Mersal vs Vivegam: Battle between Vijay, Ajith fans illuminates power of Kollywood fandom

Sreedhar Pillai

Nov 03, 2017 09:13:47 IST

Why are Tamil cinema's (colloquially known as Kollywood) superstars always portrayed on screen as larger-than-life? Why is it that they will not move away from the comfort of template/mass-masala commercial entertainers and explore new genres? Why is it that when these stars become successful at the box-office, their advisors say they will enter Tamil Nadu’s murky politics soon?

The answer to all these questions is blowing in the wind. From time immemorial, Tamil superstars have been trying to cash in on the fan frenzy surrounding their screen image. Today Mersal is a blockbuster; people may say this is due to the controversies surrounding the film, but it is also largely due to its charismatic hero Ilayathalapathy aka Vijay, who has a huge fan base across the globe.

 Mersal vs Vivegam: Battle between Vijay, Ajith fans illuminates power of Kollywood fandom

Fans of 'Ilayathalapathy' Vijay and 'Thala' Ajith have rallied behind their heroes, to prop up Mersal and Vivegam respectively

In a state like Tamil Nadu, where films have paved a path to a successful career in politics — think MGR, Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa — the current crop of superstars too believe they can achieve a smooth crossover. This is a state where fans are seen as potential voters — a ‘vote bank’ which must be cultivated for future electoral success. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are making waves — even as they make the traditional political parties distinctly uncomfortable — thanks to their large fan base, spread across the state. Over the years, Rajinikanth has made sly political remarks in his films, while Kamal Haasan, in the last six months, has openly stepped into Tamil Nadu’s political cesspool. Last week, DMK leader and aspirant for the chief minister's job MK Stalin’s workout videos went viral. The message was clear: he was as fit and macho as any of the star aspirants to the throne.

In short, a fan base cultivated over the years works to the advantage of actors with an eye on the box office and aspiring “to lead the state”.  This also creates a turf war between rival actors and their fan clubs. For the last few years, there has been an acrimonious and bitter fan war going on between Vijay and Ajith fans over who is the bigger box office star. The war between Thala (Ajith) and Ilayathalapathy's fans has spilled over online, and on social media.

Fans of these actors go berserk when the first look, audio or trailer of their 'hero's' film is released. They try their hardest to create trending hashtags of record YouTube views — all for the superstar. Soon, rival fan clubs start posting memes and contesting the claims made by the star's fans. Recently it was reported that a Tamil piracy website got an offer from unnamed parties to 'leak' a big budget film, on the day of its release! Now the biggest spat between Ajith and Vijay fans is over the box-office collections of Vivegam and Mersal, respectively.

Ajith had formally dismantled his fan association some years ago while Vijay encouraged his fans to organise themselves and adopt welfare activities in their areas. At the audio launch of Mersal, nearly 20,000 Vijay fans turned up. However, Ajith fans are very strong on social media and they rouse themselves whenever a film of his is about to release. The trolling of journalists who may have reported stories/written reviews perceived to be negative towards either of the stars, is collateral damage.

Fan wars of course are not new. They've been going on since the time of the 'silent war' between MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, who competed with each other from the 1950s-70s.  The 1980s-90s saw the bitter battle between the fans of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Now Vijay and Ajith fans have taken over the mantle, even as a Dhanush versus Simbu fan rivalry brews. The only time Vijay and Ajith fans are seen to be on the same 'side', is when they troll fans of Suriya, who is seen as a potential rival.

Superstardom, from Kollywood's early days, seems to have been reserved for swashbuckling action heroes whose punchlines incorporated social messages. They were treated as demi-gods, and the trend of massive cut-outs decked in huge garlands with fans offering paal (milk) abhishekam are part of the superstar worshipping culture. Consider this: the early morning screenings in theatres — usually at around 4 am, for the first day first show — are called nirmaliyam shows, a word that's used to describe the washing and dressing of the deities in temples each morning, before the idols are adorned with flowers and offerings.

These early morning shows usually take place outside Chennai city and are technically illegal (as the Tamil Nadu government allows only four shows a day per screen), and tickets are priced at black market rates. Now every upcoming hero who wants to be the next superstar, as a matter of prestige is holding these “nirmaliyam shows". Trade experts will tell you that these actors, with their huge fan bases, can be assured of big opening collections, and keep the box office registers ringing over the first weekend.

Every actor worth his salt knows that without doing mass films and a strong fan base, one cannot get that humongous box office reach. Take the case of Vijay Sethupathi — a fine, classy actor who initially rejected fan clubs and being given titles. He is now known as 'Makkal Selvan' (People’s Actor). Sethupathi said in an interview, “I am personally not for it. But my guru, director Seenu Ramasamy, gave this title to me while filming  Dharmadurai, and out of love and affection for him, I accepted.” The title seems to be working in a big way for the actor, especially in rural areas, as he has had back-to-back hits (Vikram Vedha and Karuppan) this year.

As for the fan wars, those will continue unabated for the time to come — an inevitable part and parcel of Kollywood superstardom.

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Updated Date: Nov 03, 2017 09:13:47 IST