ANN ARBOR—When University of Michigan professor Joyojeet Pal studied the use of computers in a rural school in southern India, he noticed something odd—most of the children he met wanted to be computer engineers, though they had little access to technology.
Pal later discovered that the kids were fans of popular Indian actor Rajnikanth, who played the role of a computer engineer in one of his blockbuster action films.
A year later, Pal read about a sweet shop owner in the southern state of Tamil Nadu who planned to climb more than a thousand stairs on his knees to pray for the success of a new movie starring Rajnikanth, who only uses one name.
Pal shared the news with Rinku Kalsy, a childhood friend and filmmaker in Amsterdam. They went to see the villager and the idea of a film on fandom was born.
"I wanted to find out more about these men whose devotion, obsession and fandom for the actor stopped at nothing," said Pal, an assistant professor at U-M's School of Information.
The documentary, "For The Love of a Man," produced by Pal and directed by Kalsy, will premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. Pal's belief in the film goes beyond time and research—he has invested his life's savings in the film that follows the fans of Rajnikanth, who has been in more than 200 movies.
The actor is a 64-year-old balding man known to thousands of his fans as a beloved leader. His life is a true rags-to-riches story—he rose from bus conductor to India's top-earning film star. During some of his most successful years, he was the highest paid actor in Asia after Jackie Chan.
Rajanikanth has made a career of playing the everyman in Tamil cinema. His characters are virtuous, and at times, they fight the system. His acting style has a dose of comedy, romance and action thrown together.
There are more than 150,000 fan clubs dedicated to Rajanikanth, and they span the globe from rural Tamil Nadu villages to cities in Japan. For the past four-and-a-half years, Pal and his team have tracked the lives of some of these fans.
Along the way, they found ordinary men who sold their homes to fund fan clubs, held prayer meetings for the success of the actor's films, and even looked for wives based on whether they were Rajnikanth fans or not.
Among the fans featured in the documentary is a peanut seller—Mani, a former gangster and a small-time local politician. But he is also a Rajnikanth fan and organizes events around the release of his films. Then there are people who make a living mimicking Rajnikanth songs, dialogues and dances.
"The documentary shows us that there is no one way to be a fan. It is a look at the lives of real people to explore why they do what they do," said Pal, the primary researcher for the film.
The fandom has grown on Pal as well. In fact, on one of his first dates with his wife, the couple attended the opening of a Rajnikanth film.
"It has worked out all right," Pal said, laughing.
The documentary won some early awards in India when Pal and Kalsy screened some portions for funding. In addition, Pal raised about $7,000 on the Indian crowdsourcing website Wishberry last year—funds that helped him finish the film editing.
"I've enjoyed making this film," Pal said. "I love telling stories about aspirations of people in contemporary India. It is the thread that ties all my work together, whether it is a research paper or a documentary."
After all the hard work, Pal said a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival feels great.
"I would like to get a theatrical release for the film," he said. "I want it to be accessible to everyone."