As if Indian politics isn’t already full of histrionics, more and more movie stars are also joining the fray. Recently, when the balding superhero of Tamil films, Rajinikanth, 67, announced his decision to float a political party, it generated a frenzied response from his fans. The actor said he was keen to usher in “political change” and “good governance” in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, home to 72 million people.
“I’m joining politics because it is the need of the hour,” Rajinikanth told thousands of his cheering fans, speaking in Tamil. “I’m not doing this for any post. I do not come for money or fame, as I have them enough. But the [sic] politics has become so bad that rest of the world is laughing at us.
“I am not a coward, so I have to step in.”
With Tamil Nadu’s charismatic Chief Minister Jayalalithaa passing away last year, and veteran politician, Kalaignar Karunanidhi, 93, ailing and exiting active politics, there is a gigantic political vacuum in the state. Rajinikanth says he aims to fill that.
Cinema has been an inseparable part of Tamil politics for the last five decades. Three of Tamil Nadu’s chief ministers in the past have been movie stars. Big names include M.G. Ramachandran, M K Karunanidhi, and Jayalalithaa, who together have shaped the state’s political narrative for years.
Rajinikanth’s own life story reads like a film script. One of India’s most popular stars, he was a poor bus conductor before joining an acting school. With many of his 175-plus films since 1975, mostly in the Tamil and Telugu languages, shattering box-office records, the actor soon began to enjoy a demi-god status. He currently boasts over 50,000 fan clubs. Humongous cut-outs of the star pepper Tamil Nadu’s hinterland, over which fans even pour milk, a ritual used to worship Hindu gods.
Interestingly, around the time Rajinikanth was announcing his candidacy, his friend and another Tamil actor Kamal Haasan, 62, was also bitten by the political bug. Haasan, referred to as the “hero of the world” by his fans, says he aims to work toward becoming chief minister to “right the wrongs of corruption and communalism in public life in Tamil Nadu.”
The phenomenon of actors jumping onto the political bandwagon is also prevalent in other southern Indian states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. But nowhere are films and politics so inextricably intertwined in India as in the Hindi film industry, popularly called Bollywood. Over the years, stars like Amitabh Bachchan, the late Sunil Dutt and Rajesh Khanna, Dileep Kumar, and Govinda joined the country’s oldest political formation, the 132-year-old Congress Party that is now in the opposition. Actors like the late Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Dharmendra, and Shatrugan Sinha threw in their lot with the current ruling party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
However, the trend of movie stars joining politics is hardly new. It began during independence in the 1940s, when political leaders sought help from movie stars to build a unified Indian nation. Their celebrity was leveraged to strengthen the nation around the values of Indianness as amplified through cinema’s patriotic and nationalist content. As an extension, movie stars soon began joining politics.
Nor is this a trend unique to India. Movie stars across the world have exploited a winning combination of charisma and political opportunity to launch high-profile political careers. In Egypt, home to the Arab world’s biggest entertainment businesses, many movie stars have joined politics. In Turkey, veteran politician Ediz Hun was a successful film actor. Hollywood brims with examples of actors making a seamless switch from cinema to politics.
Political analysts feel that with 24-hour news channels, a political leader has to look presentable, connect with an audience, be articulate, and present a persona. “This is pretty much the skill set required of an actor as well,” says a senior member of the ruling BJP. “Indeed actors begin with a tremendous head start over their rivals as they have instant brand name recognition.”
Be that as it may, not all actors have been successful in the tempestuous world of Indian politics. While a few like Jayalalithaa, MGR, Sunil Dutt, Shabana Azmi, and Shatrughan Sinha did manage to carve out a niche, others like Govinda and Amitabh Bachchan failed miserably — so much so that they ultimately eschewed politics altogether. Bachchan proved to be the biggest failure. Voted into parliament in the 1980s, Bollywood’s most popular actor was unable to even complete his five-year term due to persistent corruption allegations. He quit midway through his term in Parliament, admitting that politics “…is a much bigger game and I possibly can’t handle it.”
In fact the journey from being a cherished actor to a pilloried politician is often instructive, as in the case of erstwhile Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who was jailed on charges of corruption. He observed wryly from his prison cell in Manila, “The pitfall is if you do not perform in the movies, it’s just acting. But in politics, it’s real life.”
In other words, celebrity is not an automatic ticket to political success. Stars need to provide a credible political alternative to voters, who are becoming increasingly more politically aware and active on social media to express their opinions. Ergo, every time a big movie star enters the political arena, it triggers a strident public debate about the pros and cons of such a move. How healthy is this trend for the world’s largest democracy? Is it glamour rather than serious political ideology that dictated the star’s entry into politics? How will the polity and the citizens benefit from a movie star-turn-political candidate?
Brickbats aren’t uncommon. Very often criticism for actors turned politicians springs from their poor attendance records in Parliamentary sessions. Indian celebrities who have readily accepted the government’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) are especially guilty of absenteeism or not participating in debates. While some attend the House as regularly as the active politicians, others have abysmal attendance records with scarcely any participation in any major debates or raised issues.
However, many of these drawbacks take a back seat given the worshipful status stars enjoy in India. In an essay “The blurred lines between politics and cinema in India,” political analyst Manon Jessua argues that in India, cinema is so important that the star-fan relationship often becomes a god-devotee relationship, with the star being regarded as an actual god by the public.
“While the figure of the politician does not necessarily inspire trust or adulation in India,” writes Jessua, “film stars provide a much more consensual and likeable alternative, theoretically far from any corruption or fraud schemes or power-driven objectives. Rather, they are associated to the roles and characters that they portray (generally gods or heroes), thus contributing to the creation of a myth around them.”
Even so, people are increasingly looking beyond the star’s appeal to see what else he or she brings to the table. They are being put under the scanner for their public work and contributions to their constituencies. And high time too. Star power mixed with political clout is a potent mix in celebrity-struck India. But the jury is still out on whether actors make for good politicians or not. While some are successful in establishing a connection with the electorate, the others soon discover that a country isn’t quite a movie set.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and senior journalist.