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Starry downturn in Andhra

The state’s star-politicians must now compete with more telegenic counterparts

The state’s star-politicians must now compete with more telegenic counterparts

One cannot help but notice the decline of the star-politician as a category of public figure in present-day Andhra Pradesh. First,the biggest film star to have emerged after N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) becomes a junior minister at the Centre. And recently,NTR’s star sons were engaged in an exchange of sound bites over acts of commission and omission by the family’s third-generation star,“Junior” NTR,an exchange which left no doubt that the party was firmly under the control of its non-actor president,N. Chandrababu Naidu. Has the declining importance of the cinema as an entertainment form in the past two decades reduced the star-politician to just another politician?

Back in the late-1930s,Telugu cinema flagged its arrival as a public institution with the production of melodramas in which caste and class conflict was resolved by first rendering socio-economic antagonisms into individual and familial conflicts and then resolving these conflicts by bringing about a dramatic change of heart in the oppressor. The cinema’s political mandate lay in its capacity to name,mobilise and ultimately incorporate diverse population groups into the nation-in-formation. But the reformist cinema of the 1930s and 1940s had a very limited reach for a number of historical reasons. Reach was also regionally skewed because till state formation in 1956,audience taste,taxation and the scarcity of cinema halls in the Telangana region ensured that Telugu cinema had low visibility here. Post-1956,with the rapid growth of cinema across the state,Telugus had a common cultural form that,at least notionally,cut across regional and social divisions.

Telugu cinema’s big political moment came in 1982,when NTR announced the formation of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). He had to his credit roughly 300 films but no political experience. His campaign was spread over nine months and culminated in his election as the first non-Congress chief minister of the state in January 1983. Over the next 30 years,the Telugu film industry floundered,with a majority of films losing money at the box office,but it nevertheless became something of a karkhana for producing politicians. The Congress,TDP,BJP,Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and,more recently,YSR Congress have welcomed stars into their fold. Scores of actors — male and female,big and small,upper caste and Dalit,heroes,heroines,villains and comedians — joined political parties and several of them contest elections.

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The rise of the star-politician in Andhra is partly a consequence of what Robin Jeffrey calls the “newspaper revolution”. From the late-1970s,a new kind of newspaper surfaced across India. It had a mass readership and relatively new constituencies. In Andhra,at the vanguard of this revolution was Eenadu,established in 1974. Like its counterparts in the rest of the country,this paper was hugely invested in local news,as is evidenced by the 1,400 contributors it had by 1980. By 1982,it became the first Telugu newspaper to have editions in all three regions of the state.

In 1982,Eenadu was the only major newspaper which took NTR seriously. It played no small role in promoting NTR and,simultaneously,undermining the Congress campaign. The contribution of Eenadu to NTR’s victory in 1983 has been widely commented on by journalists and researchers alike. Jeffrey goes to the extent of crediting Eenadu and Ramoji Rao with creating the TDP. His larger point that linguistic and other forms of identity politics are but an extension of the new-generation newspaper’s investment in local and regional issues is well taken.

NTR’s speeches,delivered in a classical sounding Telugu,played no small part in authenticating his Telugu nationalist claims. Interestingly,the star’s speeches,which drew enormous crowds wherever he went,were directly traceable to the cinema,to be precise,the mythological genre of which he was the master. Typically,his speech would be accompanied by his trademark acting style,with exaggerated gestures and gesticulations. The star’s spectacular performance and the manner in which it was covered by Telugu newspapers ensured that the election itself became a gripping media event,mass entertainment even. During the campaign a point was reached when literally everything that the star did became news: from snacking at roadside eateries to,believe it not,the man shaving and bathing.


In the decades that followed,there emerged a new player that complemented and competed with both print and film: television. Even as more film stars tried their hand in politics,political leaders became more media savvy and telegenic. The post-NTR generation of political leaders are acutely aware of the power of their performance to travel across airwaves and media formats. The question then is whether the film star-turned-politician can outperform his competitors and how.

The writer is senior fellow,Centre for the Study of Culture and Society,Bangalore

First published on: 06-05-2013 at 12:40:50 am
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