Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa seems to be the last of the actor-turned-politician to have lived and died with their larger than life image intact.
From Hema Malini to Rakhi Sawant to Ramya and R Sarathkumar, several celluloid stars have tried their luck with politics but none acquired the “demi-god” status of the kind associated with Jayalalithaa’s mentor and AIADMK leader MG Ramachandran or Telugu Desam Party (TDP) founder NT Rama Rao.
What differentiates the likes of Jayalalithaa, MGR or NTR from the others? Why is it that film stars have often miserably failed as politicians in north India, while south Indians have placed them on a high pedestal?
Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan or Vinod Khanna were all big stars of their era but faded away after just a bright but brief blip on the political radars. On the other hand, Telegu actor Chiranjeevi or R Sarathkumar in Tamil Nadu are still relevant.
“Film stars from south India have largely identified with strong political ideologies, while the Bombay actors have remained on high clouds even after entering the political fray. Meanwhile, the context and framework of Indian politics has also transformed. The trend – film stars achieving huge success in politics – appears to be declining,” political scientist CP Bhambri said.
In the first few decades after Independence, ideological movements in the north had been strong and big leaders straddled the political spectrum: From Jawaharlal Nehru to Maulana Azad or Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayprakash Narain.
“There was no need at that time for political parties to invite film stars to promote political movements. But, the case was quite the opposite in the southern states – Tamil Nadu in particularly,” Saibal Gupta of Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) said.
“Jayalalithaa – known as Amma (mother) – was popular not because of her acting abilities, but because of remaining steadfast to her pro-poor policies in the same manner as her mentor MG Ramachandran,” a veteran watcher of Tamil Nadu politics observed.
NT Rama Rao emerged and prospered in politics on the issue of “Andhra pride”, following the public humiliation of then state chief minister Tanguturi Anjiah by Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi in the early eighties – considered a “crown prince” then.
“But the reason that NTR’s party has sustained the rough and tumble of politics has been because of the party’s pro-poor ideology,” an Andhra watcher said.
In contrast, the political commitment of the Mumbai actors has remained suspect.
Govinda, Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan, Jaya Prada or Paresh Rawal have made rare interventions in their roles as parliamentarians and have largely been unavailable to their voters. Others like Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna or Raj Babbar did slightly better, but never attained the dizzying heights reached by their contemporaries in the south.
From the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Samajwadi Party or the Congress, most political parties in recent years have sought to boost their popularity by inviting film stars.
“But for the most part, they have been there for window dressing. The actors have seemingly been happy in their roles as part-time politicians,” professor Bhambhri said.