Hollywood macho marvel and former US President Ronald Reagan once posed the cosmic question: “What does an actor know?” He delivered the answer himself by winning the presidential race twice as the Republican candidate. Like the legendary MGR and NTR in India, American cowboy Reagan established that actors do understand the art of winning elections by sweeping the polls at the height of the Cold War, sensing the US need for a Captain America to take on the “Evil Empire.” Cinema is fantasy presented as reality, and the Hollywood legend who made his mark in Westerns spun a mythos of glamour presented as political plausibility. Today, Indian leaders are obsessed with film stars. With Reagan it was the other way around. He led the politicians. Without supporting roles by other film stars, he took the White House by storm.
In India, every mainstream political party seems desperate to lasso current or past entertainers from cinema to bolster their electoral prospects. Taking selfies with actors and posting them on social media is so yesterday. Now, a Hollywood celebrity interview just before actual polling day is the new hit. The number of Bollywood swashbucklers contesting or canvassing for the elections has created enough political hype to place leaders in a vulnerable position. A smorgasbord of over two dozen well-known or little known superheroes, super-zeroes and has-beens are in the current ballot fray.
The maximum number of filmi candidates is from the BJP, which is chasing young and new voters, though its preference, ironically, is for the not-so-young and semi-achievers from the silver screen. Sunny Deol, 62, stepped into his father Dharmendra’s political shoes last week. By giving disproportionate importance to cine artistes, are political masters depending on glamour to boost voter connectivity?
Normally, elections are expected to be a clash between ideologies and convictions. Since actors adjust their convictions to the plot, they are good fits for political outfits. They don’t have followers, but enjoy massive fan following. Their political directors are now giving them lead roles over ordinary cadres to exploit this brand value and mass mesmerism. What do Shatrughan Sinha, Manoj Tiwari, Nusrat Jahan, Urmila Matondkar, Kirron Kher, Prakash Raj, Kamal Haasan and Jaya Prada have in common? Nada. Except that they are A-graders from B Town, and some C-graders, too. But parties have discovered a common cachet in their role play—actors are not seen representing any caste, community or religion. Hence they can mobilise voters from all walks of life.
The BJP bets that yester-star Jaya Prada is better placed than rival Azam Khan to attract north Indian Muslims, backwards and upper castes thanks to her masala magic—not ideological identity. On the other hand, Samajwadi chief Akhilesh Yadav airdropped Poonam Sinha, Shatrughan Sinha’s missus, in Lucknow as the SP candidate to take on Home Minister Rajnath Singh—not because she is a political trophy, but a valuable Bollywood spouse. Meanwhile, the former BJP shotgun is the Congress candidate from Patna. Undoubtedly, Hema Malini or Moon Moon Sen are guaranteed to effortlessly pull more crowds than an ordinary candidate with a political record. Maybe, a touch of glamour in an acerbic and abusive war for votes does bring some entertainment and levity into the situation. Since it is believed that stars don’t need to abusively attack each other, they seek votes in the name of personality, not ideology.
Film fixation is not a new phenomenon in Indian politics. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, nominated Prithviraj Kapoor to the Rajya Sabha. Since then all premiers have followed suit. The evolution of entertainers into serious political players started from south India when scriptwriters, directors, heroes and heroines floated their own parties based on class and religion. The trend began with Annadurai in Tamil Nadu, followed by M G Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. In Andhra Pradesh, N T Rama Rao launched his Telugu Desam Party in the early 1980s to dethrone the Congress. The main villain for Southern film stars was the Congress, which blindly devalued emerging regional and community identities.
The rise of cine power toppled the Congress from its primary perch in the South, where today it does not rule any of the five states on its own. In contrast, Bollywood has provided a star cast to the national parties, mostly as ordinary members or followers. Hindi cinema invaded north Indian politics primarily during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as AICC president and prime minister. In 1984, he invited superstar and personal friend Amitabh Bachchan to contest from Allahabad. Bachchan defeated the indomitable HN Bahuguna by a record margin, polling around 69 per cent of the votes. Later on, Rajesh Khanna almost defenestrated L K Advani in 1991 from the New Delhi constituency; Advani won by just 1,500 votes and subsequently found refuge in Gandhinagar. Since then, the poll demand for film personalities has been growing at Mach 1 speed. The Congress gave Lok Sabha tickets to Left-leaning actors like Sunil Dutt, Govinda, Raj Babbar et al. The BJP’s northern choices were Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha.
The biggest count of film personalities—19 of them—fielded by various parties in the General Elections was in 2014. Nine were sponsored by the BJP. Seven of those who won were from the BJP. Hema Malini trounced her rival by over 3.50 lakh votes, but Raj Babbar, Nagma, Javed Jaffrey and Gul Panag bit the dust. So did saffron stars Smriti Irani and Bappi Lahiri. Only Moon Moon Sen won on behalf of the TMC. It is well known that Prime Minister Modi enjoys a special relationship with Bollywood, engaging with them more often than with other professionals.
Last year, he invited Priyanka Chopra, Salman Khan, Kamal Haasan, and Aamir Khan to join the Swachch Bharat Initiative. As Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage, and we are all actors. Now, actors on the political stage are full of sound and fury. For the first time, the film world is vertically divided, with the majority supporting Modi’s hard-line nationalism. Filmy falsettos have risen stridently, not just on ideology but also to personally demonise their rivals. Perhaps, the histrionics are just an act. However, their new role as party barnstormers is spurring cine idols to direct their destiny as political blockbusters. But their burgeoning clout as crowd-pullers is trivialising the idea of meaningful politics. The maximisation of glamour could even minimise even a maximum leader.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla