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Fan Bhakti and Subaltern Sovereignty: Enthusiasm as a Political Factor

The problem of popular sovereignty has to be investigated beyond the confines of the republican institutions themselves, in fields where supplementary, virtual formations of sovereignty create community effects that compensate for their lack in the political structure proper. In this essay, the emergence of sovereignty formations around film stars is discussed with particular reference to Rajnikanth, in the context of the challenge posed to such formations by a newly triumphant commodity logic. Far from solving the problem of sovereignty, however, the corrosive power of the economic logic may be expected to create new political crises. An


Fan Bhakti and Subaltern Sovereignty: Enthusiasm as a Political Factor

M Madhava Prasad

The problem of popular sovereignty has to be investigated beyond the confines of the republican institutions themselves, in fields where supplementary, virtual formations of sovereignty create community effects that compensate for their lack in the political structure proper. In this essay, the emergence of sovereignty formations around film stars is discussed with particular reference to Rajnikanth, in the context of the challenge posed to such formations by a newly triumphant commodity logic. Far from solving the problem of sovereignty, however, the corrosive power of the economic logic may be expected to create new political crises.

An early version of this paper was first presented at a conference on “The Subaltern and the Popular” at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in 2003. I thank the participants for their valuable comments.

M Madhava Prasad ( is at the Centre for European Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

he release of Tamil superstar Rajnikanth’s film, Sivaji, in 2007 was heralded by an unprecedented coverage of the star and his fans on national television channels. For more than a week all the major English language news channels aired special programmes with feeds from Tamil Nadu and other parts of India as well as several foreign cities showing Rajni fans, first in excited anticipation and then in exuberant celebration as the film finally hit the screens. The most memorable of the images was surely the one of fans performing palabhishekam, a Hindu temple ritual of washing the idol with milk, on a gigantic Rajni cut-out.

It was a strange case of the missing moral lesson. News anchors usually cue the audience to the right response to any news item not only by their choice of words and parenthetical remarks but also through subtle changes of facial expression. On this occasion, compared to previous instances of such coverage that one can recall, the anchors showed few signs of cultural anxiety. On the contrary when they reached the Rajni segment (which they did several times a day for more than a week), their faces would invariably light up with a practised show of excitement usually reserved for an Indian cricket victory or the stock index hitting a round figure. The accompanying words too were upbeat. None of the usual expressions of civilised worry about the irrational passions of the masses could be heard (although these were, of course, given due representation among the experts called in for the discussions). What accounts for this sudden and positive interest shown by the national media in the Rajni phenomenon?

We will return to this mystery in due course, after we have considered the figure at the centre of it. Rajnikanth started out playing small bad-man roles in the 1970s, first in K Balachander’s middle class melodramas. Even in these brief appearances, he impressed audiences with his signature gestures such as throwing a cigarette into his mouth from a distance, lighting it with a stylish flick of the hands, etc. The 1970s were a time of change for film industries in India. The transition to colour had just taken off and the painted faces of the black-and-white era were starting to look (un)really pink. For reasons that remain to be explored, it was only with the advent of colour that dark-skinned actors – notably Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Rajnikanth – began to appear in prominent roles in Indian popular cinema. Rajni was the Tamil cinema’s first unabashedly black-skinned star, a rude eruption of reality into an industry dominated by painted faces. Like his predecessor, M G Ramachandran, Rajni was an outsider, a Maharashtrian from

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Bangalore who had worked as a bus conductor before joining the acting course in the Madras Film Institute where he was spotted by the director Balachander (who is also credited with introducing Kamalahasan).

Rajni (as he is referred to by fans) quickly rose to the heights of stardom and soon he and Kamalahasan were occupying the same parallel positions of star-power that M G Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan had occupied a generation before, positions that can be described, in the language of the industry, as those of “mass hero” and “class hero”. This broad division which also prevails in other film industries of south India can also be read as a distinction between political representation (mass hero) and c ultural-economic representation (class hero). The prevalence of this equation of the mass hero with political representation and power in the film industries of the south has been noticed and studied before (Forrester 1976; Hardgrave Jr 1979; Sivathamby 1981; Venkat Narayan 1983; Pandian 1992; Dickey 1993).

My own work in this area has up to now covered the singular phenomenon of south Indian film stars turning into politicians or functioning in regional cultures as surrogate political icons. This development has usually been attributed either to the gullibility of the illiterate, religiously-inclined masses, or to the cinema’s power of manipulation. My attempt in previous work has been to show that the rise of one film star each in three southern states to a position of absolutist authority needs to be investigated as a historical event in the evolution of Indian political ideologies. Thus all three film stars in question, M G Ramachandran (MGR), N T Rama Rao (NTR) and Rajkumar, who dominated their respective film industries for three to four decades each, share certain attributes and historical circumstances. They came to the cinema from the popular commercial theatre, they were associated in the popular mind with stunt and costume films, rather than middle class narratives, they were the first big stars to feature in the revamped “social” films of the 1950s, which got rid of, or relativised the joint family scenario to foreground the romantic relationship between the lead pair, and they were also among the first set of stars to sport a modern, short-cropped hairstyle and clothing. In addition, there is the important historical factor, that their transformation into national icons for these southern nationalities, occurred in the wake of the linguistic reorganisation of states, and partly as a strategy to expand and consolidate the language cinema markets (Prasad 1999, 2003, 2004a).

In this paper I deal with the next generation of stars, focusing in particular on Rajnikanth, who is undoubtedly MGR’s successor, with the aim of approaching a better understanding of the relation between fan bhakti and the political problem of what I am calling enthusiasm and subaltern sovereignty. By this I mean to suggest that a congenital crisis of sovereignty in the Indian r epublic gives rise to various phenomena, including the political power of film stars. I begin by introducing a few films of Rajnikanth from the 1990s, before proceeding to a discussion of the political significance of star worship and its relation to religious practices. In order to historicise the question of the subaltern spectator as a figure forged in the colonial imaginary and e ndowed with an essential piety, and his relation to the contemporary Rajni fan, we will take a detour through the 1927-28 Film

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Inquiry Committee proceedings before arriving at a distinction between religious and political sites of enthusiasm.

Some Rajni Films

Annamalai (1992, Suresh Krissna), is a film of Rajnikanth’s that may be considered typical of his oeuvre. He plays the title role of Annamalai, a fatherless boy who lives with his mother and sister, and runs a small dairy on a plot of land in the heart of Chennai. Ashok, a motherless rich boy and Annamalai meet and after a quarrel, becoming close friends. As is usual with such subaltern narratives, Annamalai’s mother is partial to Ashok, and soon Annamalai himself joins her by assuming for himself the role of unquestioning loyalty to his rich friend. The family defines this friendship in terms of a primal bond that falls outside of any contractual relationships, practically identical to a blood relationship. Ashok’s father disapproves of the friendship, but fails to influence his son. Annamalai is described as a prince by his friend, inducing in the heroine (Khushboo) fantasies of being romanced by royalty. In Rajni’s films such false statements are usually made by a sympathetic associate. His image cannot accommodate even brief bouts of playful immorality or dishonesty. When an MLA takes over a part of Rajni’s land to build huts for his own people, Rajni retaliates by taking his cattle into the MLA’s bungalow, where he delivers a lecture on politics. The rest of the plot concerns the attempts of Ashok’s father and his goons to capture Annamalai’s land for a five-star hotel, and Ashok’s temporary betrayal of friendship. Annamalai, reduced to penury, procures a loan and rises to the heights of industry, overtaking Ashok’s family and reducing them to bankruptcy before setting things right.

In Annamalai we can already see a feature that distinguishes Rajnikanth’s films from those of other big stars: the social context in Annamalai crucially includes the politician, the community is imagined as one that includes the MLA as a figure of power and authority. Here Annamalai is not only the moral prince that a hero usually is, but also someone with a political message. The moral world of popular films remains immanent to the present social context, an order within an order, one that is rarely conscious of its location within a political order. Occasional references to politics/corruption, etc, do not change this in any significant way. In Rajnikanth’s films, the moral and political orders may not coincide, but they meet in the figure of Rajnikanth, who transcends the moral order and locates himself on the political plane not concretely as MLA or MP, but as the political consciousness of the people. This gives the Rajni persona a transcendent, superhuman quality that lesser stars can never aspire to. In a nother film, Yajaman, the political role is more pronounced: 38 v illages boycott the election, all of them owing allegiance to the Yajaman (Rajni). The candidate is perplexed: it turns out that the people, who had been paid to vote, have donated this money for developmental works, under the leadership of Rajni, who is their traditional landlord-master. Confronted on this, Rajni gives a long speech about the unfulfilled promises from past elections, and the need for alternative plans for development. Yajaman is an AVM film which tries to harness the Rajni persona to a conservative political agenda: the Rajni persona is not endowed with a clear political perspective, only a symbolic political function.

Basha, one of Rajni’s biggest hits, has him playing an autodriver. The film begins with two situations of economic hardship saved by timely arrival of help, sent by “Manickam” (Rajni). He has another name, Basha, which he has taken on after the death of his friend of the same name, with whom he had tried to combat crime in Bombay, eventually turning into a fierce gangster himself. Here the Govinda-style moral plot is employed, and the political messages are anchored to it. The film begins with photographs of Annadurai, Jayalalithaa and MGR, with Rajni himself shown bowing to the last one. The first appearance – always a dramatic one – is as an auto driver, singing a song eulogising the good qualities of auto drivers on the day of Ayudha Pooja. In M adras, Manickam is living in exile, his past as a gangster u nknown to the locals. In order to keep his disguise as a peaceloving and meek man, Rajni has to suffer many insults, resulting in scenes that add to a mounting anticipation of the moment when the mask will come off. Meanwhile, the moral sub-plot has him living as an orphan in a family to whose welfare he has committed himself: he fulfils his promises to the dead father of the children (to whom he is like an elder brother): getting one a job, another admission to medical college, and getting the third one married off, each time reporting to the garlanded photo of the father that one of his wishes has been fulfilled.

What distinguishes Rajni’s films from popular films in general is that supplementary horizon of political power that they seem to constantly incorporate. As a fictional prince of the virtual domain unfolding on the screen, Rajni’s kingdom seems to spill over into the real world, his sovereignty value seems to reside in his own person and determine the shape of his films to an overwhelming degree. While there are references to Tamil nationalism in Rajni’s films – in Annamalai he recites a little verse that goes : Gandhi drank goat’s milk, I sell cow’s milk, I was brought up on mother’s milk, and survive on Tamil milk; and in Yajaman, when a government officer speaks in English in front of a village crowd, Rajni asks him in English to speak in the people’s language, Tamil – his sovereignty appears less tied to the Tamil nation and the realities of state politics than MGR’s.

The Cultural Logic of Indirect Rule: Profiling the Spectator of Cinema

The cinema is a “poor man’s entertainment”, says Col Crawford, member of the Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1927 to Lala Lajpat Rai, the Indian nationalist leader. And the latter readily agrees (ICC, Evidence, vol 3, p 210).1 It is a rare moment during his extended oral testimony to the committee, for until then Lajpat Rai had been vigorously opposing point by point every one of the propositions put forth to him. It is also a rare moment throughout the committee’s proceedings, because most of the time, it is precisely the poor man’s interest in the cinema that seems to be a source of worry for members of the committee as well as the w itnesses giving evidence before it. There was apprehension here of a cultural problem peculiar to the colonial order and in excess of the problems generally associated with cinema as a leisure time entertainment for the working masses in the industrialised countries in the early decades of the 20th century. A Latika Basu, Indian representative of the Bengal Presidency Council of

Women, addressing the committee, provides a clue to the source of the problem:

The cinema first came to the country for the English audiences here

and then Indians began going there, because they could not get cine

mas of their own. Look at the Empire Theatre. A few Indians go there,

but if you look at the theatres where Indian dramas are shown, you see

Indians flocking to them. If we had our own cinemas representing our

own life, we would prefer to go there. But because we do not have

them in large numbers we are forced to go to the western pictures

(ICC, Evidence, vol 2, p 926).

Unlike the masses in the industrialised countries of the west, the ethnic and religious identities of the Indian masses were a source of concern to the governmental machinery since preservation of these identities was a structural feature of colonial rule, the basis on which the indigenous elite extended its support to the colonial regime. Thus, while nationalists invoked the figure of the people in the modern sense and underplayed the importance of religious, ethnic and caste differences, various community leaders and other sections of the Indian and European elite highlight the threat posed by cinema to the social order based on the coexistence of discrete communities under the paternal eye of the Empire. Historians of British India distinguish between territories directly under British control and those “princely states” where ruling dynasties were allowed to maintain a notional autonomy, described as a form of “indirect rule”. But in an important sense all of India was under indirect rule. The only difference is that while in the territories of indirect rule proper, the defining feature was the presence of a king, elsewhere the social covenant entailed the mediation of community leaders. In other words, there were two forms of indirect rule, one ostensibly political in character, the other concealed under the appearance of social givenness. In effect the British ruled over communities, not individuals: some of these communities were political in character (the princely states), while others were religious, ethnic or caste. The communities in turn were ruled by leaders whose legitimacy derived as much from the recognition accorded by the colonial administration as it did from that of the community itself.

Such was the social context in which the profile of the subaltern spectator of Indian popular cinema was cast as early as the 1920s. Like many aspects of colonial rule which survived into and determined the character of independent India, this profile too has remained with us until recently. The context was provided by the widespread concern, expressed by sections of the colonial administration and civil society, as well as British members of parliament and public, over the ill-effects of cinema, American films in particular, on native “social hygiene”. The spectator who is the source of concern is variously described as illiterate, uneducated, rural people, the ignorant, the uninformed, the working classes, the lower classes, adolescents, youth, etc. As far as youth or adolescents were concerned, the problem could be seen as developmental in nature, related to the susceptibility of young minds to strong stimulation. That leaves us with the uneducated, ignorant, the r ural people and the working class. The “working class” posed problems of governance and its leisure time was a matter of c oncern to all governments. Film industries elsewhere had indeed recommended themselves to governments by pointing to the b enefits to society of leisure spent away from the streets, in the

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confines of movie halls. But although the term working class is frequently encountered in the proceedings, it is not employed in this strong sense, but as a synonym for the other terms (uneducated), serving to make an overall bipolar distinction (working classes X educated classes), than to indicate a new class specific to modern society. Judging by the evidence, two qualities were s alient to the profile of this class. One, the spectator was figured as a peasant, or if located in a city, as an uprooted peasant. Two, the spectator’s primary identity was assumed to derive from his/her membership of one of the many communities of which Indian society was thought to be composed. The educated Indian urban middle class posed no problems to the governing elite and could, with some adjustments, be easily assimilated to the third category, that of the white or “European” community in India who were assumed to be the naturally intended audience for this m odern amusement.2

But among the respondents to the committee’s summons, there was also a group of nationalists who were either thorough modernists or strategically adopted a modern-progressive line of argument with the aim of frustrating British designs to impose imperial preference in the film trade, which would mean reducing or completely banning import of American films, increasing the circulation of British films, restricting or preventing the screening of foreign films to uneducated audiences, etc. In their arguments, the profile of the subaltern spectator is also suitably modified. Some of them emphasise cinema’s importance as a modern amusement for working masses in the strong sense; others, while agreeing that the ordinary spectators were illiterates and peasants, refute the claim that they need to be protected from the “evil influence” of the American cinema. They flatly deny that the masses are gullible and defenceless against the immoral lure of American culture. Here we must distinguish the nationalists, who were committed to modernisation, unification and independence, from conservative Indian public opinion which was increasingly forced to acknowledge the demands of nationalism but was intent upon minimising its social c onsequences. The national movement, of course, consisted of both these sectors. The government of independent India, its p rogressive leadership notwithstanding, nervously embraced conservative opinion in matters of popular culture when it found that its own position in the power set-up was barely d istinguishable from the one the British had lately vacated. In any case, the net result was that while on the one hand, the d efence of cinema against conservative efforts was reasonably successful in that apart from censorship no drastic measures were taken to restrict circulation of American films; on the other hand, the divide between the e ducated and the illiterate – which united the educated and rich among the colonised with the c oloniser against the rest of the population – became entrenched in the colonial commonsense and affected cultural policy. India’s political freedom has always been undergirded by this social c onstraint, which has so far proved intractable. Thus, it is not surprising that free India’s policy as regards cinema was an e xtension and reinforcement of colonial policy. The ghost of the emperor continued to preside over the republic long after the d emise of empire.

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An interesting difference between these debates and similar ones going on in Britain, the US and other nations around the same time is that while in the latter, the focus is on the films themselves and the possible ill-effects they may have on people, in colonial India attention was focused on the existence of a problematic category of spectators and the difficulties created thereby. It is as if these people were watching movies without the necessary qualifications for doing so! The films were considered likely to have a bad influence on them not only because of what they showed, but also because of who they were, culturally, educationally, and by occupation. One can see the culturalist argument in formation here, the idea that cultural consumption deracinates if the consumed products are not of the consumers’ own making and continuous with their cultural pasts. The proponents of this deracination thesis are those who are concerned to maintain community boundaries, to perpetuate the idea that the subcontinent is composed of caste and religious communities each with its own organic leadership. Cinema was seen as drawing people out of their loyalty to community, into a space of unsanctioned consumption, a social space devoid of community demarcations. The conservatives had nightmares of social disorder, of the dissolution of traditional ties which were essential to the maintenance of the colonial social order. Cinema could be made to serve this order only if films could be made that would reinforce people’s cultural and religious traditions. Films based on Indian themes, and especially mythological ones, were seen as a solution, where spectatorship would be indistinguishable from acts of piety and would constitute an extension of traditional life rather than a disruption of it.

The proceedings of the committee are throughout marked by a symptomatic ambivalence, a two-sided diagnosis of the nature of the problem which reflected the irresolvable contradictions of c olonial rule. The ambivalence arises in relation to the supposed victim of the evil influence of the cinema: on the one hand it is sought to be projected that the illiterate masses are the victims, they are liable to be uprooted from their authentic lives by exposure to the alien imagery put into circulation by American cinema. “I do not think it is fair to offend the Indian standard of etiquette by showing western films which may do so”, avers Mrs Coulson, an English member of the Bengal Women’s Council (ICCR, Evidence, vol 2, 926). On the other hand, it is asserted that it is the British who are the ultimate victims, for it is their image in the eyes of the natives that will suffer when the illiterate masses are exposed to American cinema’s irreverent portrayal of white people, with its lack of concern for the delicate position of the “European race” running an empire far away from home. The source of this duplicity is the rule of colonial difference which encounters in the cinema an industry of metaphors that threatens to disrupt the carefully maintained borders between communities and castes. This fear of metaphoric play, of the dissimulative power of the cinematic image is most clearly expressed by a respondent of British origin who objects to white actresses playing roles of Hindu women in Indian films. Questioned repeatedly he stubbornly reiterates his point: he objects not only to the representation of interracial exchanges on screen, but to the concealment of racial origins behind fictive role-playing (ICCR, Evidence, vol 1, 306-20). This is no doubt a somewhat extreme position, but it is in keeping with the overall logic governing the rescue operation mounted against the flood of American images. Suddenly, the cinema’s images force the British to identify themselves with the European race (i e, to give themselves an ethnic community identity to match those that prevail among the natives: these include Hindu and Muslim, but also Bengali, Madrasi, Punjabi and so on, as well as caste identities) and to fear such identification by the masses, which will lead to equating, say, images of white American women from the films, with real white, British women living in the colony.

As for the dualism of the diagnosis, it no doubt served a concrete purpose. It helped to shift the problem from the political axis to the social field. To present it as a question of white people’s or women’s public image alone would be to acknowledge the political order’s reliance upon the myth of white superiority. Deflecting the problem onto the masses as members of discrete communities and sanctified identities made it possible to project the dissolution of communities as the ultimate and common social threat to be jointly addressed by the rulers and the (leaders of the) ruled. In the process the British too were prepared, if not compelled, to project themselves as one community among many. Indeed conservative European representatives are found to be speaking exactly like the community leaders of various religious or caste groups, claiming that as a distinct race of people, they are entitled to protection from the public gaze, that they should be able to determine what kind of images of white people are fit for the consumption of the natives, that “their women” are being exposed to native ridicule by the American cinema, etc. A European claim to the right of purdah was being put forward in the face of Hollywood.3

This anxiety about the subaltern gaze continued to determine policy as Indian popular cinema expanded rapidly with the advent of the talkies. Cultural policy in this domain remained largely unaffected by the installation of indigenous rule and popular cinema continued to be treated as a hopelessly anarchic and culturally degraded form of mass entertainment frequently equated with drinking, gambling and prostitution as a social evil. Although statistically the middle class consumer was a decisive factor in the success of popular cinema, the illiterate masses continued to figure centrally in debates about it. On the one hand the state perpetuated mass i lliteracy and gave nativist fantasy a longer lease of life to indulge in the pleasures of counter-posing India’s unique indigenous culture to the deracinating and deracinated modern. On the other hand, the cinema that catered to this illiterate population was condemned as an abomination and subjected to arbitrary and irrational policing.

The profiling of the subaltern spectator as a figure with special cultural needs was one of the lasting results of these deliberations which stretched across the teens and twenties of the 20th century and beyond. Films based on mythologicals were widely declared to be the best way to fulfil this need. In this the participants in the debate were only pointing to what already existed, for Indian cinema itself had begun, as the story is told, with the filming of mythological themes.

A New Bhakti Movement?

Against this background let us now turn to a consideration of the relation of the subaltern spectator to the image on the screen.

The early popularity of the “mythological” or pouranic genre, of which D G Phalke is the acknowledged pioneer, already brings into view the spectator as a member of an organic community who extends to the godly image on screen, without any inflection or change of stance, the same devotion that is naturally addressed to “real” gods. Of course, we know that Phalke and others contributed their mite to encourage this extension by figuring the devotee on screen as a spectator of miraculous events.4 Thus in the extant fragment of Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan, the child Krishna’s trouncing of the snake is witnessed from the banks of the river by the people whose position on screen duplicates that of the spectators in the cinema hall. Within the diegetic frame, the devotee is figured as a spectator so that from outside it, the spectator might identify with the devotee.

Thus in the mythological, the body of the actor is supplemented by the spirit of the deity. No doubt such a possibility is predicated on a feature of Hindu worship whereby any image of a deity can be rendered sacred by the very act of worship. What Marcel Duchamp did when he demonstrated that there is a “space of art” is paralleled in converse by what the Hindu worshipper does when s/he produces a “space of worship” around any suitable image, however produced. It is not that they fall victim to an illusion, mistaking the actor dressed up as Krishna for the real Krishna (this would imply a difference between the “real” Krishna and some other kind) but that they are able to replicate the performance of worship at any site and around any suitable image.

Let us say that in mythological/devotional films, there are moments of frontal address when the sacred spirit is called into presence by the body of the actor. The actor’s presence is temporarily effaced in order to enable the spirit to inhabit the body-image. There is then a manifestation of bhakti (devotion).

In India, the adoration of film stars by fans has also been described as a form of bhakti. The spectator who identifies with a screen persona beyond the requirements of narrative intelligibility is the fan, who used to be known in common parlance as a “bhakta” (usually translated as devotee) in many Indian languages (e g, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali) until the emergence of an organised sector in fandom, after which suitably more classical names, like abhimani, rasikar, etc, were introduced.

The question of translation is of vital importance here, since we are in the historically unique position, in India, of conducting scholarly research in a language which is radically discontinuous with the languages prevalent in the field of research and because there are conventions of translation/interpretation that this situation gives rise to, of whose practical consequences we remain inadequately aware. Thus the use of the term “bhakta” to refer to a film star’s fan may prompt us to equate religious devotion and star-worship and to take seriously the idea that to the Indian mind, no great gap separates exemplary human beings from d ivine figures. This would constitute a mode of etymology-based interpretation proper to Indological studies. At its heart is the idea, jointly elaborated by western orientalists and Indian nationalists, that continuity of tradition is a feature of Indian civilisation that distinguishes it from the west. On the other hand, we might take a more modern approach that is attentive to shifts in meaning effected by such extensions of terms to new areas. Thus

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in a modern dictionary free from Indological assumptions one would expect it to be noted (confining ourselves to this instance), that the term “bhakta” has at least (the above) two meanings. The etymological continuity would remain but the lexicographer would not impose upon these two instances of usage an interpretation that treats them as fundamentally one. We know from practical instances of such extended usage that there is not always present any connotation of religiosity in them. Thus in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, the film star protagonist’s co-passenger tells him that her daughter is his “bhakto”. Nothing remotely religious is implied in this usage. Thus, there is a need to displace the diachronic unity of Indian culture and civilisation, a constitutive assumption for Indian nationalism and for orientalist scholarship, by breaking up the historicist continuum and treating the synchronic dispersal as valid in itself, as the truth of our contemporaneity.

Sites of Enthusiasm

Bhakti is a form of enthusiasm5 which unites the community of the faithful. This community does not pre-exist the act of bhakti but is constituted by it. Thus we can distinguish the two forms of bhakti at issue here by reference to this community-forging power of bhakti. The Indological assumption is based on the fallacy that the place of the spirit is fixed, and survives independently of the acts of bhakti addressed to it. From this it is a short step to the conclusion that when a film star comes to occupy this space, it is because he is being equated with the gods. Contrary to this, we propose that enthusiastic communities can form around a variety of entities, and that the nature of the community thus formed will have to be inferred from the nature of the entity, the nature of the acts of bhakti addressed to it, the nature of the satisfactions derived from these acts, etc. We must avoid assuming that the elements that go to make the performance of bhakti are in themselves embodiments of a fixed idea of religious worship. Thus when Rajnikanth’s fans poured milk over the cut-outs of the star, they were clearly borrowing a practice of consecration of the icon from temple culture. An obvious conclusion offers itself. But we must learn to see the practice of star worship as an independent site of enthusiasm which derives elements of its own culture of worship from other sources but is not therefore reducible to these latter. What we need to explain is why stars become a focus of enthusiastic communities.

In star worship, the body of the actor seems to be inhabited by a spirit, as in the previous instance, but here this spirit is not that of some pre-given divine entity, but as it were some essence that underlies the actor’s appearances. In the case of a god, it matters little who is playing the role in any particular film, piety is aroused by the iconic presentation of body-images in a frontal mode that evokes the scene of worship. In the case of the star, a spirit is produced by acts of abstraction from all the particular appearances. The actor’s body is endowed with his own sublimated spirit returned back to it as a henceforth imperishable feature. There is something here which is deemed to survive all particular manifestations, but this has to be produced out of these manifestations themselves and must be constantly renewed by fresh manifestations. It is a supplement generated from the entity itself.

As the language cinemas expanded and developed their own star systems, the phenomenon of fan bhakti began to grow, spurred

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by the encouragement of the industry, and the example set by American cinema. In time, a split in the community of bhaktas takes place with far-reaching effects. While the phenomenon of informal fan identification and adulation of celebrity continued to prevail, the rise of organised fan clubs created a new segment where fan devotion took on more durable forms and began to involve an array of activities.6 Hero worship reached new heights of intensity. Meanwhile, as mass following of stars increased manifold, occasional reports of fans building temples to their favourite stars seemed to confirm the suspicion that fan devotion was indistinguishable from religious devotion, that the fan was equating the star with gods. When magazines like Stardust or Star and Style c ater to readers’ interest in celebrity lives, they are catering largely to a star-craze comparable to the kind that is probably prevalent in most large film industries, notably Hollywood. But the organised fan clubs and the magazines (usually in the regional languages) that cater to their members’ interests, take a different approach. Here there seems to be a stronger belief in the star’s superhuman powers, a willingness to believe that the star is an exceptional figure. But there is also a certain effect of reciprocity that gets established b etween star and fan. The fan has a sense of belonging, a claim over his favourite star which is expressed in, say, the intolerance of any role that is not true to type (for instance, losing a fight, indulging in immoral acts like rape and murder, or dying at the climax). In effect the star is put under the compulsion of adopting a fictive identity composed of the idealist elements of the characters he plays. When the real individual thus adopts a fictive identity, the fictive ideal thereby becomes reality. However – and this is the crucial point of divergence between fan cultures in general and this particular instance of it – fans seldom expect any continuity at the level of the imaginary; it is not a question of keeping up appearances, but of sustaining a moral-political order, in the form of a community whose members gain symbolic sustenance from participation in it.

Here we must guard against the illusion of an illusion. It is a virtual game into which the fan invites the star. Of course once he enters, it is going to be very difficult for the star to get out, because the virtual reality that comes into being is a durable one. The “reality” that is thereby produced is neither a cultural illusion nor a religious belief; it is a virtual political space.

What I want to bring into focus here is the effective creation of a relatively closed community whose identity is anchored to the star. There are degrees of closure, to be sure, and this must be kept in mind in analysing the sovereignty effect of star-based communities. But the important thing is that fans subject themselves to the star in what seems to be a political act of loyalty, rather than an expression of identification at the level of the imaginary. If the Indian political scene features an array of “fragmented sovereignties” (Hansen 2005) and we were to include these fan-formations among them, then there would be one vital difference between them and the

o thers discussed by Hansen. The fan-communities would appear to have been constituted at least nominally upon the initiative of the people, rather than of the putative sovereigns. These are kings c hosen and anointed by the people: kings of democracy!7

In Hindu political institutions the link between the divine and the sovereign has a long history. Bhakti represents, in this context, an attempt to wrest the divine away from kingly dominion, to constitute communities of the faithful that have their own models for kingly virtue. The star-worshipping cults of southern India effect a similar transformation in the political field, wresting sovereignty from those who inherited it from the British and bestowing it upon monarchs of their own choice, thus demonstrating the subcontinent’s continued dependence upon the logic of indirect rule.


The linguistic reorganisation of states, which was forced upon the central government by the linguistic nationalities, particularly in the south, resulted in a watered down form of the multinational federation that India had been envisaged as before Independence. After Independence, the Indian State adopted a policy of cultural conservatism that served the Congress regime well, depending as it did upon the continued loyalty of a paternalist social class that delivered the votes of its traditional subordinate classes – the lower castes in particular – to the party. In addition, the Congress increasingly defined Indian nationalism as a substantive and distinctive thing in itself, rather than as the sum of a complex of nationalities. The nationalist aspirations of the major linguistic regions were thus sought to be subsumed under an overarching Indian nationalism, and towards this end, the central leadership hoped to adopt an approach where the administrative units of the new republic ought not to coincide with linguistically homogeneous territories, in the interests of the unity of the whole. But the unrest around this question could not be ignored and finally in the mid-1950s, linguistic reorganisation was reluctantly granted. The dismantling of the presidencies – administrative units of the colonial regime which had developed their own distinctive cultural features – and the re-centring of popular consciousness around new linguistic-national identities has continued to unfold in the last 50 years, and still remains an active process.

The presidencies were culturally dominated by the landed a ristocracy, the colonial bureaucracy, and the nationalists, who t ogether constituted a literate social elite whose cultural aspirations were predominantly expressed in literature. Before independence, this elite was divided between conservative and national-modern approaches to the imagining of a modern India. Post-Independence, the uncertainties and anxieties of the time led to the triumph of conservative cultural policy, which continued to treat the masses paternalistically as a kind of “cultural reserve” which needed to be protected from the deracinating effects of modern popular culture. With the advent of the linguistic states, however, the ground was laid for the development of film cultures in the southern states, which soon overtook literature as the site of elaboration of national identities. Cinema suddenly proved itself to be an effective means of integration of populations previously scattered across different presidencies and princely states, into one linguistic nationality. For the film producers, initially, this was no more than a marketing strategy, what they were aiming for was a national market for a cultural product that spoke in a particular language. But it soon became clear that cinema was a more productive institution that would quickly become the emblematic supplement to national identities that were restricted to cultural selfexpression. The literary class soon recognised this potential and began to take an active part in the film industry.

The Indian national/metropolitan elite has always underestimated the place of language in people’s lives, and has r emained stubbornly optimistic in the evaluation of its own programmes of social engineering, treating differences of language as a “divisive factor” that would be eliminated by development and patriotism. Substantive Indian nationalism is a historically anomalous project born of the Indological-colonial imagination. The fashionable r aiments of nationalism were and still remain ill-suited to the body of an ageing civilisation which has stunted the growth of its c hildren – the linguistic nationalities – in order to reserve for itself the pleasures of modern nation-statehood. This turn of events in the subcontinent’s history has not been without its disastrous consequences. For can we not discern, behind the convulsions engendered by Hindutva, the impotent rage of a civilisational fantasy unable to secure for itself a permanent field of play?

That, however, is the topic for another project. For the moment we are concerned with how, beneath the skein of Indian nationalism, and the political project of Indian democracy, various collective identities are being forged in the virtual domain of the cinema. Here, I am more concerned with the cultural politics of popular sovereignty which may or may not be tied to linguistic national identities, but which certainly involves the question of political subjectivity.

The ideology of popular sovereignty has it that in modern democracies, the monarch is divested of the sovereignty vested in him, which is then fragmented and distributed equally among the people of the republic to constitute them as sovereign citizens. If we then assume that the Indian republic was constituted by wresting sovereignty from the Imperial power, the question is: did the people receive their rightful share of the spoils of independence? Even if we take into account the insight that the sovereignty of the modern state is a factor of international relations, and not the mirror image of the collective sovereignty of the people, we are still left with the question whether the interior has been subjected to a morphological overhaul – the constitution of new subjectivities, new modes of association, new contractual relations, etc – to bring it in line with the substantive idea of a republican polity.

I think the answer to that question is no. Or at best some might prefer to say that the process is underway, that the revolution is in progress. Recent essays in political theory have suggested, however, that rather than being in transition to some finished state of republican Constitution, India might have arrived at a qualitatively different, singular state of political being, marked by an internal structural division between, to cite an influential and useful nomenclature, civil and political society. Partha Chatterjee, the author of this distinction, does not clarify whether political society is a sociological category (a class among classes in an e stablished social structure), or a historical one (a kind of Lukacsian agent of history engaged in a political project that promises unexpected results). We may, however, regard political society as the domain of a range of cultural activities that bear witness to acts of meaning making, of imagining political futures, utopias that may remain within the horizon of the republic or transcend it. If, following this line of thinking, we treat India as an inorganic cultural compound, rather than an organic, internally homogeneous cultural formation, we are faced with the task of describing

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and analysing the different elements of the concrete reality that we inhabit. In particular, here I want to point to the way popular cultural texts propose orders of sovereignty which are at odds with the theory of sovereign citizenship, and may point us towards a better understanding of the play of political passions in contemporary India. Political commentators assume that when we vote in an election, we are exercising citizenly sovereignty. The election becomes the proof of existence of such sovereignty, rather than a consequence of it. Cultural texts, however, show that other forms of collective sovereignty continue to attract political passions, indicating that the general election may often be a new avenue for expression of old or non-democratic modes of sovereignty.

Recently, Thomas Blom Hansen has drawn attention to the multiple and fragmentary sovereignties that dominate the Indian political scene. According to this reading, communities, big men, nationalities, caste groups and other formations effectively enjoy sovereignty over parts of the Indian social body. Supplementing Hansen’s description with an ideological approach, we would be able to locate film stars within this field of fragmented sovereignties, functioning in a supplementary capacity. For the difference between film stars and the actually existing big men is that the former are, at least in principle, beholden to the fans that bring them to power. Another difference is that they are located in the space of the universal, rather than being in an adversarial or complementary relation to it. They differ from politicians too. For unlike them, the stars have charismatic authority, they retain the attributes of the king, who is a more familiar figure of sovereignty than any other available. In India sovereignty has had a strange history. The jettisoning of princely sovereignties in the moment of independence was not accompanied by any force that would render the people sovereign. Popular sovereignty thus remained a textbook ideal whose realisation the state has left to the forces of history, if not nature. This is what explains the resurgence of the ineluctable logic of indirect rule in an unreconstructed polity. The survival of old sovereignties or the production of new ones, however, takes place not in isolation or in a horizontal field of multiple sovereignties, but in a field over-determined by the republication institutions. The universal was proposed, it was in the air. But the empowerment of the people had not happened. The people felt remote from the representatives whom they sent to Delhi, it did not seem as if anybody was in control, the way a king is in control. The king’s control has something indisputable about it. The monarch binds the political passions of his subjects. But in independent India, these passions, reduced to objectless enthusiasms, for want of a magnet, roamed aimlessly. Where film stars became available, they were able quickly to draw around themselves a fan following that functioned very much like a king’s personal bodyguard and military force.

Film stars everywhere bring to the film text a bloc of ready-made meaning, a range of associations that contribute to narrative economy as well as extra-narrative value. It is in this sense that while the actor earns wages for his/her labour, the star body/ persona earns a sort of rent by being a new kind of scarce commodity. Unlike other non-renewable commodities that command rent, like land, the star persona is manufactured by the industry and endowed with scarcity value, so that it can then be inducted

Economic & Political Weekly

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into the product film. The industry wants such ready-made value, but individual firms also risk being deprived of it, or having to pay a high price, once the stars recognise their rent-value and begin to charge scarcity prices for it.

Unlike other film stars, however, some Indian stars develop personae that, instead of simply adding value to a product, become supreme values in themselves, and reduce the film text to the status of an occasional event in the life of the star persona. A resplendent scarce commodity occasionally shows itself to the public: the release of a Rajnikanth film is thus not all that different from a monarch’s public appearance on the palace balcony. In other words, what has happened in the case of some Indian film stars is that the scarcity value of a commodity (an economic fact), and the singularity of kingly sovereignty (a political fact), have fused together into one unique politico-cultural phenomenon. Political sovereignty’s intimate link with (economic) value, even in its democratic manifestation (think of all the qualifications that the citizen was required to have: property, male gender, education, etc), is here expressed in a direct form: star value is the basis of sovereignty, explaining and giving legitimacy to the position of unquestioned power the characters played by the star enjoy in the film text. With such a star, the spectator relates, not as one sovereign to another, but as one element in a collective whose identity depends upon the presence of the sovereign star at the apex. There could be no clearer evidence than is offered by these films, for the fact that the majority of Indians do not occupy the substantive subject position of citizenship. Their subalternity takes the form of a dependence on such exemplary entities for any chance of a share in collective sovereignty. It would be a mistake to think of this as simply a variant of group psychology: it is much more durable and systematic than that. Nor is it merely a question of identification with star personae, as happens with other stars. It is not that a subject uses a star persona as an anchor for his own self-image, by imitation or adulation. There is no such instrumentality at work in this dynamic relationship between star and fan. It is more akin to a virtual sociopolitical order within which subjects feel securely located. Even at the level of spectatorial engagement with on-screen narrative events, this relation of symbolic identification is maintained.

The citizen is a figure whose political passions may be assumed to have been committed, channelled into the republican order. If the citizen displays other passions – sexual, spiritual, in general pathological – these do not affect the prior commitment of political passions to the new democratic regime. If we examine the Indian cultural field with this in mind, we cannot help noting the existence of multiple popular enthusiasms which cannot be defined as pathological (non-political), since they seem to be mixed. The enthusiasms of today are the demobilised passions of past political orders: unbound to monarchy, they have not undergone a rebinding to the new order (i e, the republic of popular sovereignty, which remains an inert element of the compound rather than an actively transformative one). They continue to seek and to find, modes of investment that resemble the premodern monarchic forms that they have been cut off from.

Cinema’s alienness, however, remains a central feature of its popularity. The screen, as a space of representation, retained its separateness, and it is this which then enables the idea of a star as

a representative who occupies that space on our behalf. This inflec-digital-age style of Sankar is an event in itself, comparable to the tion of star discourse is what distinguishes fan bhakti from the meeting of the Titanic and the iceberg. The result is a film in more routine forms of star worship. The spectator is aware of the which Rajni’s sovereignty has been turned into capital, losing the screen as a universal. Unlike other cultural objects, the cinema political surplus, the virtual community, built upon its scarcity turns out to be not a synthetic whole that will remain permanently value. Here he does not get to speak to the community of the alien, but one in which images can be replaced by other images. It faithful in the old way. The Rajnikanth brand has been managed is this universality that Phalke noted when he realised that you can in recent years by the star’s wife, a businesswoman who, a couple replace images of Jesus with images of Krishna. A theatre of of releases ago was rumoured to be exploring the possibility of pate xchange, where background is a void space ready to receive all enting Rajni’s signature gestures; and lately by his daughter, who representations, which unlike the drama stage, is visibly present is producing animation films featuring her father as hero. Absobefore us as an emptiness. The drama stage, being a three dimen-lute star power has been resistant to commodification but the sional space, did not quite project its own separateness in this fash-new capitalist spirit has overcome this obstacle as it has others in ion because it simply merged into the space around it, returned to its way. Amitabh Bachchan is the prime example of an eventually its physical nature. The screen, however, remained intact, a space successfully re-deployed scarce resource. With Sivaji, it appears which, between projects, remains solidly white and empty, as if that Rajni too has been converted into a commodity: the political awaiting its next image. Political passions are directed at selected surplus, which was the property of the fans, the foundation of figures that appear on this screen, to force them to abide with the their sovereignty, has been converted into an investible economic community beyond the transient experience of a screening. surplus. Will the fans go along with this dissolution of their cherished virtual monarchy? It is hard to predict. But we can certainly

To return to Sivaji, Rajnikanth’s latest release. The director of now explain the triumphalism of the media in reporting “Rajnithis film is Sankar, who is most strongly associated with the post-mania”: it was a celebration of the triumph of profit over rent, the modern style of recent Tamil cinema addressed to youth. The coming trumping of politics by economics, which is the Indian media’s


together of the absolutist power of Rajni and the global-capitalist favourite news item.


1 The report and the four volumes of Evidence,

o riginally published by the government of India in 1928, is now available in digital format from several sources, including the Roja Muthaiah Research Library, Chennai and the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore. The original publication is available at the National Film Archive of India Library at Pune. The evidence consists of the written and oral testimony of a wide selection of people from politics, the film industry, civil society, the military, the police, the press, and the universities. Sittings of the committee were held in all major cities of British India, including those in present day Pakistan and Burma.

2 The educated among the Indians knew very well, the argument went, that the “European culture” was different from their own and were unlikely to get the wrong idea about western society when they saw men and women dancing together and kissing. But the uneducated would judge the Europeans according to their own moral standards and find their behaviour unbecoming. Some of the Indian members of the committee and witnesses would seize the opportunity to embarrass their British counterparts by pointing out that it was members of their own race who were producing these immoral pictures, that it was not the native’s fault if they were incapable of producing better films, and so on. The main purpose behind these jibes appears to have been to demolish the pretence that it was a concern for the native’s moral health rather than the declining mystique of the white race that was prompting all this activity.

3 For a more detailed discussion of this unusual turn of events occasioned by American cinema, see M Madhava Prasad (2004b).

4 Phalke was a proponent of swadeshi. While in other sectors of industry this merely implied native ownership of industry, in the case of cinema we have to consider the possibility that to be truly swadeshi, a film company’s products too would have to be of local origin. The swadeshi industrialist could produce a “foreign” product like a clock, but would a film made by a native but modelled on American silents have qualified as swadeshi? Phalke’s choice of mythological topics must be seen, in any case, not as a response to latent


demand, but a conscious political act. By extension, the popularity of the mythological does not demonstrate anything other than the fact that early Indian film-makers were aligning themselves with the swadeshi spirit.

5 “Enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul” remarks Aristotle in The Politics. Locke, in the Essay on Human Understanding, contrasts enthusiasm with both revelation and reason, as a sort of eruption of the irrational. “This I take to be properly enthusiasm, which, though founded neither on reason nor divine revelation, but rising from the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain, works yet, where it once gets footing, more powerfully on the persuasions and actions of men than either of those two, or both together: men being most forwardly obedient to the impulses they receive from themselves; and the whole man is sure to act more vigorously where the whole man is carried by a natural motion” (Book IV, Ch 19.7). Enthusiasts demonstrate “great independence of devotion” whereas the superstitious are “favourable to priestly power” observes David Hume (“On Superstition and Enthusiasm”). Kant speaks of enthusiasm as a glow of anticipation on the faces of onlookers near and far at a time of revolutionary change. There is a European history of enthusiasm spread over the fields of politics, religion and poetry. I borrow the term from the Slovenian Lacanian philosophers, who have revived discussion of the term, but my usage may not entirely coincide with or be in agreement with theirs. It seems that in our own context, the exploration of the historical meanings of bhakti has been blocked by the problems arising from the separation of the field of study from the languages and methods of study (the translation problem discussed above). The translation problem still remains and the above historical survey by no means exhausts the meanings of the term, but it has seemed to me profitable, so long as we have to conduct such inquiries in English, to explore possibilities of translation in all directions, rather than insist on a resistance to translation as a hallmark of our cultural distinction, a position that is characterised by a stubborn resistance to self-understanding.

6 See S V Srinivas (1996) and (1997) for a detailed study of fan clubs to which this account is indebted. 7 The phrase is Francois Furet’s.

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Dickey, Sara (1993): Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Forrester, Duncan (1976): “Factions and Filmstars: Tamil Nadu Politics since 1971”, Asian Survey, 16.3, 283-96.

Hansen, Thomas Blom (2005): “Sovereigns beyond the State: On Legality and Public Authority in India” in Ravinder Kaur (ed.), Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia (New Delhi: Sage), 109-44.

Hardgrave Jr, Robert L (1979): “When Stars Displace the Gods: The Folk Culture of Cinema in Tamil Nadu” in Essays in the Political Sociology of South India (New Delhi: Usha Publications).

Narayan, S Venkat (1983): NTR: A Biography (New Delhi: Vikas). Pandian, M S S (1992): The Image Trap: MGR in Film and Politics (New Delhi: Sage).

Prasad, M Madhava (1999): “Cine-politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India”, Journal of the Moving Image, Issue no 1.

  • (2003): “Cinema as a Site of National Identity Politics in Karnataka” in Journal of Karnataka Studies, 1, 60-85.
  • (2004a): “Reigning Stars: The Political Career of South Indian Cinema” in Lucy Fischer and Marcia Landy (ed.), Stars: the Film Reader (New York London: Routledge), 97-114.
  • (2004b): “The Natives Are Looking: Cinema and Censorship in Colonial India” in Leslie Moran et al (ed.), Law’s Moving Image (London: Cavendish/ Glasshouse Press).
  • Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee (1927-28): Report plus 4 vols of Evidence (Calcutta: Government of India Central Publication Branch), (cited as ICCR, volume no, followed by page number.)

    Sivathamby, Karthigesu (1981): The Tamil Film as a Medium of Political Communication (Madras: New Century Book House).

    Srinivas, S V (1996): “Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity”, Journal of Arts and Ideas, 29, January: 67-83.

    – (1997): “Fans and Stars: Production, Reception and Circulation of the Moving Image”, PhD dissertation, University of Hyderabad.

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