Cinema, for the longest time, had been thought of as a social experience, fit for the big screen. Though the arrival of television changed this somewhat, the last couple of years have driven daggers into the theatre experience. Even if theatres briefly showed a period of minor resurgence, audiences still seemed to remain hesitant, on account of the pandemic. What, then, of fans who thrived on the social experience and revelled in the screen presence of their star? How are they handling the loss of the theatre experience? How are they dealing with the absence of whistles, confetti, flex banners… Vicky Ram, a self-confessed ‘Rajinikanth-crazy fan’ and a fan club member, begins by noting that ‘mass scenes’ need a ‘mass experience’ and that this can only be offered by theatres. “I can never watch OTT content with the same excitement,” he says. “My friends aren’t there with me. I miss watching films with those like me, who share my love for thalaivar.”
The word ‘mass’ is often brought up in these conversations, and actor and film historian Mohan Raman believes we need to understand that term right. “OTT films also have punch dialogues, fights and dance numbers, don’t they?” he asks, and points out that it’s more about the congregation of people than it is about the content itself. Vicky agrees, “Every time a Thalaivar movie gets released, my father and I go together, wearing a costume from that film. My most special experience is when I took my dad to watch Lingaa's first-day-first-show. It was special for us because it was Thalaivar’s birthday and he cuts the cake in the film as well," he recounts. Mohan adds that this is why OTT platforms can never replace the film-watching experience a theatre is able to provide.
The theatre experience and star-adoration go hand-in-hand in our cinema. It has been the case for decades now, even before Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. “Haridas (1944) saw three Diwalis while running in the theatre. For MGR's Vettaikkaran (1964), producer Chinnappa Thevar brought a tiger to the theatre, and only after the intervention of wildlife authorities was the tiger removed from the premises. I also remember that for Sivaji Ganesan's Karnan, which got released on the same Pongal day, the set of a chariot was erected inside Shanthi theatre premises," says Mohan. The scale of celebrations, he adds, was far bigger than we see today.
While we wait for theatres to blossom once again, is it possible at all for an OTT star to emerge? Rakesh, proprietor of Vettri Theatres, doesn’t think this possible at all. Mohan, meanwhile, offers a more nuanced response by explaining that it’s all about how we define the word, ‘star’. “Charu Haasan once famously said that actors who are brought into a film for suitability don’t become stars; it’s the actors who are brought for saleability who do. A star is who determines the selling price of a film,” he explains. “The price of even an OTT project increases when a star steps in. I believe though that stardom will continue to arrive from the theatres, for the moment anyway.”
The other issue is how OTT releases are hampered by budget limitations. Mohan quotes a big film that he's a part of, "Mr. Mani Ratnam cannot release Ponniyin Selvan on an OTT platform. It’s just pure economics. Only if it makes financial sense to sell a film to an OTT platform will a producer consider it. For a film like Ponniyin Selvan, it doesn’t seem possible.”
There was some optimism for fans when star-driven films like Master, Sulthan and Karnan got a brief run in theatres. George A, a Chennai-based energy engineer and an ardent fan of actor Vijay, found it a necessary relief. “Master was a great break, given the stress we were all feeling due to the pandemic. Though we had to follow certain behavioural guidelines and there was, of course, the 50 percent occupancy rule as well, it was still worth it. We went all out to celebrate the film—from firecrackers to flex banners, we did it all.”
The wait has been longer for fans of some other stars. Rajinikanth, for instance, was to have his Siva-directorial, Annaatthe, get released this year. However, the lockdown, Rajinikanth's brief political foray, and his health concerns seem to have pushed the release date away. How are fans coping? Vicky says that many fan clubs have channelled their energy for good causes. “We are using social media to reach out to people, and help provide sanitisers, masks and other necessities,” he says. Many other fan clubs are doing this as well. An admin of a Twitter account called Vijay Fans Trends shares that a Telegram bot called 'KOVF Vaccine Finder' was started by the Kerala Online Vijay Fans community to share vaccine availability information with the people.
For now, fans have to make do with social media being the primary hub for cinema-related activities. We saw the collective energy of fans bursting forth on social media this June 22, when Vijay’s birthday was celebrated with common display pictures and trending hashtags. “Last year too, we were not able to celebrate his birthday. We try to channel all that energy into expressing solidarity and love on social media," says George. What motivates fans like George is the constant encouragement they get from stars themselves. “I don’t want to name them to protect their privacy. But stars are very much aware of fan club activities and are in communication with the heads of the club,” he adds.
One thing is for sure: cinema will continue to evolve, as will mass moments. Stars continue to hold sway though, especially when it comes to the theatre experience. Perhaps OTT platforms will grow their own star, or perhaps they won’t. For now, fans are channelling their love for stars through social media activities, but once the cases go down and the virus shows signs of leaving us for good, fans will be ready with firecrackers and confetti to welcome the theatre experience once again.