Fandom or fanaticism: Are fans really ‘grateful’ to be hit by Balakrishna?

The actor-politician has been caught on camera several times hitting fans and followers for ‘irritating’ him.
A still from Balakrishna s 2014 film Legend
A still from Balakrishna s 2014 film Legend
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In the 2016 Telugu film Krishna Gaadi Veera Prema Gaadha, set in Anantapur district of Andhra’s Rayalaseema region, the hero Krishna (Nani) is introduced as a fan of actor-politician Nandamuri Balakrishna. Sporting a ‘Jai Balayya’ tattoo on his wrist, he slaps a man for betting on Balakrishna losing in the Assembly elections from the Hindupur constituency. Hindupur has been a Telugu Desam Party (TDP) stronghold for more than 35 years, and was represented by Balakrishna’s father, TDP founder and former Chief Minister Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, for three consecutive terms. Krishna, who is otherwise very timid, later tells his friend that he confidently hit the man because he knew everyone around him would also be infuriated if anyone speaks against Balakrishna, and would come to his support.

Such craze and fandom for film stars, especially star-politicians, is not uncommon in the Telugu states. Fans of most big stars often show intolerance towards any negative criticism of their favourite actor. Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan’s fans are also known for their extreme passion. In 2017, two Pawan Kalyan fans assaulted a TV anchor for giving three stars (out of five) for his film Katamarayudu. Such instances of fans attacking their heroes’ detractors, while disconcerting, are commonplace in the Telugu states.

Balayya’s fans, however, are not just inclined to attack critics, but are also willing to be assaulted by their hero. Or at least that’s what Balakrishna himself, and those who work closely with him, have been trying to tell us. In the latest in a series of similar incidents caught on camera, last week a video of the Hindupur MLA slapping a follower who tried to record the actor’s visuals on his phone went viral. The incident happened in Hindupur, where Balakrishna was campaigning for municipal elections.

Soon after the video went viral, another video was put out explaining the incident. In the video, the follower named Somu, whom Balakrishna has slapped at least twice, said that he was “mildly shoved aside” by the actor, and that “NBK fans do not mind such things”. Somu, who seemed to be reading out from a statement, said that he was “honoured” to be touched by Balakrishna. This bizarre narrative has been put forward in the past by Balakrishna himself and his supporters.

After being caught on camera several times hitting and verbally abusing fans, followers and journalists for reasons like moving too close to him or trying to take photos or videos, Balakrishna was elected as MLA for a second term.

While the perception of Balakrishna having ‘reverent’ fans who are proud to be assaulted by him might be partly orchestrated, observers note that the actor’s family lineage, combined with the culture in which Telugu audiences engage with cinema and the image of the actor portrayed in films and TV news, make such actions seem tolerable, and perhaps even justifiable.

Fandom or fanaticism?

Film studies researcher Vamshi Vemireddy, an Assistant Professor at the University of Hyderabad, says that the actor’s behaviour must be seen in the context of the screen culture in the Telugu states, especially in Andhra Pradesh. “In the aftermath of such incidents (where Balakrishna hits or scolds fans), the strangest narrative is floated, that fans are grateful to be touched by the star,” he says. This narrative arises in the context of an audience culture where stars are worshipped as deities, and going to meet your favourite star is likened to a pilgrimage.

In the past, Balakrishna himself has said that such incidents are between himself and his fans, and have no impact on his political weight. In an interview back in 2017, when asked about the criticism he faced for slapping fans, he said that discussions among his fans involve bragging about being verbally abused and physically assaulted by him.

“The fan is happy that my hand touched him. These critics don’t know all that,” he said. He went on to justify his actions, saying he doesn’t hit people “unnecessarily”. “Either someone provokes me or does something wrong,” he said, referring to fans jostling and getting close to him to see him, vying to take selfies, etc.

“Did this incident (slapping a fan) have any effect on the Nandyal results?” he asked, referring to the 2017 Nandyal bye-election where the TDP won. “People are writing about it as if this one incident will affect the election. What did I do wrong? My fans and I have an understanding. Outsiders cannot come between us,” he had said.

While such an explanation might seem persuasive in the context of Tollywood fan culture, senior journalist and political analyst Telakapalli Ravi says that it is more likely to be an inflated presentation of fandom. “We don’t know for sure whether the fans tolerate it or enjoy it. A few sycophants around Balakrishna suggest that fans are happy to be beaten, which sounds unnatural. It might have been the case once or twice because of some fans’ emotions, but to make it seem like a syndrome is highly unjustified,” Ravi says.

Balakrishna’s ‘eccentric’ image

Vamshi points out that the way TV news channels cover these incidents contribute towards framing a justification for the actor’s behaviour as a proportionate response to being “disturbed” by fans or supporters. “There are attempts to make us believe that fans themselves believe they got the ‘punishment’ they deserved for annoying their favourite star,” he says.

The media has aided in cultivating the image of a ‘maverick’ for Balakrishna over the years. Even when he is not hitting people, the actor is often trolled and memed, whether it’s for displaying ignorance during campaign speeches, for his singing, and his unpredictable behaviour at public events, to the extent that even without context viewers tend to assume the worst.

This image is cemented by his films too, Vamshi notes. Apart from outlandish action and dance sequences from his films that are popular even outside the Telugus states, Balakrishna is famous for his zany lines that portray him as hot-tempered and irrational.

There are also prevailing assumptions about the actor’s drinking habits, and regardless of whether they are true, they add to the image of a star who is expected to fly off the handle at any time.

Wach: A song from Balakrishna's 2017 film Paisa Vasool

Comparing him to filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who also has an ‘eccentric’ image and is expected to make outrageous comments, Vamshi says that people feel it’s simply on-brand for Balakrishna to lose his cool. “The spin given in the media is that he is good at heart but occasionally behaves like this when he is angry, as he can’t help it,” Vamshi says.

Entitled and unrepentant

Comedy tracks in Telugu films often involve the hero ruthlessly beating up the comedians for laughs. This comedy has also played a part in normalising “feudalistic behaviour” like Balakrishna slapping his followers, says literary critic and activist Jilukara Srinivas.

“This naturalisation of his attacks and acceptance of his violence is a result of uncritical thinking of celebrityhood. His family legacy, celebrity status and political life have made him a dominant personality who demands huge loyalty and respect from the people and fans,” he says.

While there are many big stars in Telugu cinema, Vamshi notes that in case of Pawan Kalyan and Balakrishna, their fans have created an impression that whatever the star does is likely to be accepted uncritically. “This has been especially true for Balakrishna, leading to a sense of entitlement,” he says. Srinivas calls Balakrishna’s behaviour a personification of “feudal arrogance and cultural capital dominance”.

While caste affiliations are an integral aspect of Tollywood fandom, they are often complicated by other factors, including onscreen representations. While Balakrishna is from the Kamma community, he has played the role of a Rayalaseema faction leader in hit films like Samarasimha Reddy, Chennakesava Reddy and Narasimha Naidu. Both Reddy and Kamma are dominant caste communities. While the Hindupur region has a higher number of Reddys than Kammas, it is members of Backward Class communities that largely comprise the TDP’s support base in the region.

While it’s unclear whether fans indeed welcome the actor’s contempt, so far Balakrishna has not expressed remorse for his actions. “Even if fans do accept the abuse, that doesn’t mean he should continue beating them. Fans would obviously prefer if he accepted their love and took them close to him,” Telakapalli Ravi says, adding that the actor must stop taking fans for granted.

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