Ah, you tame Americans, with your talk about "idols" and "hero worship." Until you know something of the frenzy around Indian movie star Rajinikanth, you ain't seen nothin'.
Stories abound about the action hero, but few western news media have captured the fevered fervor like the Washington Post. And it does so right from the start, with the headline: "India’s biggest action-movie star isn’t just an actor. ‘He is god.’ "
The religion ghosts are dancing right out in the open, in this report. Why didn't the Post team ask specific questions about that? We will return to that subject.
Meanwhile, one fan speaks of an "unmatchable energy" in a theater during a showing. Another compares viewing a Rajinikanth film with seeing his wife's baby for the first time. And in India, some companies are treating the release of one of his films like a religious holiday:
In Chennai, some companies gave employees the day off Friday so they could go see "Kabali," Rajinikanth’s first film in two years. Others had booked entire cinemas for their staff. Air Asia flew 180 fans to the city for the first-day showing in a plane custom-painted with the star’s likeness. One county was giving away free tickets to people who pledged to install an indoor toilet, taking advantage of the movie’s popularity to address the issue of widespread public defecation.
"Rajinikanth is not a human being. He is not an actor. He is [a] god," said S. Thanu, the producer of "Kabali."
And no, the producer isn’t the only one who talks like that.
"He is no less than God for his fans," a film critic tells Firstpost. And a documentary maker tells BBC: "A lot of fans refer to him as God, or as someone who is beyond human desires. So many fans treat the star in ways that are not unlike how people in India treat gurus or spiritual leaders."
Yet none of them get to the bottom of the worshipfulness.
At first glance, Rajinikanth doesn't seem to exude the kind of spirituality that people would seek in a land rich in rishis and gurus and swamis. His screen persona is more the Chuck Norris/Steven Seagal type: kicking in doors, whipping out guns, punching out thugs, hurling wisecracks. His newest flick, Kabali, is about an ex-con taking revenge on the gang that framed him.
Despite the trite plot, the film has set off something of an explosion in entertainment, with a release on 10,000 screens worldwide, including 400 in the United States.
People seem to identify with the actor, whose real name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, partly for his rise from a life of menial jobs like railway porter and bus ticket seller. But that wouldn't explain what his biggest devotees do, according to the Washington Post:
Religious rituals often accompany the release of Rajinikanth’s films. Fans shave their heads and offer special prayers in temples, distribute sweets, throw coins at the screen when he appears, and bathe his giant cardboard cutouts with milk -- although that last practice is being discouraged this year because of high milk prices.
Rajinikanth's followers may seem fanatical to Americans, but deific humans aren't unheard of in India. The subcontinent cherishes its stories of god-kings like Rama and Krishna. And there is a worldwide network of 700+ temples dedicated to service and worship of a 19th century holy man named Bhagwan Shri Swaminarayan.
And that's where the Washington Post and other media come up short. Without some explanations, all the god talk and reports of milk rituals come off more as cheap exotica than an aid to understanding. Why weren't the fans asked their motivation?
At the very least, the Post could have found some clues online, such as an Associated Press story in October. AP said Hindus believe the goddess Kamdhenu manifested herself as a "wish-granting divine cow." It added:
Hindus use milk and its products for religious purposes because it is believed to have purifying qualities: ghee, or clarified butter, is used in lamps for rituals; milk is used to bathe Hindu idols on special occasions; sweets made from milk or ghee are used as offerings to gods. It accompanies so much of Hindu life, in rituals from an infant's first food to the last rituals after death.
So, when fans bathe Rajinikanth's likeness in milk, are they imparting purity to him? Are they ascribing divinity to him? Other? Their input would have helped this story tremendously.
And despite all the religious references flying like Rajinikanth's cinematic fists, we're given no hint of the man's own faith. In a nation where more than 98 percent of the people belong to some religion, he surely adheres to one himself. Does he consciously inject spirituality into his role? Is he aware of the awe he inspires? How does he keep his head amid all the idolization?
Granted, such a spiritual probe may not be easy. Even a new biography of the man had trouble staying objective, according to a reviewer for The Hindu.
"Considering the near-god-like status Rajini enjoys, it would not have been easy to present any critical writing of his work," Hari Narayan writes. "For a more honest appraisal of Rajini’s flaws and failings, we have to wait for the god’s moment of epiphany when he decides to write about himself."
So answers may be elusive for the Washington Post and others taking on this subject. Still, they stand a better chance at finding answers if they ask a few more questions.