With less than two weeks to go for its release, the noise around Shah Rukh Khan's Fan is reaching its crescendo. The 'Jabra Fan' song's rendition in six languages, including Bhojpuri and Tamil, has the entire nation tapping its feet to the catchy tune. Running parallel to this sharp promotional strategy is another one that isn't so in-your-face, yet can't be ignored.
Tucked away in Maldives, 36-year-old Muhammad Ashraf, is working tirelessly to roll out his own promotional activities for the Yash Raj film. By day, Ashraf is the HR head of a local business conglomerate, but in cyberspace he's hailed as the founder of SRK Universe—the biggest global fan club for the super-star. "We hire a cinema in each city for his film's first show, print T-shirts, and then cut a cake. This time I've decided to give wrist bands to 50,000 fans worldwide who come for first show of the film," informs Ashraf over a phone conversation, adding that these activities eat up 90% of his earnings.
As is evident, Ashraf's fan club is no ordinary one—it's an empire with branches in 35 countries that exist only to magnify Khan's celebrity. Every Sunday he has a virtual general meeting with his counterparts spread over South Asia and Europe to discuss ways in which they can serve their idol better. "Sometimes, I feel like I work for him," admits, Ashraf. And he does. Ashraf's biggest ammunition is his ability to constantly keep Khan alive on social media, literally at the click of a button. "90 per cent of the trends you see on Twitter about SRK are started by us. We have something called a 'trending army' of about 250 people. The moment I give them a hashtag about SRK, they will start tweeting, and within five minutes it will be trending," he says with an ease of confidence. Khan is well aware of SRK Universe and often retweets what they put out. Ashraf has in the past helped fans meet Khan by sending them air tickets to his shoot location, but he personally met the star only last year on his 50th birthday.
In a world where a celebrity's digital presence determines their worth as a brand, the power of fan clubs like Ashraf's, that has over 3,59,000 followers, cannot be taken lightly. Actors today have multiple fan clubs on Twitter and Facebook with followers that run into thousands and lakhs. They doggedly track every tiny development about their beloved star—exclusive photos, videos, and interviews.
"Today actors like SRK, Salman Khan, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra have a huge digital presence and their fan clubs play a crucial part in that. Along with a manager and publicist, stars also have digital agencies now that come up with formulas to promote them online. Some of these agencies are hiring fans instead of professionals because they are so invested in the actors. These agencies work closely with fan clubs and keep them informed about important announcements," explains a celebrity manager who didn't want to be named.
Deepak Suthar, a commerce student who runs the twitter handle Team Arjun, a fan club for Arjun Kapoor, puts it in plainly—"We do almost everything that the PR is doing, but we don't get paid." He's not complaining. "I want to be like Arjun Kapoor. Losing 65 kgs is not a small thing. His dedication towards everything he does makes me his fan," he explains. Suthar has been developing a fan base for Kapoor since his debut film Ishaqzaade (2012). "I was the first person to bring all the Arjunzaades—that's what we call Arjun Kapoor fans—under one roof. So far we've made 50 plus trends on Twitter and made many blogs and videos go viral," he declares.
The hard work hasn't gone unacknowledged. Celebrities go the extra mile to ensure that they know their ardent admirers by name and engage with them—a practice that was first initiated by Amitabh Bachchan as far back as three decades ago when he began the tradition of meeting fans gathered outside his Juhu bungalow every Sunday. This ritual continues to this day. Over the years, Bachchan has cultivated an even deeper rapport with his followers through his personal blog. At last count, he had a staggering 20.2 M followers on Twitter.
Falguni Upadhyay, a student of jewellery design, has lost track of the number of times she's met her favourite actor Ranveer Singh. The first was soon after the release of Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) when she told him about the fan club she had started on Facebook. "He kept thanking me. He's always hugging people and spreading love. That's the best thing about him," she gushes.
Years later, when Singh's team wanted to start an official Facebook page for the star, they asked Upadhyay if they could merge it with hers. She now runs the Twitter handle RanveerSingh_FC, and is actively invested in promoting the star's work online. Recently, Singh wished another female fan from Oman on her birthday through a video of him animatedly singing 'Happy Birthday'. The young fan, Moumita Chatterjee, later posted on Facebook—'Nothing in life has made me dance around the room, scream with joy, cry out of excitement and re-watch the same video a million times.'
Suthar remembers feeling the same on his birthday last year when he met Kapoor at his home in Mumbai—a meeting organised by the actor's manager. "When I entered his (Kapoor) home, he came out from his bedroom singing with a cake. I couldn't control my tears," he says. The youngster is now on texting terms with his idol, and when he's busy, he connects with his sister Anshula Kapoor. "He makes me feel like his younger brother. That's how sweet and down to earth he is."
There's a clear sense of ownership with which Suthar, Upadhyay and Ashraf speak of their heroes. The proximity they share with actors would have been unimaginable without social media. We'll possibly never again hear the legendary stories we once did about Rajesh Khanna's windscreen being pockmarked with lipstick marks, or Dev Anand being warned against wearing black because it drove women crazy.
Today actors direct message their fans on Twitter. "In the 60s, I remember writing letters to Shashi Kapoor, Sadhana and Pran and they would respond with a picture and a thank you letter. Sometimes it would be typed, sometimes handwritten. Pran would insist on writing to everyone. Now nobody writes fan mail anymore," says Dinesh Raheja, editor of Bollywood News Service and author.
In Maneesh Sharma's portrait of a fan, the obsession takes a dark and ugly turn. However, Raheja feels this bond is a wonderful development for genuine admirers. The online clout wielded by new-age fan clubs can at times be discomforting, but one can't fault them on their commitment. "If you're a true fan of someone, you should do something real to promote him. You can't just put up news about the star from a website, retweet it, and go back home," says Ashraf, passionately.
But what's in it for him? "I can't explain it. I just need to do something for Shah Rukh," he says. His words sound eerily similar to the dialogue mouthed by Gaurav—the character playing Khan's fan in the film— 'Gharwale bhi na mere, samajhte hi nahi hain. Wo sirf star nahin hai, duniya hai meri'.