Indian film icons take star status to political stage

Indian electionsNew Delhi - Film stars are jumping on the political bandwagon this election season, not only running campaigns or contesting polls but even floating their own parties and turning into power players in determining India's next government.

Film actors are demigods to millions of people in the world's largest democracy, which also boasts the world's biggest film industry. Their popularity is particularly felt in South India, where huge cut-outs of their images adorn intersections and fans perform rituals and prayers at temples dedicated to them.

Well aware of their hold on the masses, and their large fan clubs whose members turn into grassroots' cadre, political parties seek to field the celebrities or deploy them for campaigning in India's ongoing, month-long, five-phased general elections. During the last elections in 2004, nearly 30 stars campaigned and as many as seven were candidates for the two main national parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Taken together, the combined political star power from the Hindi film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, and the key southern Telegu and Tamil film industries, could be a potent force impacting the political scene on the national level.

With pollsters predicting a hung Parliament and support from smaller, regional parties becoming crucial for Congress- and BJP-led alliances to form a government, the actor-politicians might hold the key during the elections, which began April 15 and continue Thursday.

South India has witnessed top political players emerging from the film industry. The country's first major actor-politician was MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu, who founded the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazagam party and ruled the state for nearly a decade.

His death in 1987 was followed by mass suicides among fans after which his co-star and protege, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, took over his mantle. Under her crafty leadership, the party has become an important regional power that could play the role of kingmaker after the elections end May 13.

Actor Vijaykant is the latest entrant into the star-studded politics of Tamil Nadu, ruled by M Karunanidhi, who has a long association with Tamil cinema as a scriptwriter.

In the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao, commonly known as NTR, widely recognized as the Telgu cinema's greatest actor, swept to power in the
1980s, after which his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu took over the reins of his Telgu Desam Party.

Now, Chiranjeevi, a veteran of 200 films who floated his own Praja Rajyam, or Kingdom of Subjects Party and aspires to play a national role by securing Parliament seats, might prove to be another NTR.

The biggest of the Bollywood stars to trade the glamour of celluloid for the rough-and-tumble world of politics have been "Tragedy King" Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, but both later chose to opt out of active politics. Bachchan, an actor who has dominated Indian cinema for nearly four decades, sometimes campaigns for the Samajwadi Party now.

Other Bollywood icons, including Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna, were cabinet ministers in the previous BJP-led coalition. Over the years, Rajesh Khanna, Raj Babbar, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Govinda, Jaya Prada, Shabana Azmi also joined the political fray and the list has kept on increasing.

With several film celebrities contesting elections, lobbying for parties or busy campaigning, a controversy over Bollywood hero Sanjay Dutt's candidature and the battle of stars in the south is bringing Tinseltown colour to the electoral spectacle.

Dutt tried to become a candidate for the Samajwadi Party, but the Supreme Court barred him from contesting on the grounds of a weapons conviction linked to the 1993 Mumbai bombings, which killed more than 250 people.

However, apart from film icons from the south, a majority of Bollywood stars fail to rise to high political offices.

Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told the IANS news agency that Bachchan, Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna, although hugely popular, have not been successes because they did not represent any regional identity.

Observing that many South Indian film personalities were not from the dominant castes, he said, "These actors bring with them a regional, nationalist flavour and try to fulfill middle-class aspirations."

The entertainment industry has made its presence felt on the political scene but is also eliciting criticism from political workers.

"The voter is getting mature and prefers candidates who are accessible and solve local problems," said a veteran Congress leader who requested anonymity. "The stars may draw crowds but not necessarily votes.

"They do not have much to offer in terms of ideologies or issues but are reducing politics to a spectacle." (dpa)

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