Who fandom, for instance, is one I run across a lot among in my age group in my city. It indicates that you are smart, you are offbeat, you don’t care about traditional gender roles (if you are a girl), and you are beyond superficial sexual attraction (since you are attracted to the funky looking Doctor). It may not necessarily mean you actually enjoy, or even watch, the show.
Marketing people are aware of this shift and are taking advantage of it. You can buy Doctor Who shirts, toys, bags, blankets, everything. It let’s you go out into the world signaling that you belong to a certain group, calling out to others who belong to the same group and proudly antagonizing those who “just don’t understand”.
What’s strange is when the identity of being a fan, the symbols and signaling, get completely removed from the actual personal connection. For example, in my city, we have two baseball teams, the White Sox and the Cubs. White Sox fans are fine, but I hate Cubs fans, as does everyone else I know. That is, we hate the identity that goes with being a Cubs fan. Wearing Cubs gear is essentially proclaiming “I am rich, white, and don’t actually live in the city, I just like coming here to get drunk and make noise”.
What makes it confusing is, everyone I know both hates Cubs fans, and is a fan of the Cubs. But not a “Cubs fan”. A Cubs fan is a loathsome terrible creature that vomits into mailboxes (no really, they had to remove all the mailboxes around Wrigley Field because they kept getting vomited into). A fan of the Cubs is someone who sits at home and listens to the games on the radio, wears a tattered old Cubs hat while doing yard work, and saves up their money so they can afford tickets to one game a year. I have a beat up old Cubs hat, which I only wear on vacation or on the off-season. Because in Chicago I don’t want to risk being considered a “Cubs fan” rather than a fan of the Cubs.
(See, I will wear the hat in India, but not at home. Also, Hey Swami Vivekenanda! You were in Chicago before the Cubs, so my hat probably is meaningless to you!)
So, how does this work with Indian film? Indian film is about Stars. We all know this, right? So your fan identity is primarily based on the Star you follow.
In the “olden days” fan identity for Indian film was a lot less performative. That is, you didn’t wear your fandom in order to proclaim your identity in a particular group to the greater world. Although it was still part of proclaiming a wider identity. For instance, being from a particular neighborhood might mean you were a fan of the star who grew up near you. You would talk about their movies, maybe put up their poster on the wall of your shop, and your neighbors and everyone else you knew would have a warm feeling of belonging together thanks to this shared fandom. Or, you might put up a poster in your bedroom and argue with your friends over who is better (Shammi or Rajesh or Rishi, for instance), but it wouldn’t limit your entire social life. You had your personal preference, but you didn’t expect everyone you knew to share it, you didn’t draw a social identity from it, it was just something that gave you joy and was fun to talk about.
(The exception to this being of course the Tamil and Telugu industries where fandom and politics became mixed together. Being a fan of a particular movie star also meant being their political follower. A combined identity, fandom and politics.)
Now, I think pretty much every industry has divided in such a way that being a “fan” of a particular star does not only mean you like that star, but implies a particular kind of identity which you are claiming. And, what is really interesting, that identity is often shifting.
For instance, being a fan of Akshay Kumar in the 90s might mean that you are a young man who enjoys wacky comedy and action scenes, or a young woman swooning over his good looks. Being a fan of Akshay Kumar today means you are claiming a kind of non-threatening patriotism, an “invisible hand” version of social reform by the individual and corporations rather than by the State, and an identity as a mature man who is stronger and wiser and better than both women and younger men. Today I find myself in an odd position of really liking Akshay-Kumar-the-person, and even liking many of his films, but disliking the people who claim the identity of liking his films.
Bollywood Newbie original brought up this discussion related to the 3 Khans, who are the 3 overarching fan identities for Indian culture. You can ask anyone which Khan they prefer, and their choice will tell you what part of society they wish to be identified with. Oh, and I should say straight out that any one reading this is excluded from these definitions, because if you are only a “fan” in an effort to identify yourself with a particular level of society, you are not going to bother tracking down internet blogs and reading long articles, so you won’t even be on this website. I’m talking about other people here, not you reading this.
Bollywood Newbie (accurately, I think) identified Aamir Khan fans as the aspirational bourgeois, the ones who like to think they are “better” than the run of the mill Hindi film fans, but aren’t ready for truly challenging art cinema, or extreme political statements, and so fall back on the seemingly-intelligent, seemingly-radical, but actually kind of childish Aamir style film. Which explains why his audience is growing and growing, with the rise of the urban middle-class, there are more and more people in this category, who aren’t going to be able to handle something truly different like Badlapur, but will go to an Aamir film and feel sophisticated and mature and “classy”.
Salman fans, that is easy, they are the opposite of the Aamir fans. The ones who are proud of their lowerclass origins and reject the bourgeois. Even if you are in some white collar IT job, being a Salman fan makes you feel like you are still tough (like the white guys in America who listen to rap). And if you are actually lowerclass, being a Salman fan tells you that there is someone rich and famous and important who is still “just like you”. It makes you feel like you aren’t missing anything by not having achieved middle-class status, after all Salman could be anyone he wants and he has chosen to remain a simple “Bhai”.
Shahrukh fans, that is where it gets difficult. It feels like, for a while in the 90s and early 2000s, being a Shahrukh fan was both the NRI and the female identity. If you were an NRI, claiming Salman fandom would point you out as too connected to your Indian roots, and your lowerclass roots. Claiming Aamir fandom would mean being a little too “western”, what with the Oscar nomination and everything. You could be proud of him, but you wouldn’t be a “fan” of him. But Shahrukh, that was a nice middle ground, still having a tie to the general idea of India without being part of any particular sub social group. A non-threatening easy version of Indian identity that didn’t stop you from building a new identity in a new country.
And Shahrukh was also the star for women. Being a Shahrukh “fan” was something of a right of passage, little girls and old women and teenagers all bonding together and giggling over his movies. He also had a nice non-threatening version of masculinity, sexual and romantic but not so much as to aggressively challenge your vision of your life. Not all women, of course, especially in the 90s. Aamir and Salman were doing romances as well. But by the early 2000s, it was just Shahrukh, Aamir had moved on to his intellectual rather than emotional roles, and Salman into his action phase. Shahrukh got AAAAAALLLLLLLLL the girls.
But now, I don’t know, it feels like he is losing that “fan identity” part of it. There are still new Shahrukh fans born every day, but it is no longer an identity you wear proudly and publicly, you use to bond with other people, that makes a social statement. This is just me spitballing, but I feel like there are two different functions to it.
First, the NRI audience is dividing. The fans who in the past might have gravitated towards Shahrukh because he speaks good English and wears suits and plays characters who are overseas successes ,are now either watching straight up Western films, or watching movies like Mersal in which the hero loudly proclaims his identity as Tamil and insists on wearing a Lungi even overseas. Being a “Shahrukh fan” now means either that you are ashamed of your Indian roots and following someone who isn’t a “true” Indian the way other stars are, or it means that you are not assimilated enough and should give up the security blanket of Indian film and become a “real” American (or real British or real Australian or whatever it is).
(Shahrukh is the wax figure in Madame Tussaud’s, no longer the star you feel the deep real connection to, who connects you to either India or the place where you currently live. At least, that is the fan identity now)
And second, the female audience is conflicted in a new way. From what I can tell, there is still a private special place for Shahrukh. You might still watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and sigh at a sleepover, or be the Mom at that sleepover reminiscing with other Moms about the first time you saw DDLJ. But in public, it is now a “bad” thing to say as a woman. The public conversation around him has decided that his films are regressive, tired, that he is an old man who is out of touch with today’s women. He is accused of “slut-shaming” in Jab Harry Met Sejal, of having a midlife crisis with Ra.One, of being (worst of all) a bad actor in bad movies. Suddenly the public identity of being a Shahrukh fan has come to mean you are anti-feminist, foolish, childish, regressive, unintelligent.
The new public fan identity for women seems to be with female actresses. Anushka Sharma, Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt, these are the acceptable fandoms. They proclaim your identity as a strong independent intelligent career woman.
Of course, this is the vocal minority of the public. The whole concept of a “fan identity” involves being able to find your community and know what defines that community. Going back to my example of earlier times, it is one thing to have a framed poster in your shop because you know your particular district is strongly for Kamal Haasan over Rajinikanth. It’s something else entirely to know that anywhere you go in the world, saying that you “love Priyanka” will proclaim you as a strong outspoken woman, because that is the definition that has been decided through internet think pieces.
We can see this in the box office. Shahrukh’s box office is dropping, but isn’t dead. And yet every article I read about him online seems to say he is horrible, out of touch, etc. etc. There is a disconnect between those who proclaim a public disdain for him and the number of people who still see his movies.
There is an odd anti-fandom that seems to be rising in his case. Any article criticizing him will receive dozens of retweets, of clicks, of comments. It is more popular to hate Shahrukh, and more likely to make you part of a public community, than it is to love him.
Now, that’s a whole lot of thoughts and a whole lot of talk! Here’s what I actually wanted to get at. I am not in India, and I am not desi, so I am removed from a lot of the fan identity information for these Stars. So I wanted to get a discussion going for us to talk together and learn from each other. Here are some questions to start you off:
In the Telugu industry, who are the top stars and what does it “mean” to be a fan of them? What would you know about a person if they said they were a Mahesh Babu fan versus saying they are an Allu Arjun fan?
In the Tamil industry, what’s the difference between Rajinikanth and Kamaal Hasaan fans? Or Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi fans? What does it mean to claim those identities?
Is there any deeper meaning between being a fan of Prithviraj, Nivin, or Dulquer beyond just liking one actor more than the other? How does the Mammootty versus Mohanlal fandom work, is there a class or gender or any other interesting component to it?
In the Hindi industry, are there ANY young stars who have built up a specific identity for their fans? Varun Dhawan and young women maybe? Ranbir Kapoor and sensitive young men?
There are no wrong answers! I just think it is a good discussion for us to have, to sort of unpack all of these meanings and go out into the world more educated and aware people.