‘For the Love of a Man’: Venice Review

The cult of adulation surrounding South Indian super-star Rajinikanth is explored in all its color, excitement and madness.

The madness of South Indian fandom – here, the godlike cult that has grown up around now-aging superstar Rajinikanth — makes for amusing viewing in Rinku Kalsy’s colorful documentary For the Love of a Man. Though it’s good fun to watch, it fails to delve very deeply into the many social issues it puts on the table. These include the connection between South India’s Dravidian community and the professed atheism of many fans, and the astute use of popular media like cinema by local politicians. Uninitiated Westerners will hanker to see more of the star on screen, while local cultists will be disappointed that the film never interviews the former bus conductor who has become a living legend and who is literally worshipped as a deity by Tamil Nadu’s impoverished and often illiterate masses. Yet the film remains an entertaining, sometimes jaw-dropping, intro to the extremes of actor-worship and should catch on with fests and TV.    

For foreign audiences approaching the star for the first time, a lot of exposition is necessary via subtitles and voice-overs. The Dravidians of Tamil Nadu are mentioned repeatedly as being atheists, for example, but do they make up the brunt of the actor’s fans? It would seem so. The film draws a hesitant connection between the region’s lack of religious culture and the actor’s elevation to the status of divinity in the minds and hearts of his supporters.

The Bottom Line

Great topic, small film.

Usually, however, he is simply referred to as “our dear leader”, a phrase strongly reminiscent of a Soviet-style cult of the personality. He is described as good, generous, modest and loving. Above all, he is seen as a working class hero who is one of the oppressed masses. Many fans clamor for the balding, paunchy 60-year-old to enter the political ring.  Already seven of Tamil’s chief ministers have been elected after becoming big screen icons.

Perhaps based on the theory that documentaries ought to be objective, or out of fear of reprisal from the dear leader’s glassy-eyed enthusiasts, Kalsy shies away from outright irony or criticism. Learned college profs cautiously weigh in on the sociological implications of it all, but theirs is not the final word. That belongs to a handful of adult fanboys (there are no females in sight) culled from the star’s 150,000 Indian fan clubs.

G. Mani comes from the slums of Chennai.  A former gang member, he now heads a fan club that costs him every penny he earns at his sweet shop. His wife Suganthi is at the end of her rope when he pawns her jewelry to pay for birthday celebrations on the street honoring the star.

The relatively well-off shop owner N. Ravi was so upset when his hero once fell ill that he stopped eating and working and cried non-stop. He sent his illiterate brother N. Murugan to Singapore to visit the swanky hospital where Rajini was recovering for daily updates. The brothers grew up as orphans and they credit him as the role model that helped them make good. Like G. Mani, they are happy, smiling men who donate generously to local charities in the superstar’s name. Later, we see a group of orphans whose teacher makes them pray for the actor before they can eat their plate of free biryani rice. One wonders whether the reclusive star is even aware of what goes on in his name.

The most indelible character is Kamal Anand, a thoughtful street performer who does a highly prized imitation of Rajini on stage and at private parties. He’s even called in by theater owners to open some of the star’s films. Unfortunately for viewers new to the cult, it’s hard to compare him to the original, as scant footage is included from Rajinikanth’s film opus (he has over 200 under his belt.) One has to make do with the extraordinary publicity posters and banners, some a hundred feet long and printed on special presses, showing the bigger-than-life hero in his many roles.

Production companies: Anecdote Films in association with KeyDocs Amsterdam
Cast: G. Mani, Suganthi Mani, Kamal Anand, N. Ravi, N. Murugan
Director, screenwriter: Rinku Kalsy
Producer: Joyojeet Pal
Director of photography: Sandeep Ps, Udit Khurana, K. Vishwanathan, Jagadeesh Sridhar Ravichandran
Music: Anuraag Dhoundeyal
Editor: Rinku Kalsy
85 minutes