Rowdies, Rasikas, Fans: Bollywood, New Media, and Participatory Culture

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Rowdies, Rasikas, Fans: Bollywood, New Media, and Participatory Culture

Aswin Punathambekar

(Biblio, October 2005)

In keeping with the spirit of Bollywood, let us begin with a few “items.”

Item #1: Swades, starring Shahrukh Khan, with music by A. R. Rahman, was released worldwide on Dec. 24, 2004. The official website was created by and launched 4 months prior to the movie’s release. The film’s music was released on 24 September 2004, and was available on various p2p networks and websites like the very next day. Radio and TV channels in India and abroad carried a number of sneak-peeks, web portals such as and created slideshows (offering behind-the-scenes stills, interviews, etc.) and hosted discussions, and cell phone networks offered Swades ring tones. Within 2 days of the film’s release, ‘illegal’ copies in multiple formats were in circulation all over the world.
Item #2: Hari Kunzru’s novel, Transmission, revolves around Arjun Mehta, a software engineer in New Delhi. Arjun is a Bollywood fan and a regular at a basement cybercafe that supplies him with bootleg films, film songs, and porn. Body-shopped to West Coast USA, Arjun navigates the racial and cultural fields of the high-tech sector with great tenacity and verve, only to get laid-off in unceremonious fashion. Enraged, he exacts revenge by unleashing the most deadly computer virus ever conceived. As the code paralyzes and wreaks havoc on computer systems worldwide, the only thing visible on screen is a simulation – Leela Zahir, a Bollywood heroine, dancing suggestively.
Item #3: During the 2004 Presidential election campaign in the U.S., a south Asian-media site,, created a flash movie involving the two candidates John Kerry and George Bush, and a third candidate – “representing the green-card party, my main man, Amitabh Bachchan!” Set to Hindi film music, the movie mocks both Kerry and Bush, and sets up a third choice – Amitabh Bachchan, supported by Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the famous song from Sholayyeh dosti (this friendship) – playfully articulating the possibilities of coalition building across racial and ethnic categories (
Item #4: Excerpt from Times of India article: “There are those who are making easy moolah, traveling piggy-back on star value, a breed of cyber-squatters who had the foresight to register domain names like or and will now sell it to the stars for a very high price. Recently, such a squatter asked a producer to part with five crores for the site name But the worst of the lot are the pornographic sites, which advertise Bollywood nudity by graphically superimposing the faces of actresses on nude bodies. It's all a part of the Net game. The current score is Love All” (Contractor, TOI, June 12, 2000).
Any number of such “items” can be sketched to illustrate the increasingly transnational and multi-media terrain of Indian film culture today. They are, however, useful insofar as they help us raise questions concerning the sites, modes, and politics of consumption in an age of media convergence. These “items” indicate that the space of public culture shaped by Indian cinema has been dramatically reconfigured, and underscore the centrality of various ‘new’ media technologies to the larger project of Bombay cinema re-imagining itself as a global culture industry over the past decade. Among other things, they point to rapidly changing, complex, and often surprising, connections between: (a) industry practices, (b) sites and modes of consumption, (c) networks and forms of sociality that crisscross regional, national, and transnational boundaries and affiliations, (d) grassroots cultural production, and (e) articulations of cultural and political identities.

In this essay, I suggest that one way to comprehend these changes is through critical engagement with a realm of film culture that all these “items” signal: fan activity. Before we attempt this, however, we need to rethink our understanding of fan activity in two important ways. First, I argue that we need to examine fan activity as a mode of consumption that does not necessarily originate in the cinema hall. Such a move might also help us critically re-think the history of cinema’s public-ness as a history of cinema’s intersections with radio, TV, and now, the Internet. Following this, I re-assess the figure of the fan, and move away from the binary of fan-as-rowdy versus fan-as-rasika that has dominated the public imagination. I conclude the essay with a brief sketch of an A. R. Rahman fan community and posit that critical engagement with such transnational, online fan communities might help us comprehend what the ‘political’ means in the context of contemporary film culture.

Beyond the Cinema Hall

Scholars have grappled with the idea of how cinema in India relates in complex ways to the civic and the political by focusing on a range of filmic and extra-filmic sites. However, fan practices have not been granted sustained attention. The two notable exceptions here are Sara Dickey’s work on fan associations (FAs) in Tamilnadu (1993), and Srinivas’ work in the context of the Telugu film industry (2000).

Sara Dickey locates fan activity at the intersection of the formal realm of ‘politics’ (involving political parties and electoral campaigns) and civil social activity (FAs doing charity work, organizing blood donation campaigns, etc.). Srinivas analyzes fan activity as being structured by dialectic of ‘devotion and defiance’, a struggle between fan expectations and the industry’s careful management of the star persona to derive maximum mileage from fan activity. In more recent work, Srinivas (2003) has examined the circulation of Hong Kong action cinema in Andhra Pradesh and fan activity generated around martial arts, in order to argue for a move away from an understanding the political nature of FAs beyond their “linkages with the politics of linguistic/identity nationalism”. Srinivas complicates the question of what might replace the political party as the site where consumption eventually meets the realm of politics. He maintains, however, that this realm of consumption is political mainly because it “develops around the notion of spectatorial rights.” He writes:

The cinema exists because of my presence and for me. Further, the ‘I’ at the cinema is always a member of a collective: we make the film happen. Anyone who has watched a Chiranjeevi or Rajnikanth film knows exactly what I am talking about. Not only do these stars address spectators in rather direct ways (including by looking at the camera) but seem to perform according to ‘our’ demands (2003:3, original emphasis).

In the light of Indian cinema’s flows worldwide, the question of who comprises the “we” in the cinema hall and what “our” demands might be complicates the notion of spectatorial rights. For it would be difficult to maintain that a third-generation Tamil Malaysian fan of Rajnikanth is positioned as a spectator in precisely the same way as is a fan in Madurai, Tamilnadu. Spectatorial rights also does not help us explain the kind of fan activity that produces a flash movie related to an election campaign in the U.S., or elaborate web pages for heroes and heroines.

The question is, why is the cinema hall the pre-eminent originary site for analyses of the “public-ness” of cinema? If one considers film music – which circulates in the public realm much before and long after the film itself does – does it not force us to examine the radio, television, and now the Internet, as sites equally constitutive of the “public-ness” of cinema as much as the cinema hall itself, if not more? Consider the story of Rameshwar Prasad Bharnwal, a resident of Jhumri Tilaiya in south Bihar, who has mailed nearly three lakh requests cards to radio stations over the past 20 years, and at least 10 cards a day to Binaca Geet Mala when the show was broadcast on Radio Ceylon (Krishnan, 1991). Bharnwal, an active member of a radio listener’s club that met on a weekly basis to discuss films, film songs, and requests to be mailed, recalls sending nearly 100 requests for the song Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya from Mughal-e-Azam. Shows such as Binaca Geet Mala (first on Radio Ceylon and later on All India Radio), Chitrahaar and Phool Khile Gulshan Gulshan (on Doordarshan), First Day First Show (on [V]), and movie zones (on portals like are all key nodes in a participatory culture shaped not necessarily in the cinema hall, by the screen. To consider these sites, then, is to re-write the history of Indian cinema’s public-ness as a history of media convergence, and, as a history of participatory culture and fan activity that do not necessarily originate in the cinema hall and end in the space of political parties and election campaigns.

Between Rowdies and Rasikas

The second major question concerns the figure of the fan: obsessive, predominantly male, working class, and rowdy. Over the years, press coverage of FAs and their ties to political parties in states like Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh have only served to marginalize fans and fan activity as undesirable, vulgar, and at times, dangerous. As Srinivas writes:

The fan is a rowdy not only because he breaks the law in the course of his assertion or his association with criminalized politics – the fan becomes a rowdy by overstepping the line which demarcates the legitimate, ‘constructive’, permissible excess, and the illegitimate…as far as the ‘citizen’ is concerned, the fan is a blind hero-worshipper (devoid of reason) and a villain. The rowdy/fan is an agent of politics which is de-legitimized” (2000: 314).

Fans, in other words, are imperfect citizens in aesthetic, socio-cultural and political terms. Middle-class constructions of norms of excess are, without doubt, designed in part to maintain hierarchies of cultural production and taste. One could argue that the fan-as-rowdy is constructed in semantic and social opposition to the idea of the fan-as-rasika – rowdy fans of Rajnikanth as opposed to rasikas (connoisseurs) of M. S. Subbulakshmi, for instance. Where, then, do we position those thousands of listeners, like the members of the radio club in Jhumri Tilaiya, who wrote hundreds of letters to Ameen Sayani, the famous anchor of Binaca Geet Mala, expressing their admiration of singers like Talat Mahmood and Geeta Dutt? In what terms do we describe the desires and attachments of thousands of “respectable” English-speaking middle-and upper-middle class men and women who read Filmfare and Stardust? What are we to make of the thousands of teenagers in urban India who call and send emails to VJs on Channel [V], clamoring for another video clip of their favorite heroine or hero? And finally, how do we make sense of online life-worlds of fans in diverse locations worldwide who design websites devoted to film stars, maintain blogs, write detailed reviews, create ways and means to share music, and come together as online communities on the basis of shared attachments to film culture?

I would argue that we need to move away from meanings derived out of experiences based in the cinema hall and/or the political party, and place the “fan” along a more expansive continuum. Yes, there are rowdies and there are rasikas. To deny the existence of several other sites and modes of participation, however, will not only sustain class-based cultural hierarchies, but will also mean turning a blind eye to the many important ways in which cultural and political subjectivities are being shaped in “new” media spaces today.

In conclusion, let us briefly consider an A. R. Rahman fan collective – an online newsgroup that comprises nearly 3,000 members from 26 different countries. The multiple boundaries that Rahman and his music traverse – linguistic, regional/national, diasporic, and global – are reflected strongly in online fan collectives such as this. To an outsider, this online collective might seem little more than a group of “obsessed” fans chatting about their “icon’s” life and work. A closer look would reveal that this is a space that brings together, for instance, fourth-generation Tamil-Malaysians, second-generation Indian-Americans, Indians in Gulf countries like Dubai, and middle-class youth in urban India. Embedded as citizens in disparate ways, each fan brings her/his own linguistic/regional background, experiences of varying racial/ethnic politics, religious affiliations, different registers of memory and nostalgia for ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ culture, to bear on her/his engagement with Rahman’s music (and thereby, Indian cinema in general). Conversations about film music that unfold in this space, then, are nothing short of a struggle over different meanings of ‘Indianness’ in varied socio-cultural contexts.

Interactions in this online space are also influenced by broader technological, economic, and political changes. New media technologies have expanded the range of delivery channels, and enabled fans to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways. At the same time, media organizations and governments, wary of these transformations, monitor and regulate such participatory culture (for e.g., copyright issues). These fan collectives, thus, function as zones of engagement, where individuals, media technologies and institutions, and broader cultural and political forces participate in the construction, contestation, and negotiation of India’s place in the global cultural sphere. It is in such spaces of fan activity that contemporary film culture’s connections to the “political” are being played out and to which we need to be attuned.

  1. Dickey, S. (1993) Cinema the Urban Poor in South India. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Srinivas, S. V. (2000) “Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity,” in Vasudevan, R. (Ed) Making Meaning in Indian Cinema. New Delhi: OUP.

  3. Srinivas, S. V. (2003) “Film Culture, Politics, and Industry,” Seminar, #525.

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