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The Origins of Ritualistic Film Spectatorship in Tamil Nadu

We have read stories about the fans of Rajinikanth pouring milk, lighting camphor and breaking coconuts for the cutouts of his film Sivaj:The Boss. Those who are in the know of the ritualistic nature of film spectatorship in Tamil Nadu probably were not surprised to read them. The fans of MGR continue to be masters par excellence of ritualistic film spectatorship even after their god died 20 years ago. The re-release of any major MGR film even today witnesses the enactment of the same rituals that defined the launch of MGR films during the 1950s and 1960s. Here is a feed from an avid MGR fan on the goings-on in a theatre in Chennai last week.

The popular notion of ritualistic spectatorship takes for granted that the fans of MGR started it all in Tamil Nadu. I beg to differ. I think the fans of the religious heroes in folk theatre such as Therukoothu left their ritualistic legacy for the fans of MGR to emulate albeit through the medium of white screen where the images of MGR run their duels against the forces of evil. Ritualism thrives in the spectatorship of the folk theatre and cinema because of the sameness of the plots the sessions of folk theatre and MGR or Rajinikanth films have. Ritualism thrives wherever the manifestation of the heroic deeds of good samritans is transformed as a site of worship, as a deity.

When MGR fans were refused permission by a theatre management in Madurai recently to perform their rituals before the screen, they decided not to enter the theatre. They sold their tickets to general public. I think their message goes like this: “What’s the point in seeing the god (on screen) without paying due respects through time-tested rituals.”

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