Ajith on the Beach

Sometimes the police block the southbound lane of Santhome High Road and divert the traffic to a narrow road that runs along the beach. If you drive on that road and look to the left, you see a wide strip of sand, and the sea, and the big sky. The sand is littered with small heaps of nylon fishing net in pastel colours; rubbish and fish waste and human waste; catamarans. Look right, and see the backs of fairly prosperous houses leading slightly uphill to Santhome High Road. Between you and those buildings, along the whole length of the road, is one continuous slum. It consists of cement houses and thatched huts, almost all one-storey, jammed together. A few Hindu and Christian shrines. A public lavatory (I think) in the shape of a ship. There is no plumbing. There are no trees. The principal colour is sand, except for the women's bright saris and some splashes of paint. Everything bakes in the sun.

I rarely take this road, partly because Santhome High Road is quicker; but mainly because the people of the slum live right on the road. Kids play cricket on the road, young men idle at the edges, women scrub small wads of wet clothes beside buckets of precious water. I feel like an affront, sealed in my air-conditioned car.

One day when the police diverted me there I noticed a sign, by itself on the beach side, which I recognised as a picture of the Tamil film star Ajith:

I like hand-painted signs, which are slowly being superseded by slicker ones. It's interesting to see which film stars feature in (some of) them (almost always men), and how they are portrayed. So I came back a few days later to photograph it. A small group of young men stood on the other side of the road. As I began to photograph the sign they began to discuss me. When I turned back to get into my car, one of them shouted. I turned and saw that he was pointing at another picture of Ajith on the building behind him. I hadn't noticed it, although it was much larger than the roadside sign:

I smiled at them and raised my camera again, and they came over to me. One of them seemed to be reaching for the camera, but when I looked at him questioningly he cupped his hand, palm down, and said, "Shade, shade." He was offering to shade the lens from the sun. I said, "No problem," and began to raise the camera. Then another one suddenly moved toward me, scowling, and waved at me to stop. The first pushed him back gently and said, "No, let her take it." I did, and said, "Thanks," and got into my car. The scowling one said in a mocking voice, "Oh! Nice-a!" making fun of my politeness, as I drove away.

As usual, I was skating on the surface, taking a picture without knowing what it meant. At the time, a little nervous, I didn't even stop to decipher the Tamil. Now I see that the sign announces a branch of the Ajith Kumar fan club (No. 5429). It refers to Ajith as 'Asai Nayagan' which means beloved or desired leader, but which also refers to Ajith's early hit film, Asai, Desire. It names the club's officers.

Were these young men, with no work in the middle of the day, members of the club? What did the fan club actually do? Did its members get to meet their idol? I know that there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of fan clubs in this movie-crazy place. When, occasionally, the stars get interested in politics, their fan clubs are ready-made pools of campaign workers. And that is the beginning and the end of what I know about it.

A few of the many Ajith Kumar fan pages on the Net:

Ajith Kumar Fan Page by Jennifer
Ajith Kumar online

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