Although one cannot deny that there have been matinee idols in the past who worked for the common man, such as N T Rama Rao, M G Ramachandran, Sunil Dutt, J Jayalalithaa, and M Karunanidhi, most film stars, by and large, are rarely seen as anything more than a ‘tool’ by political parties. Cinema, it is said, does not give you what you desire, rather it tells you how to desire. It is this facet of the medium which makes the delivery mechanism—the actor—as potent as the message itself. Perhaps this is the reason why every five years when it’s time for an election, one gets to see the confluence of film stars and political parties.
The power of film as a medium can be gauged by what someone like Vladimir Lenin thought of it. One of the architects of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, according to the Bolshevik government’s first Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, is believed to have remarked: “Film for us is the most important of the arts”. The observation becomes particularly significant as at the time films were considered to be merely a form of cheap entertainment. In the early years of independent India, the troika of Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor possibly did more to popularise the brand of Nehruvian socialism than anything else. How the three Hindi film stars embodied aspects of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s persona in their onscreen characters and reflected his ideas in their films, especially Raj Kapoor and a few Dilip Kumar films such as Naya Daur (1957) and Leader (1964), remains unmatched. Similarly, Manoj Kumar in Upkaar (1967) encapsulated the spirit of India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri for posterity.
Although many of these instances might have been a result of being inspired by the leader of the day, there is enough to believe in the influence both the medium and its prized element (read actor) wields. Is this the rationale for Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) or The Accidental Prime Minister (2019) being singled out by certain quarters even though they merely depict real events? It began with Nehru nominating Prithviraj Kapoor to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, and over the years actors were used by powers-that-be to project a particular image. When Indira Gandhi nominated Habib Tanvir to the Rajya Sabha in 1972, it was seen as a return of favour for the stage legend campaigning for the Congress in the 1971 elections. He had written a play called Indira Loksabha and much to the dismay of the Communist Party of India, Tanvir refused to resign when the Emergency was declared. When Gandhi later nominated Nargis Dutt to the Upper House of the Parliament, the legendary actress echoed the PM’s famous ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan by chastising the iconic Satyajit Ray for showcasing India’s poverty to the world.
An Amitabh Bachchan or Govinda unleashed by the Congress to thwart opposing political stalwarts such as Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna in Allahabad, 1984, and Ram Naik in Mumbai North, 2004, respectively confirms how easily a star swayed the voter. Or at least, could up until just a few years ago. It’s not the same anymore. A film star might still hold some fascination, but it’s more on the lines of what Edna St. Vincent Millay mused: “I know I am but summer to your heart, and not the full four seasons of the year”. The seasons have changed, for today even a Kamal Haasan seems to be pensive before taking the ‘electoral’ plunge.
Film historian and bestselling author