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When celebrities trade their screen popularity for politics

Five out of six chief ministers of Tamil Nadu have had a film connection. Similar success has eluded Hindi film stars

india Updated: Jan 27, 2018 18:33 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times
Amitabh Bachchan,Politician Jaya Bachchan,Amitabh rekha Jaya
Former actors Jaya Prada, Jaya Bachchan, and Hema Malini wave to the media as they leave Parliament after the first day of the monsoon session in New Delhi in 2006(Photo: Sunil Saxena / HT)

Is it true, a reporter once asked Atal Behari Vajpayee, that Amitabh Bachchan was supposed to contest against you? Vajpayee retorted if he had fought polls from Delhi, Congress would have fielded Bachchan against him. And added with a smirk: “Tab mujhe Rekha se prarthana karni padti ki who hamare liye lade.” (I would have had to entreat Rekha to fight for me).

Former Prime Minister Vajpayee went on to become Prime Minister but the two top-rated actors of Hindi films —Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha — badly faltered in their political careers.

Bachchan resigned midway into his first term as MP in the aftermath of the Bofors scandal and Rekha, a member of the Rajya Sabha since 2012, hardly ever comes to Parliament.

There’s no dearth of film stars entering politics — the popular junction for a career shift for people of many trades. The general rule is: it is a symbiotic relationship. Cinestars and political parties try to encash on the popularity and the mass hysteria associated with the celebrity to influence people in elections.

Such is the impact of films and its stars that just before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, a 1965 film ‘Ayirathil Oruvan’ (One in a Thousand) starring MG Ramachandran (popularly known as MGR) and J Jayalalitha was re-released across theatres in Tamil Nadu.

“In southern India, especially in Tamil cinemas, the same ideology is propagated in cinema and politics. It’s like two parts of the same train”, said noted social commentator Shiv Visvanathan.

One of the biggest phenomena of Indian cinema, Rajinikanth, announced that his party will be launched this year. The other celebrated actor Kamal Haasan is also testing waters for floating a political outfit. In the current Lok Sabha, there are at least 15 MPs who come have a film and television background — the highest representation of the entertainment industry in Parliament in recent times.

The complex intertwining history of India’s film industry and political parties goes back a long way. Prithivraj Kapoor, theatre doyen and the ‘founder,’ so to speak, of the great Kapoor dynasty in Hindi films, was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha from 1952 to 1960. He sat along with stalwarts like Dr Zakir Hussain and scientist Satyendranath Bose.

The Nehruvian era — which almost coincided with India’s greatest actor Dilip Kumar’s peak — saw the advent of the collaborative relationship between cinema and politics, sometimes direct, otherwise passive. The three top-billed stars of that era — Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand — never did any films together, but when Nehru fielded Krishna Menon from the North Mumbai constituency in 1969, the three matinee idols campaigned for him.

Even if not for the lure of electoral politics, film stars got involved with the ruling dispensation in other ways too.

Sunil Dutt became the first hero who undertook the task to reach out to the country’s jawans in far-flung areas.

His biographical sketch in Lok Sabha says, “Entertained Indian Army Jawans after conflicts with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965 and 1971) by organising Ajanta Arts Welfare Troupe (with blessings from Pt. Nehru) and visiting various sectors where Indian Army Jawans were wounded in action; led a cultural delegation of eminent artists to Bangladesh (1971) to entertain Indian Army and Mukti Bahini.”

In the past few years, especially after the BJP-led NDA returned to power in 2014, support from actors like Anupam Kher, Bollywood singer Abhijeet came in the name of ‘nationalism’. Akshay Kumar made an entire film loaded with pro-government dialogues on Prime Minister Modi’s pet issue of building toilets.

While northern India has seen more actors diving in the pond of politics, the southern stars have perhaps reached greater heights.

CN Annadurai was the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu to come from a cinema background. Since then, five out of the six chief ministers of the largest southern state hail from the film industry. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh (then undivided) NT Rama Rao formed the Telugu Desam Party. A year later in 1983, he became the state’s chief minister.

“This has a lot to do with cultural and linguistic issue. The southern stars exclusively addressed their ethno-cultural linguistic base. Hindi cinema actors had to be more commercial to reach out to diverse audience,” said Ramu Manivannan, professor of political science with University of Madras.

He also pointed out that the Dravidian movement had utilised theatre as an important platform to communicate to the masses. “For these stars, preaching political message through mass media was not new,” said Ramu Manivannan.

The road from the silver screen to political arena have come up in eastern India as well. Tapas Paul, once a top hero in West Bengal for his boy-next-door image, was first among his peers to win an election in 2001. Apart from Paul, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee had sent five MPs who are professional actors in this Lok Sabha. In her neighbouring Odisha, BJD boss and state’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik sent Odia film actor Anubhav Mohanty to Rajya Sabha, adding a dose of glamour in his parliamentary team.

Experts point out that in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh sub-nationalism had been an important part of its culture and cinema. But despite actors playing to the political gallery in both the South and North, there are also stories of not-so-successful careers in politics.

In recent times, Captain Vijaykanth, who floated his own party DMDK, failed to capture the public mind as an alternative to Jayalalithaa or MK Karunanidhi’s party. Similarly, one of the greatest Telugu stars, Chiranjeevi, floated his Praja Rajyam party only to merge it later with the Congress. Govinda, Dharmendra and even Rajesh Khanna will probably join the list of actors who went into oblivion as politicians.

In our land of myriad dreams and hero-worship, the cult figure of contemporary South Indian cinema, Rajinikanth, will make his debut this year in politics. But unlike his films, his role as neta will not be decided in a Friday but over many more Fridays to come.

First Published: Jan 27, 2018 18:33 IST