Against a backdrop of stormy weather and gunfire, Tamil star Ajith Kumar wears a scowl as he flexes muscular shoulders and glistening abs for the poster of his new film Vivegam. Ajith, known as “Thala”, or leader, to his legions of admirers, plays a spy who is spitted against an evil mastermind played by Vivek Oberoi in the August 10 release. The 45-year-old actor’s fitness levels came as a huge surprise to his fans, who duly responded with frenzied adulation on social media, with each tweet and Facebook post professing Ajith’s supremacy in the Tamil cinema industry and the hope that his new film would be an even bigger hit than his previous productions.

The trolling was, however, as spontaneous as the admiration. “Body photoshopped,” declared some memes. Others featured crudely morphed images of Ajith captioned with abuses, which were shared extensively on Facebook. Ajith haters were getting ready to wage an online battle with his admirers, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. The last decade has seen sustained rivalry between fans of Ajith and Vijay, who is popularly called “Ilayathalapathy”, or young general, by his fans. This battle has largely played out over social media, where fans and trolls co-exist in large numbers.

Even as Ajith’s fans are rooting for Vivegam, Vijay’s followers are looking forward to their hero’s upcoming unnamed project, referred to as Thalapathy61 by fans (Vijay’s 61st film). The online slugfest has been ugly over the past few years, and even die-hard devotees find themselves unable to keep pace.

“All this started just for fun, but now the fans are competing with each other in a whole new range,” said Vigneshwar Balaji, an ardent Vijay supporter. “Just for a simple first look or audio release or teaser, there will be a worldwide trend in the form of hashtags. So now the trolls are based on records, trending and first day collection (in the box office).”

For example, earlier this year, Ajith’s fans, as well as those of other actors, began posting memes and taunts about the pre-release posters of the Vijay starrer Bairavaa. There were unfounded rumours that Vijay was wearing a wig in the movie because a hair transplant did not work out for him.

The innumerable fan clubs dedicated to the two stars on Facebook and Twitter have followers numbering a few hundred followers to about a lakh. The fan culture has its own lingo – and even virtual blood. Countless groups called Thala Bloods or Vijay Bloods spawn social media, including My dear “thala bloods”, Thala bloods forever, Our Blood says Thala or Thala Bloods Daa.

“Fans get too attached to the actors and treat them as members of their own family, as a blood relative,” said film blogger Arun Adithan. “That is why people call themselves Thala blood or call Vijay ‘Anna’ or brother.”

According to Adithan, most of these fans are young men between the ages 15 and 25. Women rarely step into the trenches since they tend to be mercilessly bullied. Many of these fans refer to themselves by another term, “veriyan”, or impassioned one. The prize: the King of Social Media crown.

Fan clubs also refer to themselves as King-makers. “As per the fan lingo, since their hero is the ‘King’, Twitter and Facebook are their ‘forts’,” Adithan said.

A movie buff, especially of Vijay releases, Adithan follows several Facebook pages related to Tamil actors, even those run by trolls. “Sometimes, these pages are real stress busters,” Adithan said. “But sometimes they cross the line of being funny and start abusing others many times.”

Some years ago, Adithan was introduced to Quora, where he found several unanswered questions about the Tamil movie industry. That is when he began writing about cinema and piecing together the history of fan fights. Adithan traces the first major event of social media rivalry between Vijay and Ajith fans to 2007, when Ajith fans began posting negative comments about Vijay’s hit film Pokkiri.

“My posts on Facebook were reported by fans,” Adithan said. “So I started using Quora as my platform where the users are much more educated and mature compared to Facebook. But in recent times, these fanboys (‘veriyans’ as they call themselves) have started creeping in there too and started reporting answers which go against their views.”

This kind of rivalry is an old phenomenon, said Uma Vangal, Visiting Professor of Film at Kenyon College, Ohio.

“Wherever there has been a kind of unspoken competition between two stars who have captured the hearts of Tamil audiences, it has spilled over into battles between fans,” Vangal said, adding that similar clashes have taken place between followers of Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran and admirers of Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth.

While Ajith formally dismantled his fan association some years ago, Vijay encouraged his devotees to organise themselves and adopt welfare activities in their neighbourhoods. He renamed his fan group Vijay Makkal Iyakkam, taking the form of a people’s movement with a formal structure and hierarchy.

“We spend our own money and run the group for Vijay,” said Balaji, a member of the association. “We print banners and posters for his movie, we do milk abhishekam, we burst crackers when his movie releases. We also donate saris and notebooks to orphans on his birthday. He reciprocates by helping his fans in need.”

But even fans are finding it hard to distinguish between genuine support and mean-minded trolling. Quora is filled with such questions as, “Why is there so much hate on actors Vijay and Ajith on social networks?” or “Is there a way to stop Ajith and Vijay fans from fighting on social media?”

Over time, a new faction has developed to counter these fights and unite the fan groups by creating clubs dedicated to both actors.

According to Vangal, this is a noteworthy change. Fan associations are moving towards celebrating an overall Tamil film fan identity than venerating a single star, she said. While there may some acrimony online, the notion of active hatred had died down.

“Earlier, people belonging to rival fan groups would never ever meet or agree on anything,” she said. “But of late, we’re beginning to see banners across the country side with faces of both actors on it. Two fan associations get together, collect money and put up posters with both their heroes blessing this friendship.” The usual discourse of Thala versus Thalapathy finally seems to be giving way to Thala plus Thalapathy.