The passageway to the chamber of the minister of tourism in the nervecentre of the Indian government in New Delhi was bursting at the seams with clusters of mediapersons from across the divide of vernacular and the English publications for a glimpse of a star on the high seat. The year was an eventful cusp towards the beginning of this decade when the Congress government was making way for a right-wing structure led by the National Democratic Alliance in the country.
A nattily-dressed dusky hulk of a man with doe eyes and coiffed hair smiled endearingly at the throng, “I am new to this job. I have no experience or knowledge of how the government of the country works. Pardon my ignorance… But please do take a seat and have a cup of tea…” . The media was his cake walk since that fateful evening in the fluorescent corridor till a reshuffle of portfolio and an election coloured the chair of the minister in a different hue.
The star was the southern matinee idol Cheeranjeevi, who graced the ministry with charisma more than political heft – and the national media his faithful publicity machine. Cheeranjeevi grabbed more print space than many of his “politically grounded” compatriots because of his star status, a man who had climbed down the ivory turret of the tinseldom to the political grime and heat of reality from the fantasy “colourscape” of cinema. The media – and later fans – flocked to his chamber with meticulous diligence everyday . The star had flesh – for the common man and his electorate.
In January 2018, another southern superstar followed in Cheeranjeevi’s footsteps. Rajnikanth, often reckoned as the phenomena of the South Indian mainstream cinema after “MGR” and “NTR” announced his entry into politics with a pledge to form his political party. Political fellowmates from the moviedom, Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal Hasaan tweeted their “greetings” for his shift to the political mosaic, moving away from the screen. “He gave his heart and soul to his art form and the people’s love him superstar Rajnikanth… the nobility of his intention will receive as much love as he announces his political entry,” the refrain found resonance across the legions of cinema spanning geography. The 67-year-old star acknowledged that it was a natural move – the only progression he could think of to “live up to his weight” on the screen. The multi-million dollar Indian movie business have bequeathed a fair number of star-turned-politicians over the decades. Several of these actor-politicians – who expanded oeuvres to allow their maturing sensitivities play out on bigger canvases- have been “adept at exploiting their screen roles” to strike familiar chords with the electors. “I suppose this was inevitable.. With the 24-hour news channels on television, a politicians needs to look good, appeal to an audience (bred on the mass entertainment of cinema), talk to the cameras – in many aspects of similar set of skills required of an actor,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television at the Syracuse University.
Heroes – the protagonists of the mythologies, divine beings (deities), rulers from the texts of history, the knight and the even the crusaders of faith (the odd jihadi) – are the most easily identifiable as political entities to the “uninitiated” constituents. According to the South Indian politician Vaiko, MGR took the Dravidian movement – a campaign to establish the cultural and the linguistic identity of the Dravida Samajam (the spread of the Tamil and Telugu languages)- with his gradual evolution as a people’s leader from a screen icon. Tamil cinema in the heydays of MGR played a cataclysmic role in the furthering of Dravidian politics in South India. C.N. Annadurai, the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu from the Dravidian Party was the forerunner in inculcating the ideologies of the Dravidian movement in movie scripts.
Parashakti (1952) was a turning point in the Dravidian political movement as it was a box office success for making “radical comments” against the tight social hierarchy engendered by the caste system that triggered the demand for the “self-determination” of the Dravidian cultural identity – as opposed to the pan Indian outlook to pluralistic nationalism. M. Karunanidhi, the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu scripted the screenplay in which screen legends Shivaji Ganesan and S.S. Rajendran, two founding pillars of the political party “Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam” DMK, made their screen debuts. In the neighbourhood, a new political identity was in the process of consolidation around the same time. Nandakumar Taraka Ramarao (NTR), a good-looking young man, made his screen debut in a social drama, “Manas Desam” in the Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh in 1949. He shot to fame in the decade of the 1950s starring in more than 300 movies. NTR, as he was known among his fans, identified with the masses as “messiah from the Indian mythology” for his portrayals of pantheon deities like Rama and Krishna – venerated as symbols of valour and redemptive icons. NTR struck a chord with the social fringe for his “braveheart” approach to machismo – in which the hero championed the cause of the “deprived” and the “relegated”. He founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982 – and was elected to the post of the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for three terms marked by din and political upheavals. The right wong rivals of NTR accused “economic chicanery” to appease the masses while the Left parties alleged that he “diverted government money to benefit his voters”.
At the national level, however, NTR wrote his own political writ. He pioneered the third secular front – the National Front – an umbrella of non-Congress parties that ruled the country in 1989-1990. NTR was an advocate of a “distinct cultural identity “for Andhra Pradesh separate from the Tamil Nadu or the Madras state, an overpowering cultural entity in the political chauvinism of southern India.
The tradition of movie stars occupying the political terrain in south Indian politics was upheld subsequently by J. Jayalalitha, who held a strangehold on Tamil politics for more than 14 years between 1991 to 2016 as the chief minister. “Amma”, as she was known to the legions of her political cadre, carved a toe-hold in the public consciousness as a popular film actor in the 1960s. She starred in 140 Tamil, Telegu and Kannada movies between 1961-1980 and joined the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party in 1982 when MGR was still the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. After his death in 1987, “Jaya” fought through the ranks of the rival factions led by MGR’s widow Janaki to become the supreme leader of the AIADMK till her death in 2016s.
A walk down the lane of time reveals the early crossroads between politics and Indian cinema. In the 1960s, the heavyweight of Bombay (now Mumbai)’s leading tinsel family, Prithiviraj Kapoor, was nominated to the Rajya Sabha for eight years followed by a tide from the movie town. Megastars like Vaijayantimala Bali, Hema Malini, Jaya Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dara Singh, Jayaprada, Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, Mithun Chakraborty, Kiron Kher, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt, Raj Babbar, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Smriti Irani among a few – lent their to glitter Indian politics in the 1980s-1990s in an endeavour to redefine the “parameters” of social identification that began to flag in the decades after 1970s because of the gradual decline of the Congress party (after a spate of deaths in the first line of leadership), the failure of the National Front to put up a people friendly face and the instinctive suspicion that the right wing Hindu parties – which clustered as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)- triggered among the masses for its inept attempts at hitching a credible opposition contending for power in a chaotic House degenerating into small regional alignments without a political master template.
One of the factors that helps an actor relate to the masses is the power of the articulation. The tutoring of the delivery on screen, honing of dialogues on screen, in-promptu extempores (despite the pre-conditions of the scripted drama), the display of emotions and the uncanny ability to tug responses – reciprocation from audiences – tickling their thought streams and teasing sentiments – linger on the mind-spaces of the electorates (like in the movies or on the stage), making it easy to push through political manifestos, issues and agendas. In the recent past – in the past two decades- two female protagonists from the realm of the reel have tumbled into the mosaic of the political reality with strident voices and opinions.
Jaya Bachchan and Hema Malini – two powerfully – endowed actors – have crafted toe-spaces in the Indian parliamentary politics with the force of the gab and connections to the roots. The member of Parliament from Mathura, Hema Malini, often feted as the dream girl of the Indian contemporary Hindi cinema – debuted in politics in 2003 when she was nominated to the Upper House of the Parliament as a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate on the strength of the screen lure and social presence as an informed people’s volunteer. She was elected to the Lower House of the Parliament in 2014 from the temple town of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Hema ji – who has been accoladed and ridiculed in virulent measures for her “dewy good looks”, “sultry oomph” and her pull at the electorate with by the more “macho” breed of colleagues and political rivals have made micro-issues like “rural women’s empowerment at home”, “education of the girl-child” and “population control in the muffosil towns” her planks to a home grown brand of development politics that her mother dispensation –BJP – has been consciously promoting as the integral to its populist manifesto in a desperate move away from the religion-based right wing politics it had espoused in the early decades of power. The 70-year-old manages to retain her own in the heavyweight “jostle” of old Hindutva proponents, who flock the echelons of BJP’s heartland politics – like the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath himself.
Jaya Bachchan, on her part, is a four time member of the Rajya Sabha from the “socialist-leaning” Samajwadi Party. A talented character actor, 70-year-old Bachchan, who hails from a clan of journalists-actors, has been known to espouse causes relating to safety of women, social equities, cultural definitions, citizenships – among other socially relevant issues including the promotion of Hindi as a pan-Indian language – in Parliament and outside. Her “pragmatic” and “forceful” deliveries both on and off the screen is vital to the no-nonsense persona that has cultivated as politico in the male-dominated party and milieus that he represents. Another actor, who traces her genetic lineage to southern India, Jaya Prada, follows in her cue. A former Samajwadi Party member of Parliament from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, Jaya Prada, “finds the political road hard and thorny”. “One has to be prepared to walk on a road of stones and thorns. Politics is not a two-and-half hour feature film,” the actor says. Jaya Prada campaigns about women’s and children’s welfare issues and political “Instabilities”, twists of fortunes in the mercurial Indian politics beset with “sabotage and defections”. The former Telugu Desam Party member from Andhra Pradesh – who even held the post of the party President – defected to the Samajwadi Party from which she was “shown the door” for rebellion with “veteran” member Amar Singh with whom she formed her own party, the Rashtriya Lok Manch. The party fared poorly in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. Jaya Prada joined the Rashtriya Lok Dal in 2014.
Actors in politics make headlines unlike the run-of the mill clutch of politicians – mostly seasoned ones – who carry on with de rigueur the chores of political everyday like automated cogs, often without creating ripples unless a political development merits media attention. Actors and glamour personalities draw natural audience for their lifestyles, “larger than life images” and rhetoric beyond the political ken of activity. Insiders say they even make sure “adequate” parliamentary attendance during debates when members – many who under normal circumstances choose to stay away from the “boring” gamut of core political verbiage – flock to the House to meet their screen “favourites” and exchange “few words like a peer”. Former Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav has a fetish for Hema Malini – most notably her smooth apple cheeks – which he once compared to the “state of roads one should ideally aspire to for his native turf- Bihar”. Politicians of late have been up in arms against the “female protagonists” from the screen who grace the Opposition and the treasury benches. “They are inept – wastrels, how can they lead the electorate,” is an oft-repeated refrain made to fiery trade-offs between the screen politicos and their weather-beaten counter-army from the heartlands of rural India.
Last year, in 2017 an Independent member of Parliament from Maharashtra Bacchu Kadu stirred a dust eddy when he declared during a debate on suicide by farmers in the state, “Hema Malini drinks everyday, but does she commit suicide?” he said, countering claims that farmers committed suicide because of alcoholism.
“75 per cent MLAs, MPs, journalists drink… even Hema Malini drinks heavily… but have they committed suicide?” he asked.
“Such quirks add a dash of the unexpected and glitz to the insipid sessions when the House is in motion,” admitted a political correspondent of a New Delhi -based television news channel. “They grab eyeballs… we take the cameras to them for comments,” the journalist added with a smirk. “Most of these politicos do not even know how to speak or face the camera. The actors are much more attuned to the act.”
The prime-time glamour notwithstanding, media curiosity triggered by the brigade of actors who have moved to politics points to one worrying trend. Parliamentary democratic processes are losing their relevance in a “commercial” India, powered by concerns of economics rather than the traditional realpolitik of the Nehruvian model of a socialist-democratic political apparatus. Parliamentary debates were the staple of the media headlines – held sacrosanct by the participants, people and media alike. Serious politicians were in the reckoning- political erudition was tagged like a stripe on the speaker’s sleeve. The advent of television, cinema, internet and the “criminalization and commercialization” of politics have changed the collective outlook to democracy, calling for the necessary infusion of colour, speed and chutzpah to make “parliamentary democracy” identifiable with the voters – more than 70 per cent of whom are young and professionally mobile across the economic segments of the country’s geography. A writer-diplomat and public persona like Shashi Tharoor – the member of Parliament from the southern state of Kerala – is more in the news for the books he has written, the “mysterious death of socialite wife Sunanda Pushkar for which he faces a jail term and for his tweets” than a Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party heavyweight involved in grassroots issues like the Ayodhya temple fracas or corruption within the political and civilian rank and file- two issues that keep haunting the Indian voting legions every election. Rahul Gandhi draws more “talk time” than Narendra Modi because “the former is young and good-looking”.
Stars seem to be the ensuing choice to forge the right connection. According to artist and critic Robert Hardgrave , “the politics of adulation, namely the idea that film stars are not necessarily associated to a particular group of population can explain why film stars entering politics are generally successful”. India is bred on movies – the average voter runs to the neighbourhood theatre to beat the angst of a “demonetized economy”, slump, lay-offs and moribund social mosaic with “dramas” where the heroes and their prop crews hold aloft the noble dreams of the common man looking for a leader to emulate, to depend and to cherish as a role model. The time is not far when politics has to borrow from the reel to redefine the “core” ethics enshrined in the charter of democratic laws – to restore the glory of what was dreamt of as an ideal “Indian Republic”.
Madhusree Chatterjee (Marty)
Senior Editor/Foreign Affairs and Political affairs analyst/special correspondent