Days ahead of the release of his highly anticipated action thriller Vivegam, Kollywood star Ajith released an important statement through his lawyers.
The strongly worded release categorically states that the actor does not support the trolling of members from the film industry, journalists, critics and other individuals which is carried on by "persons misusing our client's name". Terming such persons as "miscreants", the statement carries an unconditional apology from the star for any hurt or harm caused because of their actions.
Fans-turned-miscreants can be found all over the country. Last year, Tollywood star Pawan Kalyan's fan was stabbed to death by a fan of Junior NTR's. In the same year, The New Indian Express office in Hyderabad was surrounded by agitated fans of Mahesh Babu, who objected to an article published in the newspaper which panned Brahmotsavam. They also launched a hashtag against the newspaper on Twitter.
Ajith's words are much needed — especially for the online space — where it has become routine for fans to go on a rampage, targeting anyone who expresses a negative opinion of a movie in which a leading male actor has starred.
His statement was subsequent to Vijay's press release stating that everyone had the right to criticise a movie, and that he did not want anyone to be abused for it. The move came after a police complaint was filed against his self-proclaimed fans for targeting and harassing TNM Editor-in-Chief Dhanya Rajendran.
As social media platforms rear their ugly head and turn more violent and misogynistic, it's no longer an option for stars to stay silent about the abuse that is done in their name, especially when they use the medium to promote their movies and share their personal views about other issues.
It is a feeble excuse to say that the star is not "active" online and cannot intervene when all of them have PR teams to keep them informed about what's going on.
In fact, one doesn't even have to criticise a movie to become a target, as singer Chinmayi discovered a few years ago. Chinmayi had said something complimentary about a Vijay film, and this was enough for self-proclaimed fans of Ajith to descend on her and abuse her in the vilest terms. At the time, Ajith did not speak about the issue, although it received quite a bit of media coverage.
The battle between the fans of Vijay and Ajith is legendary in Tamil Nadu and has also been represented in films. While every generation has seen cinema fans divided on the basis of star loyalties (MGR and Sivaji, Rajinikanth and Kamal), the advent of social media has made it easier for fans to make coordinated personal attacks on individuals.
Whether it is the attack by Vijay fans earlier this month or the targeted trolling of movie critics like Anna MM Vetticad by the saffron brigade, violent threats — including death, rape and acid attacks — spill out from the comfortable anonymity offered by social media platforms.
While men face such attacks from fans too, the misogyny is unmistakable in the sexual threats that are levied at women targets. For instance, a Kerala woman's Facebook review of the Mohanlal starrer Pulimurugan led to highly sexist and objectionable comments and threats by random Mohanlal fans on the Internet.
Annapurna Sunkara, who had put out a video about sexism in Telugu movies after the release of the first Baahubali film, was abused by not only fans but also people from Tollywood for her views.
Most times, the stars (under whose name the fans operate) do not involve themselves in the trolling. While they may not endorse the abuse, their silence is seen as justification or even tacit encouragement of the attack. Many trolls, in fact, use the photo of their favourite star as their display pic and have the name of a movie title or the actor's name attached to their own on social media platforms.
Even if a star does not have official fan clubs, these individuals are united across states through social media groups offered by platforms like WhatsApp. While these groups usually promote the star's films, they can also turn into weapons when someone expresses an opinion that is seen as objectionable by them.
Whether the star personally wants them to abuse someone or not becomes irrelevant when they operate under the assumption that they are doing all this for his benefit, and that they will be rewarded for their "loyalty" somehow.
Such online abuse is punishable by law. However, it requires cooperation from social media platforms which have their own limitations and shortcomings. For instance, neither Facebook nor Twitter recognises abuse in Indian languages because they do not have the expertise in assessing these languages. And even if you have contacts within these networks, the justice system can be tiresomely slow in acting.
The most effective way would be for stars to actively and consistently discourage such abuse that is done in their names. They cannot wash their hands off the responsibility anymore. Not when they act as demigods on screen and are aware that their fans believe them to be as such off-screen, too. They bank on this belief film after film to ensure that they get their blockbusters.
And so, like any demigod worth his salt, they should know when to strike down when the devotees go out of line.