Hilarity and snide barbs ensued online at the sight of the delicately poised Hema Malini waving at crowds from her gleaming black SUV Mercedes, clutching a faux lotus. The actor was in Mathura from where she defeated Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate Jayant Chaudhary in 2014 by over three lakh votes. Some photographs shared by the actor show her stepping out of a helicopter in a pristine sari looking every bit the quintessential movie star she is. Another had a minion holding an umbrella for her while the car glided past the hot and dusty village. Malini didn’t endear herself to netizens further by her nonchalant quote to NDTV on the surprising similarities between Bollywood and politics. “Film shoots are hard work and so is this,” explained Malini, who appeared baffled that her campaign images had created a stir and riled people up. She asked: “What’s wrong with them? Everyone was happy to see the picture back in Mumbai.”
Malini has inadvertently stumbled onto something when she says that politics and films have a lot in common but it has nothing to do with the slog. Every successful politician is also, like his Bollywood counterpart, a charming and inveterate performer. Like an actor, a politician is rehearsed and thoroughly versed with his lines; acutely aware of the audience and knows instinctively, the final and ultimate way of delivering them for maximum impact. The lines between these two professions have become so blurred with the 24-hour news cycle and social media that no wonder the electorate feels that the roles are interchangeable — a dazzling on-screen performer can indeed shine in Parliament. After all ex-movie stars like Jayalalithaa and MGR were hugely successful politicians. This isn’t a purely Indian phenomenon. In a bizarre example of life imitating art in Ukraine, a comedian who plays a politician in a popular TV series is the leading candidate in their upcoming Presidential elections. Clearly, voters’ confidence in the political class worldwide is so rock bottom, they feel they might be better off choosing a real joker as leader instead.
It’s all very well to have a cynical laugh at Malini’s amateurish endeavours, and perhaps, bemoan the perils of democracy. Alas, in a free country nobody is more “qualified” to hold a political position and Malini is certainly no worse than many others who have been elected in the past. However, it’s alarming that so many people believe that talent in one area will work in another and that wily showmanship trumps substance, hands down. Take, for instance, Malini’s rival in Mathura, Chaudhary, who’s 30 years younger with a degree from London School of Economics and has already served in Parliament from 2009 to 2014. Not that it means he’s anything special but he does hail from a political family, his father had founded Rashtriya Lok Dal and so presumably, knows his way around politics (more than Malini in any case). To keep it in perspective, Chaudhary wasn’t even born when Malini’s seminal hit Dream Girl was in theatres but he was trounced by her, even though more than half of India’s voters are under 30.
In her party, known for its hyper-aggression and certainly not for its politicians’ smashing good looks, Malini’s ethereal beauty was like a soothing balm. It may be tragically unfair that Malini can swoop down in her chopper and Dior shades, shed tears at the plight of women (even if they’re not crocodile ones) and despite her inexperience, have a decent shot at getting re-elected. We live in a culture that revolves around the cult of celebrity. People gravitate towards those that seem familiar. Any TV personality cunning enough to spew a sensational sound byte and post re-tweet-able inflammatory content can sway an innocent voter away, though he may never have demonstrated competence in governance. In this environment of tweets and fluff, it’s more important than ever for a voter to tune out all the noise, and the glamour, and genuinely spend time to understand who the best candidate is. Then maybe, some real progress can be made.