Online derision replaces defaced posters: Fan wars uglier than ever
As a barrage of bad reviews was deflating Marakkar: Arabikkadalinte Simham, the biggest Malayalam release of the year, a YouTuber raised an interesting question. Why was Mohanlal, lead actor and producer of the film, getting defensive and validating allegations that the backlash was part of a campaign? The consumer cannot be denied the right to discard a bad product, he argued.
Mohanlal, the biggest movie star in Kerala, should know. He has, in the past, appeared unaffected by this fickle thing called Box Office and has handled controversies with forbearance and some fatalism. Here too, in a live video to announce what he called the success of Marakkar, he was only referring to “a lot of unnecessary comments” about the film and hoping that it had the legs to outrun the initial reports. There, however, is reason to believe this is not the last we’ll see of actors and filmmakers taking up post-release promotions to counter the double blow of bad press and mass derision.
The fan culture of cinema in South India has, since the 1950s, fostered extreme levels of adulation for its stars. This is home to three late chief ministers who ascended to power on the steam of their acting careers and at least two superstars who were briefly swayed by political ambition. The rivalry between registered fan clubs is not a new thing either. The love for one actor has morphed into animosity toward another, typically resulting in skirmishes at cinema halls or defaced wall posters.
The relentless fan bot
Social media platforms have provided space for thousands to channel the extreme fanboy, often with anonymity. These are influencers who wield power without responsibility. Their proliferation is so impactful that verified social media influencers and unverified Box Office trackers have started to monetise their negativity. They target films with provocative first-day reviews, manipulate BO numbers for the consumption of the fan and the hater and push visibility with thousands of likes and RTs.
Catch our Marakkar review: Mohanlal’s Marakkar is opulent, but sails into choppy seas
The fan experience, rooted in a personal connection with the man or woman on the screen, is increasingly pegged to jealousies, insecurities and a compulsive need to have all in agreement about the star’s general awesomeness. A torn wall poster or a group of booing men in a cinema hall is no longer a reflection of the enormity of the problem, as we see WhatsApp fan group conversations where members are encouraged to give low ratings for the competitor’s new release on ticket reservation apps.
The rise of these informal, faceless collectives is now shaping a new kind of moviegoer in Kerala, a state not traditionally known for its extreme fan allegiances. A man from Kottayam who was arrested for sharing a pirated print of Marakkar on Telegram said he was only forwarding it as he received it, to “annoy” a friend who likes Mohanlal.
Back to the cinema hall
Every A-list star in the south has had films targeted by fans of competitors and motiveless trolls or, as we increasingly see, for his or her political positions. That previously unflappable superstars have started to address the issue, even if to save underwhelming films from commercial disaster, points to a problem that threatens to hit a teetering industry’s road back to post-pandemic normalcy. Industry estimates state that in 2020, the four south Indian film industries had recorded a combined 383 per cent drop from 2019, in gross theatrical collections.
In Malayalam, the success of Dulquer Salmaan-starrer Kurup lit up November, as crowds returned to cinema halls in the first real sign of the industry’s return to form. S S Rajamouli’s much-awaited RRR (in Telugu and dubbed versions) starring NTR and Ram Charan and Ajith Kumar’s Valimai (in Tamil) could help the recovery but with stakes unusually high, their all-crucial opening will also depend on how well they hold up against fan-bots.
Kannada cinema’s fan spaces have also started to open up with slugfests over BO collections. The intensity of fan rivalries is higher in Tamil and Telugu cinema but the bigger spread of these markets has ensured a better success rate for big films at the receiving end of targeted attacks. Earlier this year, media consulting firm Ormax Media had estimated the gross collection of Malayalam films in the pandemic-hit 2020 at about Rs 150 crore. The collections from the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada industries were estimated at Rs 320 crore, Rs 525 crore and Rs 45 crore, respectively. In smaller, concentrated markets like Malayalam cinema, a hyped big-budget film that opens to poor reports invariably loses steam before the first weekend.
Content counts, star power too
Every film headlined by one of Tamil cinema’s big three – Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith Kumar – now comes with the ineludible risk of online hate which usually peaks over the first weekend. Typically, the focus of fan exchanges switches almost entirely from reviews to theatrical collections during the second week of release, before the film settles down to its closing numbers. When unfavourable reviews align with concerted attacks, the damage becomes irreparable but in a bigger market, like Tamil or Telugu, star power has also helped films rise above the negativity.
The 2019 Pongal clash between Rajinikanth’s Petta and Ajith Kumar’s Viswasam saw the fan rivalry peak, splitting the festival Box Office but powered by positive reviews, both films finished their runs as blockbusters. Annaatthe, Rajinikanth’s Deepavali release this year, opened to overwhelmingly poor reviews and was panned for its dated theme and treatment but the film is reported to have clocked impressive numbers in its home market of Tamil Nadu.
In 2019, Mamangam, a big-budget period drama with Mammootty in the lead, was buried in a steady supply of memes and disparaging reviews over the first three days, effectively ending all possibilities of a revival. Odiyan (2016), starring Mohanlal, was hit by a more intense version of organised hostility. The misplaced promotion – the film had elements of fantasy and did not have many fan-service moments but was drummed up as a massy entertainer – contributed to the opening-day disappointment. It was also hard to miss the urgency with which online negativity was whipped up, eventually tanking the film despite a record-breaking start.
Since the early 1980s, caste equations have divided the Telugu film industry into camps and social media fan wars continue to have the stars’ caste identity as their dominant theme. With some of the major stars including Pawan Kalyan identified with political outfits, these exchanges are now marked by caste pride and political affiliation. Post-2014, the Tamil fan spaces have been heavily influenced by the anti and pro Right narratives, with actors perceived as closer to either of the ideologies facing political heat during their films’ release. In Malayalam cinema, fan face-offs on social media are increasingly drifting on political and communal lines.
Careers at stake
Politicians, activists, bureaucrats and sportspersons have all seemed to have attuned themselves to the inevitability of internet hate. An actor, however, has to handle this differently because the negativity impacts a product put together on big financial investments, by hundreds of men and women with no stake in this animosity directed at one person and what he or she stands for.
Stars have often countered questions on the relevance of organised fan clubs by referring to progressive social interventions and humanitarian work taken up by these outfits. None of them, however, has taken serious efforts to stop fans from driving distasteful internet campaigns that frequently drift to body-shaming and rape threats.
The 2018 Malayalam film My Story faced an orchestrated dislike campaign on its promotional material, in a direct attack against its female lead Parvathy Thiruvothu over her remarks about misogynist overtones in the Mammootty-starrer Kasaba (2016). The film, again, was critically trashed, steering the argument that these campaigns work only with weak content. They, however, could still play on perceptions and influence a viewer’s decision for or against a theatre watch. That, still, is a crucial choice to swing at a time when big-ticket superstar films are hitting OTT platforms only three weeks after release.