There are many stars in the Kannada film industry. A few are even called superstars. But, only a handful are actors in the strictest sense of the word. Upendra is a star because of what he has done — as a director and an actor. The actor, who has donned many hats in his remarkable movie career, including that of choreographer and singer, is now preparing for a change of role in real life. He wants to make a mark in politics and has launched a political platform, which is yet to be named, with an intention of fielding candidates in the next Karnataka assembly elections.
It remains to be seen if Upendra can add a fourth dimension to the battle for Karnataka’s political space dominated by three biggies — BJP, Congress and JD(S). His appeal to people to send ideas on how to take the political initiative forward is said to have received a good response, and the star seems to genuinely believe he can take on muscle and money power of politicians, as characters played by him did in many of his movies, with only people’s support. But it will take more than an actor’s talent, popularity and charisma to shake up Karnataka politics.
The Kannada film industry, called Sandalwood for reasons perhaps no better than the need for a term that rhymes with Hollywood and Bollywood, is known for churning out mostly forgettable movies by the dozens. Once in a while come gems — like Thithi and Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu last year and Ondu Motteya Kathe this year. And there have been some really remarkable films, right from the beginning through the Rajkumar period to the modern era, but the industry mostly generates meaningless trash.
Upendra, when he arrived in the industry in the early 1990s, brought with him a new brand of filmmaking, and his ability and courage to think different helped him make a difference. Movies like Shhh!, Om, A and Upendra (yes, he named the movie that dealt with human greed and ego after himself) brought the best out of the director in him. Moviegoers accepted this change wholeheartedly. It was when he was at his peak as a director that he shifted focus to acting, again making an impression with his versatility and talent.
People who have known the 49-year-old star well talk about his simple, down-to-earth nature and genuine concern for the common man’s problems. He certainly has a big fan base and is popular across the state. But is that enough to succeed in politics? Not many Kannada actors have done well in politics. Ambareesh is probably the most successful of them — he has been an MP, MLA and a minister in both Union and state cabinets.
But that’s partly because of his popularity in the Mandya region, where he hails from. Mukhyamantri Chandru, Ramya and Umashree are others who succeeded in turning their star status into votes. But they were all associated with one or the other major political party.
Unlike Tamil stars who enjoy a cult following and can bank on fan support to make political gains, Kannada actors have limited reach, partly because their popularity is not evenly spread across the state and partly because Kannada cinema caters to a much smaller market. Kannada movie icon Rajkumar, whose popularity and following matched that of MGR in Tamil Nadu and NTR in Andhra Pradesh, consciously stayed away from politics. So, while political moves by the likes of Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan can make parties in TN sit up and take notice, parties in Karnataka have given only perfunctory consideration to actor-politicians, using them selectively to grab a few extra votes here and there.
Upendra, who hails from the coastal Udupi district, has noble intentions. And that could be his handicap. Upendra says he doesn’t want to do rajakaarana (politics), but prajakaarana (his version of people-oriented politics); believes he doesn’t need money to fight elections; and thinks there’s no need for rallies or processions, but social media is good enough to convey his message.
Announcing his political entry, Upendra said he wanted to change the notion that only people with money or backing of castes/communities can enter politics. “I decided to give it a try. At least I will have the satisfaction of trying,” he said. His approach is probably ahead of its times, much like the themes of his many movies. Super, a 2010 Kannada-Telugu bilingual scripted and directed by Upendra, depicted his dream of a utopian India. Too good to be true. He played the lead role of a corporate boss who later becomes CM and cleans up politics. The movie was a hit.
Upendra is smart enough to realise movies are movies and politics is politics, and that’s precisely why one would want to believe in his dreams and hope that he succeeds. But he runs the danger being reduced to a side role to provide the entertainment factor in the merciless world of politics. Not that there’s any shortage of entertainment in Karnataka politics, what with rival camps trying all tricks — from sex CDs to cheap idlis to I-T raids — to outpace each other in the run-up to the elections.
Resident Editor, Karnataka