NEW DELHI:…main jo bhi hoon, jaha bhi hoon, jis mukaam par hoon, apne fans ki wajah se hoon. Agar mere fans nahi, toh main kuch bhi nahi,” says Aryan Khanna (Shah Rukh Khan) in the recently released Fan.

In Fandom as Free Labor, Abigail de Kosnik had discussed how in a capitalist system, fans are indispensable components within which the producers of fangasm and fetish operate.

Khan, in his media interviews for years, and now in this movie on fandom, has never really had scruples about acknowledging this. As a fan and also as someone interested in the phenomenon of fandom, I am easily reminded of many interviews where he would say ‘I am just a mere servant of the brand SRK’, which does show the actor’s understanding of the correlation between fan CULTure and economy.

My aforementioned status as a fanboy and my academic interest in fandom does put me in an interesting position of difficulty and/in negotiation. As against many critics who have called the movie an exercise in narcissism and an ugly and ill-disguised biopic, I see Shah Rukh Khan in a position comparable to mine where he is both the producer of fandom and fangasm and one interested to comprehend the difference between a fan and an audience. In making Fan, he may not always succeed in ensuring that these realities do not overlap. So, if not the film, this unique attempt must be duly ballyhooed.

In fact, that it is okay to overlap one’s interest as a fan and an academic on the same topic or person or as both a producer and an anatomizer of fan culture was postulated by Katherine Larsen and Lynn S Zubernis in their ovular (why say ‘seminal’!) books Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships (2012) and Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls (2013) where they used their autobiographical experience as fangirls of Supernatural to enter the academic and professional journey as researchers and in the process also extirpating the suffusive sense of compunction and abashment at this intersection of interests. Gaurav, the fan in Fan, reifies the blur between what Alexis Lothian calls fandom as love as against fandom as theft, and fannish communities indeed are prone to swing like Gaurav. Investment in them is the safest media bet, and therefore the see-sawing and yo-yoing climacteric.

The important moment in the movie is when Gaurav realizes that he wants to meet Aryan Khanna by travelling to Mumbai. Hereby, he breaks the ‘first rule of fandom’ by wanting to directly engage with the hero. As Kristina Busse says, “To me, fandom is mostly about what we as fans do.” Therefore, by reaching Aryan’s house on the latter’s birthday and passionately planning to have a meeting with him, Gaurav treaded the path of becoming an outsider to the fannish bunch. The reciprocal and not top-down one-way relationship between a star and a fan is exposed to Gaurav now, and he tries to make the power relation less uneven and from this point, things go up the spout. By interviewing writers and actors of Supernatural, Larsen and Zubernis drove up the same hairy mountain road.

Would any new face have done more justice to the role of Aryan Khanna than Shah Rukh Khan and clips from his old films that the fan is inspirited by?

Just as academic or reviewer fans are fundamentally not different from other fans, a star in the role of a star is not necessarily more or less representative of the character. Separating fandom producers and fandom scrutinizers into strictly delineated cubbyholes is as dangerous and implausible as separating fans and those who suss them out. Negotiating his identity as a star and as one probing and dissecting stardom must have overlapped for Shah Rukh and been in conflict. It must have been fiddly and clumsy too.

But that, for me, is the point of the movie. I liked it for what Monica Flagel calls in another context “an admirable negotiation of the author’s dual identities… particularly in its successful bringing together of affective response and critical analysis”.

One may doubt the authority of fans and stars themselves in negotiating fan spaces but we know that the word impersonal does not just mean unbiased or non-partisan, it also means passionless and cold. Just as Larsen and Zubernis realize that the book comes out ‘messier’ than they expected, thanks to themselves being fangirls, a messier Fan is neither unexpected, nor less exciting as a film for me.

As the authors say, falling in fandom is like falling in love. In either, confab and afters are not always as sweet. Being BNFs (Big Name Fans) is being lesser fans, because the knowledge of the existence of, if not direct participation in, a community-hood of the fans is a sine qua non. Jockeying for position and mad autograph ticket grab within fandom is part and parcel of the fandom experience, says Flegel. And we cannot agree more. Maneesh Sharma and Shah Rukh Khan, to a great extent, do make the grade in getting their heads around the difference between the fandom insiders and the fandom outsiders. Stardom and fandom are not antithetical, but how the star – Shah Rukh here – plays the star in the play (THIS duality, more than the dual role of Aryan and Gaurav) is the crucial moment in the film. Fan studies has to make peace with the ethical dilemma that comes with the principle and practice of it. How good you are as an autoethnographer is going to decide how good you are in fan studies, as much in making movies as in writing books on it.

In Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture (2013), Mark Duffett calls fans “networkers, collectors, tourists, archivists, curators, producers and more”. That fans are different from ordinary consumers is a given. But how that difference manifests and evolves with politics, economy, temporality, spatiality and technology is an interesting study.

With the spurt of social media, fan culture is also unrolling in different ways and like in Fan, fandom is not a coherent object and the definition of a fan remains somewhat ‘partial and elusive’.

Duffett’s word ‘elusive’ for a fan also takes its literal meaning in SRK’s, with the fan eluding his hero for much of the screen time. To Duffet as to Maneesh Sharma and Khan, rather than being a homogenous, discreet idea or group of people, fandom is an ever-evolving interconnected series of events, phenomena, cultures and practices. The inside-ness and outside-ness within the fannish community also creates marginalization/otherness and prestige among them. The otherness, as discussed above, also comes from the audience: usual consumers who are not fans. Duffett calls it the ‘slippery slop’ of separation.

Lastly, extreme cases of fandom, like Gaurav, do exist and have been discussed and studied too. For most scholars and thinkers of it, fan culture is normal psychology and one-off incidents of extremism are a fringe subculture within it. Addiction and misapprehended reality create – to invoke Duffett again – deranged fans and physiological deviants, who must not be the sole reference point to define fandom and its history: a history, sadly enough but not unexpectedly, written only about the US and UK now, and about a few footballs clubs in other parts of Europe.

Highlighting insane fans perpetuates fandom shame, something Shah Rukh’s Fan comes dangerously close of doing, even though it just stops short, thankfully. Gaurav is in the grey area between the ‘normal’ fan and the deranged fan. Also, he also not a fan of Bercelona or Manchester United. Yet, he is a fan-protagonist. And that is why I wax lyrical about Fan.

(Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a research scholar – with interests in sociohistorical linguistics, Dalit studies, disability studies, Assam and Pakistan – in the Department of English at the University of Delhi. )