Ritual for an idol: Poster of Rajinikanth bathed in milk
By Ayesha Venkataraman, New York Times
In a country where movie stars are treated like icons, some actors are worshipped like deities.
The 65-year-old Tamil actor Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, better known as Rajinikanth, is one of India’s most celebrated and well-paid movie stars. For decades, fans have regularly bathed pictures of him in thousands of gallons of milk, a sign of devotion usually reserved for Hindu idols.
With every new film Rajinikanth releases, milk becomes so in demand in some parts of the country that it is stolen from markets, resulting in shortages that potentially endanger malnourished children, officials and activists say.
Die-hard fans can pour about 11,000 to 16,000 gallons of milk a day over billboards and cardboard cutouts of Rajinikanth in the weeks after a new release, said S.A. Ponnusamy, president of the Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Employees Welfare Association, who opposes the practice. Ponnusamy said some fans had resorted to stealing milk before daybreak when dairy workers drop it off outside shops.
Last month, before the release of Rajinikanth’s latest film, “Kabali,” a box office record breaker, the milk dealers’ association asked the actor to “sternly admonish” his loyal fans for wasting milk, and it encouraged him instead to organize blood and organ donation drives outside movie theaters.
Early this year, social activist I.M.S. Manivannan filed a lawsuit against Rajinikanth and his supporters in Bangalore to prevent the wasting of milk in light of the high infant mortality rate in Karnataka state. The court issued a temporary injunction, ordering Rajinikanth to tell his fans to cease the practice. He is expected to respond to the court in a written statement at a hearing next month. In the past, the actor has admonished his fans for the practice, but to little avail.
“We don’t treat him as an actor, but as a god,” said Rajini Santosh, president of the Karnataka State Rajinikanth Fans Welfare Association, which claims more than 15,000 members. Santosh attributes the actor’s star power to his austere life and philanthropic nature. The actor donates almost half of his earnings to charity.
Santosh defended the milk bath, known as “paal abhishekam” in Tamil, likening it to a religious ritual.
“Nobody says anything about the milk used in temples,” he said. “For us, we can see god in him, so why should we stop?”