In Fan (2016), Aryan Khanna (Shah Rukh Khan), the movie star who is being stalked by his biggest fan — also his creeping lookalike — makes a distinction between “pyaar” and “bewakoofi”, love and foolishness. At first, this distinction makes sense. The fan is kidnapping Khanna’s arch nemesis and carrying out irrational, excessive — not to mention illegal — acts, out of what he considers pyaar, his undimmed, reckless fandom. The star, sensing that the fan might be a psychopath, wants to distance himself from this love, this obsession, without giving up on the idea of love, of obsession itself. So he makes this rather fragile distinction between pyaar and bewakoofi, knowing fully well that love without foolishness is hardly love. It is a make-do rationality, one that would collapse when thrust into another context.
Fandom is uncritical love, that much has always been clear. That the fan will always cheer, always whistle, always be a patron, purchasing a first-day first-show ticket. Fandom is, however, not unconditional love. It is built upon certain illusions, which if shattered, shatters the love itself. It is the difference between the two — uncritical love, and unconditional love — that the “fan” movie is attempting to milk.
The “fan” movie, if you think of it, is an anti-romance film, or a romance film played in reverse. It begins with love — unexplained, pungent, excessive love. In the Malayalam movie Driving Licence (2019), when the fan asks for the possibility of some alone time with the star, for a photo, the music in the background is of a shehnai, of marriage, of love blooming. But this love immediately curdles into disillusionment and doubt as it did in Guddi (1971), Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003) and Om Shanti Om (2007), and even hatred, bloodshed, vengeance, and resentment as it did in films like Driving Licence, An Action Hero (2022), and Fan.
Given that Driving Licence is up for a cultural adaptation, being remade and released in Hindi as Selfiee starring Akshay Kumar and Emraan Hashmi, the question swarms — what happened to the “fan” movie? Why has the relationship between the fan and the star become a space of violence, of resentful jostling, as opposed to one of cooing love?
One possible stab at this question is looking at how gendered the films are. In Driving Licence, An Action Hero, and Fan it is a man who is performing his fandom for another man. The moment they meet the star is also a moment of humiliation, when the star makes the fan realize how small they are, and how irrelevant their requests are in the grand scheme of their glittering, demanding stardom. The star isn’t evil. He just wants to be entitled to his time. It is the fan who insists, who jostles, who feels entitled to their star’s attention, their time — however little that time is. As Aryan Khanna says to his fan, exhausted, pulped and bloody after another relentless chase to pin him down, “Insaan hoon, yaar (I’m human, buddy)”.
Part of this is the modern star who wants to be both — a star and a human; who wants to be seen as both — aspirational and relatable; who is disillusioned with the idea of eternally performing an idea for a public, while euphorically lapping up the love that comes his way. In both Fan and Driving Licence, the star is someone who is given to anger as he is to love, to forgiveness as he is to arrogance. It is a plea to not be placed on a pedestal, while being able to milk the very fruits of that pedestal-placing. But this feels too feeble a reason.
Driving Licence frames this friction most profoundly. That the whole conflict is one of self-respect. Fandom lets you forget about it. Meeting the star, being humiliated by him, suddenly jolts your selfhood. And it is in its assertion that the fan and the star spar. With men, it is often self-respect — indistinguishable from ego — that gets the narrative ball rolling.
In Guddi, Mast and Om Shanti Om, on the other hand, it is either a female fan in love with a male star, or a male fan in love with a female star. Desire, here, is sated with a more erotic pulse. In Guddi, for example, the titular protagonist refuses to get married, insisting that she has surrendered herself to film star Dharmendra. Om Shanti Om, like Mast, has a male fan who, after meeting the female star, realizes how wretched her life is and tries to save her, while rupturing themselves in love — the non-platonic kind. There is no acid, no resentment, no anger that bubbles to burst, because there is no space for humiliation.
The fan, a curious cultural figure, dances precariously on the line between persistent and creepy. In Driving Licence, the fan gets the number of the star from a local theatre guy and texts his opinions on the stars’ film with discipline, but never calls, knowing his limits. But what if these limits are breached, given how breachable, and unamenable to limits desire, generally, is? As I write this, a video is circulating of a female fan who wants to kiss Aditya Roy Kapur, with Kapur resisting this demand. Actors often joke about being asked for photos in urinals and bathroom stalls. How to think of these fan requests — as prohibitive? Intrusive? Affectionate?
One half of the story is the breaching of limits, the shredding of questions of consent. But the other is a total disregard for self-respect. What does it take for a woman to walk up to a man and say, “Can you please kiss me?” Or for a man to walk up to a man as he has tucked his privates in to squint and demand a selfie?
Documentaries like For The Love Of A Man which looks at Rajinikanth’s fandom and Being Bhaijaan, which looks at Salman Khan’s fandom, are both exasperated and excited by this phenomenon — of men refusing to get married because Salman Khan isn’t married, for example. Are they lost? Are they using their fandom to get out of a masculinity they don’t know what to do with?
The heart is, after all, a site of both love and obsession, with people wary of the latter, craving the former. However, documentary filmmaker, columnist and eternal Shah Rukh Khan fan, Paromita Vohra, insists that obsession can “ruin your mind in the best possible ways”, because it allows for so many possibilities and fantasies, and how fandom can be “creative, generative and open-ended”. There is something inexplicable and frustratingly inarticulate about it, like there is something inexplicable and inarticulate about love itself. In 1996 Shah Rukh Khan was thrown a dialogue, like a bone, by his lover in a film, “Kuch kuch hota hai, Rahul. Tum nahin samjhoge (Things happen, Rahul. You won’t get it)”. Almost two decades later, he flings the same line at himself, as a fan who speaks to his star, inflected by the accents of Delhi, “Rehen de, tu nahin samjhega (Let it be. You won’t get it)”. It seems, no one understands love. Even the ones who sell it to us.