On screen, film stars Pawan Kalyan and Junior NTR are perhaps the most saleable action heroes in the Telugu film industry. But a week before the release of NTR's “Janatha Garage” in which he stars alongside Malayalam thespian Mohanlal, a murder most foul has vitiated the atmosphere.
On Sunday, Akshay and Trinath, fans of Junior NTR allegedly stabbed Vinod Kumar, a 24-year-old fan of Telugu `Power Star' Pawan Kalyan in Kolar in Karnataka on Sunday. The Kolar police say Vinod took potshots at Junior NTR during a speech which was not taken well by NTR's fans. Subsequently later in the day, a war of words ensued, leading to the killing.
Pawan Kalyan who visited the grief-stuck family told his fans to ``focus on building their own lives instead of killing in the name of fandom'' and engaging in meaningless one-upmanship battles. Tollywood, understandably is worried about the dent to its brand equity if street battles of a violent sort are engaged in for the sake of reel heroes.
On many occasions in the past, fan club members of different stars have clashed with each other, resulting in injuries, exposing the ugly side of Tollywood. Fans mobilise themselves into cheering groups for their respective stars ahead of a film release, to portray their cine rivals in a poor light and with the stars turning a blind eye to verbal violence, an unfortunate incident like this was only waiting to happen.
Fan clubs as a phenomenon are not new to south Indian film industry and Tollywood in particular. In the days of NT Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, there was tremendous rivalry on who was the bigger star but they would indulge more in harmless bragging banter of this kind -"my hero's film ran for 100 days, your hero's film ran only for 75 days''.
On occasions, it would degenerate to the level of one star's fan club defacing the posters of the other star's new release. During the era of rivalry between Krishna and Sobhan Babu in the 60s and the 70s, the fans of one star would go as a big group to see the new release of the other star and storm out in the middle of the movie, booing the film. They would be referred to as ``the opposition side fans'' in filmy parlance.
In more recent times, the height of cutouts became a subject of competition with rival fans resorting to cutting out the legs or head of the star from the other camp, to reduce `his' height. The attempt is to score brownie points like if one star's last film had six shows at a theatre, the other star has to have seven shows with his latest release.
Gradually fan clubs took on caste and political colour. Fans started to identify themselves more with a hero belonging to their caste and once NTR started his Telugu Desam in 1982, his Kamma community fans transferred their loyalty to the political outfit. Many of the active fans also converted into quasi-politicians.
The rise of the other popular star in Telugu cinema, Chiranjeevi coincided with the death of Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga, a popular Kapu caste leader in Vijayawada in 1988. It is widely believed that the Kapu community, bereft of a popular face after the murder of Ranga, looked at Chiranjeevi as someone who could fill the gap. With NTR at the helm of affairs as CM of Andhra Pradesh, it also had overtones of a Kamma vs Kapu rivalry. Over the years, fan clubs belonging to different members of the NTR family and Chiranjeevi families have dominated the Telugu film industry.
Not that other communities have lagged behind. The Raju community ensures a Prabhas (the main lead of “Bahubali”) film is celebrated like a festival. Similarly, even the numerically less Brahmin community ensures it flocks to see a K Vishwanath (director of “Sankarabharanam” and “Sagara Sangamam”) movie.
“We are a very casteist society. We always have a soft corner for a hero from our caste. So a filmgoer will see a movie on the first day and interpret it as his contribution to his caste. In his mind, seeing it a week later, dilutes his standing within his community,” says D Suresh Babu, producer.
In this particular case, the victim Vinod Kumar was also a member of Pawan Kalyan's political outfit `Jana Sena' which was launched in 2014 ahead of the elections. So the same people metamorphosed from being film fans to political activists and vice-versa depending on the occasion.
Pawan Kalyan's `Sardar Gabbar Singh' did not do too well when it released this April while Junior NTR's Sankranti release `Nannaku Prematho' received critical acclaim. Observers wonder if an attempt by fan clubs to create a buzz ahead of `Janatha Garage' went horribly wrong. However, most believe that an open war of words or badmouthing other stars, can at best get a good opening on the first two days, but a bad film will eventually never run.
In Tamil cinema, fans of Vijay and Ajith frequently engage in banter over social media on who is the bigger hero or who ensures a better opening. The virtual world is the new battlefield, but blood being spilled in the real world, is never a good sign.