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Shivaji Rao Gaekwad — known popularly by his screen name “Rajinikanth” — is a star of Tamil cinema who has been lighting up screens in India since 1975. For much of that time, he has maintained the stature of a superstar: There are 150,000 fan clubs dedicated to the actor; while many residents of Tamil Nadu may have disowned the caste system and renounced God, but they would never give up on Rajinikanth.
Rinku Kalsy’s documentary “For the Love of Man” explores the fan culture that surrounds the 64-year-old actor. Kalsy features several extreme examples: One printing press exists only to make posters of the actor; a man mortgages his wife’s gold to organize a function in Rajinikanth’s honor. His December 12 birthday has yielded 12-day-long celebrations. Groups meet to watch his films endlessly. And the footage from cinema screenings show fans going wild and dancing on the stage, celebrating the man they see more as a leader than a movie star.
The film is split into four chapters and an epilogue, with titles illustrating the fans’ deification of the man. The first chapter serves as an introduction of sorts, as Kalsy makes the bold decision to not give a biographical account of the actor, so those who don’t know anything about the actor — most Western audiences, including a lot of cinephiles — are left to grapple with tidbits and encouraged to make a leap of faith Rajinikanth is in fact a big deal. There are no details of awards, or even a list of films; the few clips of Rajinikanth performing arrive only when one of the fans discusses a particular film. Yet an analysis of what makes Rajinikanth a great actor is glaringly absent, despite ample talking heads featuring words from film professors and commentators.
“For the Love of a Man” develops more interest when it focuses on three different Rajinikanth super fans: There are brothers N. Ravi and N. Murugan, who run a chain of sweet shops, and such was their worry when Rajinikanth was hospitalized for 60 days, that Murugan flew to Singapore just to be near the hospital where their hero stayed. They even started worshiping the Hindu god Raghavendra, taking cues from Rajinikanth’s alleged faith. But the most memorable fan is Kamal Anand, a mime who makes a living from performing in the fashion of Rajinikanth. Rounding out the trio is former gangster turned picnic seller G. Mani, who heads up a fan club that destroyed a cinema when the projectionist didn’t re-play one of the songs from a screening of Rajinikanth’s “Padayappa.” Somehow, G. Mani’s wife hilariously puts up with him.
For better or worse, each chapter follows the same schema: fans describing the lengths that they will go to prove their devotion to the actor and some of the problems that this causes. While many of these details hold some intrigue surrounding the extremes of celebrity worship, after a while they start to feel redundant.
Although Rajinikanth’s own absence from the film may have been a calculated decision to focus on his impact, the film suffers as a result. “For the Love of a Man” never conveys a real sense of the man, the impact of his charity work or how he relates to so much adoration. What’s it like to be worshipped by 20 million Tamils? Such a question would perhaps have given the film greater dramatic tension, or at the very least, another side to the story. But by not interviewing Rajinikanth, the director asserts that it’s not the stars that create their images, but the fanfare surrounding them.
“For the Love of Man” premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.