God Is Not Dead

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Kannada cine star Vishnuvardhan’s death threw Karnataka into turmoil. Just what mob mania is at play?

Last Wednesday, news of Kannada star Vishnuvardhan’s sudden demise spread like wildfire in Bangalore. Instinctively, everyone knew his fans would go berserk. They did, and how. If the Karnataka government played safe by ordering schools shut, getting public transport off the roads and beefing up security, grieving fans shut everything else down.

Soon, the scene shifted from the actor’s residence in the suburb of Jayanagar to the National College grounds in nearby Basavanagudi, where his body had been kept for public viewing. Even as a self-immolation bid was thwarted, waves of fans attempted to jump the queue and got lathi-charged. Angered, they attacked policemen, stoned vehicles’ windshields and buildings’ windowpanes. They didn’t even spare the ambulance carrying the actor’s remains to a film studio for cremation. There too, the police had to use force to disperse fans, who retaliated by setting afire police and press vehicles.

In all, 20 platoons of the City Armed Reserve and State Reserve Police had to be deployed. It wasn’t enough to quell supercharged passions. At the end of the mayhem, nearly 78 buses of Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corp’s fleet were severely damaged. Sweet shops, liquor outlets, banks and ATMs were ravaged in the Basavanagudi area and south Bangalore. Most autos plying the city displayed newspaper cut-outs of the actor as a precautionary measure—to disarm attackers. And the mania wasn’t restricted to Bangalore alone.

The next day, fans of the actor tonsured their heads in Kolar district. In Kuppya village in Mysore, Somanna, 25, jumped into a well on hearing the news. His friend Kunnaiah, 32, dived after, in a bid to save him. Both were fished out dead.


All of it was reminiscent of what happened when the Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar died. The day-long violence had claimed eight lives. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu too, where politics has an incestuous equation with cinema, film fans are known to spontaneously erupt in violence. In 1967, when the then arch-villain of Tamil films, MR Radha shot budding politician and celebrated actor MG Ramachandran, the state went hysterical and thousands of fans laid siege to the hospital where he was confined for over six weeks. In 1987, when MGR died after a prolonged illness, nearly 40 fans immolated themselves in grief while others went on a rampage. In Andhra Pradesh, though actor NT Rama Rao cast a similar spell on his fans, the violence has been low by South Indian standards, but nothing compared to the exceptional composure of Kerala, where Malayalam screen legend Prem Nazir’s death in 1989 was observed with due dignity.

So, speaking of particulars, what’s with Kannada and Tamil film fandom? “Film stars and politicians are cult personalities, they are deified and placed firmly in the pantheon of gods. That is why if something happens to them, grief or sorrow has extreme reactions,” explains Dr R Thara, who heads Schizophrenic Research Foundation in Chennai. “This happened when former Tamil Nadu CM MGR died, leading many to commit suicide. Recently, it happened again when AP CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy died in a helicopter crash. Any reaction becomes extreme as they are perceived to be supernatural beings. They cannot get maimed or die,” she says.

Concurs Dr K Sekar, Professor of Psychiatric Social Work, Nimhans, Bangalore. But he draws attention to certain other factors. “To call this ‘mob psychology’ is true but facile. If you look at certain socio-economic factors, you’ll see that most vandals were from the lower strata of Bangalore. This kind of cine fan also lacks education and social empowerment. These are primarily people with roots in backward rural south, who form the urban poor in South India. For them, to be not allowed to get a glimpse of their deceased hero is reason enough to create mayhem. In the absence of any more constructive role models and heroes, cine stars become demigods for them. Also, if you look at their targets of attack, these were media vehicles, houses, buses and policemen. Almost all were either symbols of power or money—something which the perpetrators lack. The attack, really, is against the rich and powerful. There’s a growing gap between the haves and have-nots in Bangalore.”

However, SV Srinivas, film studies scholar and author of Megastar, a critically acclaimed biography of Telugu superstar-turned-politician Chiranjeevi, disagrees with most explanations for the violence. “It’s that fascinating moment of public outcry for no apparent reason which just cannot be understood. It is irrational,” he says. “The mobs that went haywire after the actor’s death had no logical reason—there was no communal, regional or linguistic angle to the episode, though there’s a temptation to interpret this as an outlet for the poor.” Also, much of it was lumpen crowds more than genuine fans, indulging in vandalism of the political kind. Mob thuggery, don’t forget, has political patronage.

When the Tamil film icon Sivaji Ganesan died, there was no violence. Perhaps because he’d been ill and his demise was expected. But crucially, because he had no political affiliation, says Thara. Once democracy starts supporting the rule of law, mob mayhem may finally end.