A pull that frequently brings together India’s heterogenous population — divided in their ethnicity, class, religion, caste and linguistic affiliation — is cinema. The first cinema show in erstwhile British India was arranged by the agents of the cinematography-pioneering Lumiere brothers in Bombay in 1896. With several salient developments in the interim, 1913 saw Dadasaheb Phalke present the first entirely Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, with no foreign collaboration. Since then, the film industry in India — decentralised in many hubs — never hesitated and the country eventually became the producer of the largest number of films in the world annually, in various languages.
Because of popularity of cinema and the glamour attached to its lead actors, cinema stars are household names — their public personas readily evoking a warm familiarity among the masses. Their cinematic selves, perhaps like freedom fighters, command admiring fans of diverse identities — more than religious, caste, union or student leaders with clout. Concurrently, Indian politics, which — as anthropologist Sara Dickey points out — has been personality-centric, is particularly well-suited for film stars to benefit from their superstar status. The widely publicised, dynamic and attractive star images hold great currency for mobilisation in the Indian political realm.
The aam aadmi or the common people form not only the bulk of cinema audience but also the bulk of voters in an electorate. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rise of iconic star-politicians like the late M G Ramachandran, N T Rama Rao and J Jayalalithaa in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with a history of linguistic nationalism. Hindi film industry, too, with its wider and more diffuse fan following, has seen mega stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and Dharmendra as well as lesser figures like Raj Babbar and Jaya Prada make use of their fame to contest elections successfully at various points in time. Let’s take a look at some of the best known star-politicians:
The most iconic of all star-politicians, late Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran or MGR, founded the AIADMK is 1972 at the height of his superstardom, after splitting from his erstwhile party Dravidian Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — where he was a prominent member and which he helped bring to power by mobilising his very large fan following. MGR was very successful in manipulating his roles and image — he carefully chose his roles, never playing the villain and even modifying his lines when they did not align with his image as a hero of the oppressed — thus exercising a tight control on his screen renditions, which curated and established a superseding identity for him. Through this movie persona, he was able to align himself visibly and forcefully with the most underprivileged of Tamil voters. In 1977 state elections, he routed DMK and led his party to three consecutive victories and served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 till his death in 1987.
Late Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, or NTR as he was popularly known, was one of the largest figures of Telugu cinema. Like MGR, he chose to play characters who were socially relevant to a vast majority of the Telugu audiences. He famously essayed mythological roles of deities Krishna and Rama in a multitude of his films — donning their sartorial essences — which lent a ‘divine’ air to his personality in the eyes of many filmgoers. He meteorically rose to power upon forming his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982 and thereafter served three terms as the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh between 1983 to 1995.
The late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, started acting at the age of 15 and dominated the South Indian movie industry in the 60s and 70s, sharing screen with the bigwigs of Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films including M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, N T Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao. She was already a familiar and famous name through her films by the time she was inducted into politics and AIADMK by her mentor MGR. After his death, she more than held her own, boldly crafting her political avatar to become the first woman leader at the helm of a major political party in Tamil Nadu. She became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991, three years after her mentor’s passing, and built a formidable political career that only ended with her recent, unexpected demise.
These three were not the only stars to be successful in politics, but no one else could encash on their onscreen popularity beyond the dark confines of cinema halls like they did.
Legendary national star of South as well as Hindi films, dancer-actress Vyjanthimala, forayed into politics in her later years — standing on a Congress ticket in the 1984 general elections from the South Chennai constituency upon Rajiv Gandhi’s insistence. She defeated Era Sezhiyan, a seasoned politician and the leader of Janata Dal and repeated her success five years later in 1989, defeating Aladi Aruna of the DMK. She was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1993. She ultimately left the Congress in 1999 and later joined the BJP in 2003.
The late Sunil Dutt was one of the major stars of Hindi cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s. After the death of his wife, the legendary actress Nargis, he joined politics and the Congress in 1984 and was the elected Member of Parliament from the constituency of Mumbai North-West where he was known to have worked consumingly for the cause of slum dwellers. An outspoken promoter of communal harmony, he was re-elected each time (1984, 1989, 1991, 1999, 2004), except when he did not contest (1996, 1998). He also served as the Minister of Youth affairs and Sports under the Manmohan Singh government until his death in 2005.
Amitabh Bachchan, the reigning Shahenshah of Bollywood, rose to the fore as India’s first “angry young man” in the early 70s with movies like Zanjeer and Deewar wherein, in a distinction from Southern superstars, he played liminal anti-establishment figures who were champions of the oppressed. He took a break from acting upon the insistence of long-time family friend Rajiv Gandhi, when in 1984 general elections, he won the Allahabad Lok Sabha constituency, his hometown, on a Congress ticket defeating H N Bahuguna, the one-time Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh by a huge margin. He, however, resigned from the House three years later to get back to acting and admitted that the decision to enter politics had been a mistake, expressing his regret over not fulfilling his promises as a politician to the people of Allahabad.
The front page photo of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi — a day before the latter was assassinated — casting ballot for superstar Rajesh Khanna, also in the image, in 1991 is in the recollection of many. Khanna had been brought to contest for Congress from the New Delhi constituency, but narrowly lost out to the BJP stalwart, L K Advani. Khanna, however, remained determined to enter the Lok Sabha and won the by-election when Advani, who contested from both Gandhinagar and New Delhi, vacated his New Delhi seat in 1992. He defeated actor Shatrughan Sinha, who contested for the BJP.
Shatrughan Sinha, veteran actor who engraved his mark in pop culture with his intense dialogues, is a senior BJP leader with an enormous political influence in Bihar. After a loss in the elections to actor Rajesh Khanna in 1992 for the New Delhi constituency, he entered politics through the Rajya Sabha in 1996 and later became a cabinet minister in the NDA government under Vajpayee holding portfolios of Department of Health and Family Welfare and Department of Shipping. In 2009, he won the Patna Sahib Lok Sabha constituency, also his hometown, during general elections and subsequently again in the 2014.
Superstar Dharmendra, renowned for his gruff handsomeness and swaggering lines, had been politically active and won the Bikaner Lok Sabha constituency from Rajasthan on a BJP ticket in 2004 general elections. While his popularity helped him easily win the hearts and votes of the Bikaner residents, he was severely criticised during his term for being absent from Parliament sessions, rarely visiting his constituency and endeavouring little in his capacity as the MP for its development.
Govinda is best etched in memories for his commercially successful movies, with his many comedic performances and unforgettable dancing moves to the catchy 90s numbers. In 2004, he decided to give politics a shot, and joined the Congress. He won the Mumbai North Lok Sabha constituency in the general elections. He, however, struggled at doing justice to his role as an MP while also trying to make a comeback in Bollywood and was again criticised for failing to attend the parliament and remaining inaccessible to his constituency, especially during the catastrophic Mumbai floods in 2006. As a result, he resigned from office in 2008.
The 2014 general elections also saw wins for veteran actors Hema Malini, Paresh Rawal and Kirron Kher as BJP candidates from constituencies Mathura, Ahmedabad East and Chandigarh respectively. The same year, Dev — one of the biggest superstars and highest paid actors in Bengali cinema — also won the Ghatal Lok Sabha constituency in West Bengal as a candidate for Trinamool Congress.
This phenomenon is hardly limited to the big screen. Interestingly, many television actors like Arun Govil and Gajendra Chauhan from the highly popular Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and Mahabharat shows have joined or shown inclination to join the BJP. In 1991, Deepika Chikalia, who played Sita in Ramayan, won the Lok Sabha seat — riding high on her fame — on a BJP ticket from the Vadodara constituency.
Reading history, one notices that the majority of stars who successfully converted their star appeal into political victories, made guest appearances and played up to the ornamental function in their respective parties as opposed to exercising real power. In most cases, their record as public representatives also remain underwhelming. The South is an exception where movie celebrities, sometimes vocal about lingual nationalism, could mobilise their fan-clubs to be kings and kingmakers.
Although star appeal is a cinematic virtue that politics eagerly and readily encashes, acumen for holding public office and dedication to take its responsibilities seriously is not a given. The conflict between two separate, all-consuming professions is inevitable. In 2007, after Govinda’s comeback film Partner was released — he came under fire for continuing to act in movies at the cost of his responsibility towards the electorate. Moreover, a public office holder must ideally be accessible to his/her electorate — an aspect at odds with superstardom. While actors like the late Sunil Dutt and Shatrughan Sinha have demonstrated considerable and sustained success in their single-minded political careers, other stars, like Amitabh Bachchan and Govinda, found themselves mentally and occupationally unprepared for carrying out their duties, after bagging easy wins.