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Rasheed Kidwai | Updated on: Nov 16, 2018
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If in the South, film stars have formed parties and governments, Bollywood actors have played a role in national politics, but with varying effects

It was, to borrow some memorable words, the best of times, and the worst of times. Independent India was a few years old. Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister and, despite problems such as widespread poverty and illiteracy, there was hope. And this was reflected in the Hindi cinema of the mid-1950s, which saw the emergence of stars such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

Raj Kapoor showcased himself in his films as an ideal citizen, joyous of spirit, full of faith and devoid of conventional conservatism. Dilip Kumar’s films projected an inclusive modernity which tried to incorporate rural India into the dominant urban and Western ethos of an emerging Indian society. Dev Anand’s films portrayed the common man’s gradual disillusionment with the State and its inability to resolve the problems that poverty, hunger and scarcity of essential commodities had spawned.

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People’s person: After having served in the upper house of Parliament from 2003-09, Hema Malini was elected to the Lok Sabha in the 2014 general elections

 

The screen, as always, reflected the people’s hopes and despair. And this relationship between cinema and the people was strengthened by the growing proximity between stars and politicians.

The trend continues, 71 years after Independence. And never is it more evident than during the elections, when stars gather to campaign for politicians and parties. As the country gears up for the 2019 polls — and the ongoing Assembly elections in four states — politicians are making a beeline for stars big and small, to draw crowds and lend colour to their campaigns.

The relationship between stars and politics is an abiding one. Film stars from across the country have joined politics, won elections and held important posts. At the Centre, Shatrughan Sinha, Sunil Dutt, Vinod Khanna and Smriti Irani went on to become Union ministers. The last election brought many others — including Kirron Kher and Paresh Rawal — from Bollywood to Parliament. Raj Babbar headed the Uttar Pradesh Congress unit, while Amitabh Bachchan was a Congress MP in 1984-86 and an aide of Rajiv Gandhi. From Sunil Dutt to Rajesh Khanna and Govinda, from Jaya Bachchan to Jaya Prada and Dharmendra to Hema Malini, Bollywood actors have played a role in central politics — with varying effects.

While the link between cinema and politics in the South is deeper, with the lines often merging, the Mumbai film industry’s stars, barring some exceptions, have had a more shallow relationship with politics. If in the South stars have formed parties and governments, the Bollywood actors have mostly worked on the margins. But they have shone elsewhere — usually on the roads while campaigning.

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Curiously, the first star from Mumbai to campaign for a political party was Dilip Kumar. Years before he became a film star, he spent a night at Pune’s Yerwada Central Jail, fasting along with freedom fighters for an independent India. During World War II, Mohammad Yousuf Khan — as he was then known — was working as a manager in an Air Force canteen in Pune. He had delivered a speech on why India should fight for its independence and remain non-aligned in the war. He was subsequently arrested.

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Script the story: The first star from Mumbai to campaign for a political party was Dilip Kumar

 

“I exchanged pleasantries with my fellow inmates and they told me that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was in one of the cells and they were all on a hunger strike along with him. I don’t know why, but I too felt I should fast with them. So I refused the food that was brought for me in an unclean plate,” he wrote in his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow . The actor was released the next day.

His links with the Congress took root in the early ’60s. In 1962, Nehru asked Dilip Kumar to canvass for VK Krishna Menon, the Congress candidate from North Bombay who was pitted against socialist warhorse JB Kripalani. “I obeyed Panditji at once, my love and respect for him being next only to the affection and admiration I had for Aghaji [Dilip Kumar’s father],” he wrote. The actor campaigned for several Congress candidates till the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, but made no effort to remember their names once the poll meeting was over. It was hardly surprising then that he did not have many friends in the political arena.

In 1977, when it emerged that Indira Gandhi would lose the general elections, the actor was spotted in Amethi, campaigning for her son, the already discredited Sanjay Gandhi. Journalist-author Vinod Mehta recalled the story in his book The Sanjay Story: From Anand Bhavan to Amethi . When the star campaigner arrived at the Fursatgunj airstrip, he was a day late, and there was nobody waiting to receive him. “Transport in Amethi being virtually non-existent, Dilip had to wait for two hours under a pipal tree for a bus, which, when it did arrive, dropped him at a tea shop,” Mehta wrote. The actor had a cup of tea and somehow managed to send a message across that he was in the UP town. “Eventually, a jeep arrived to pick him up and a meeting was hastily arranged for that afternoon. Alas! Word did not get around and the meeting flopped.”

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That was the year another actor cut his political teeth. When the 1977 general elections were announced, high-profile lawyer Ram Jethmalani, a strong critic of Indira Gandhi, urged Dev Anand to join the Janata Party and participate in its campaign against Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. Caught in a dilemma, Dev Anand apparently paced in his garden all night, lost in thought. By the next morning, he had made up his mind — he would share the dais with Morarji Desai and Jayaprakash Narayan, whom he admired deeply, and make a short speech condemning Indira. The Janata Party experiment, however, soon disillusioned him. He went on to form his own party, the National Party of India (NPI). “If MGR could spell magic in Tamil Nadu, why not me in the whole country,” he told his supporters, among whom was Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

But the party, with Dev Anand as its president, soon shut shop. As he later said in Bombay sometime in early 1981 and reproduced in his memoirs, “The inertia already visible amongst the early enthusiasts dampened my spirits… And that was the end of [the] National Party. It was a great idea that was nipped in the bud.”

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Ready to role: Rajesh Khanna was 49 years old when the Congress Party asked him to take on the BJP stalwart LK Advani from the New Delhi seat in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections

 

The first star-politician couple of Bollywood were perhaps the Dutts — Nargis and Sunil. The former was a member of the Rajya Sabha, the latter, of the Lok Sabha and a minister. In 1984, three years after Nargis’s death, Rajiv Gandhi asked Sunil Dutt to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Bombay on a Congress ticket. Daughter Namrata remembers it as an emotional moment. “On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and her son wanted loyal supporters to join him. Dad’s old friend Murli Deora helped to further convince him to stand for elections, and so he represented Bombay’s North West constituency,” she says in her book Mr and Mrs Dutt: Memories of Our Parents . The Dutt house was in a state of turmoil, caught between wedding preparations for Namrata, who was marrying actor Kumar Gaurav, and election campaigning. The Dutts’ son Sanjay, also a prominent actor, was undergoing treatment for drug addiction in the US. “For most of the wedding preparations, my father-in-law was not around,” recalls Kumar Gaurav. Sunil Dutt won the election by a huge margin.

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The late ’80s and ’90s witnessed political flux — as well as the melding of politics and cinema. The Bharatiya Janata Party, reduced to two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, had marked its return with a bang. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak, and the BJP harvested the religious fervour — to an extent sparked by party supremo LK Advani’s rath yatra, and the widespread effect of the mega Ramayana series that had the nation glued to the TV on Sunday mornings. Actor Arun Govil, who played the role of Rama, later joined the BJP, as did a host of others such as Deepika Chikhalia (who played Sita), Arvind Trivedi (Ravana) and Nitish Bharadwaj (Krishna in the TV series Mahabharata ). Much to the electorate’s delight, they often campaigned for their party in full costume.

If little-known television personalities — catapulted to fame because of the popularity of the religious series — were jumping on to the political bandwagon, so were some of the best-known names of Bollywood. The first superstar of Indian cinema — Rajesh Khanna — was among them. Khanna was just 49 years old when the Congress Party asked him to take on Advani from the New Delhi seat in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections.

By 1991, relations between Rajiv Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan had turned frosty. The rift began with the surfacing of the Bofors guns scandal, in which Rajiv Gandhi and his party were accused of taking kickbacks while negotiating a deal for buying the Swedish howitzers. Bachchan, the vanquisher of Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna in the contest for the Allahabad seat during the watershed 1984 Lok Sabha elections, was deeply disillusioned about his childhood friend’s perceived unresponsiveness to his media trial in the Bofors row. A sullen Bachchan quit the Lok Sabha and the Congress, took a sabbatical from Hindi films and became a non-resident Indian (NRI), deciding to return later to where he belonged — the Hindi film industry. Rajiv Gandhi felt cheated, though neither he nor Bachchan uttered a word about their rift in public.

Bachchan’s exit saw the political rise of his prodigal rival, Rajesh Khanna. During Bachchan’s absence, politically it had been a win-win situation for both Khanna and Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress believed it was going to return to power. The hero of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Advani, had emerged as the most potent threat to the Congress’s ambitions. Rajiv Gandhi gambled on a re-run of the 1984 experiment. If Bachchan could beat Bahuguna, why couldn’t another superstar defeat Advani? Rajiv Gandhi used his adviser RK Dhawan to sound out Khanna. The actor’s 1991 election aide Brij Mohan Bhama still recalls how Rajiv wanted Khanna to win “in order to settle scores with Bachchan”. The former superstar was initially keen to contest from the Thane seat in Maharashtra, but Dhawan insisted he fight Advani in the Punjabi-dominated New Delhi seat. Khanna agreed and took the plunge into an uncharted terrain. And with his more glamorous family members — estranged wife Dimple Kapadia, and daughters Twinkle and Rinke — Khanna went around the constituency in an open vehicle, folding his hands as the crowds surged ahead for a close look.

“For the last few weeks, the crowd puller on the streets of New Delhi’s official and diplomatic quarter has been Khanna, a former film star in a country wild about movies and a Congress candidate for Parliament in nationwide elections...,” The New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette wrote on his campaign in May 1991. “Mr Khanna was pulled in to counter the star power of the sobersided, meticulously articulate, scrupulously courtly Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, who was giving Rajiv Gandhi stiff competition,” Crosette wrote. Advani won, but Khanna captured the seat in a bye-election later.

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The political parties were convinced that the heroes would eventually wield their magic over the masses. Bachchan’s rival in Allahabad, Bahuguna, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, knew the constituency like the back of his hand and brushed off the actor as a novice, a nachaniya (dancer). In her book The Ten-year File (1992), journalist Kumkum Chadha recalls the election, which she covered. “Pitched against Bahuguna’s political acumen, Amitabh’s was merely [a] visual appeal,” she says. “Throngs of people landed up at his rallies to see what the cine star looked like in person. But in the case of Bahuguna they listened to every word he said. Till then, Amitabh was entertainment material while Bahuguna was out and out political,” she told this writer.

In contrast, Amitabh’s wife, Jaya, turned out to be a seasoned campaigner and, later, parliamentarian. According to Chadha, “Amitabh’s electoral prospects were bleak till Jaya stepped in and took charge of the situation. She did door-to-door campaigning and set out on the dusty streets of Allahabad.

“She wooed voters in a language they understood. Her emotional appeal was greater than Amitabh’s. Her accessibility helped recover lost ground... She not only connected with the voters but was able to convince them that voting in Amitabh meant the beginning of a relationship between Allahabad and the Bachchans: something which the electorate was keen to try out. Thanks to Jaya, Amitabh won the election.”

Jaya has always been perceived as an accomplished parliamentarian. The rivalry between her and Rekha had inspired headlines and stories when the southern beauty entered the Rajya Sabha as a nominated MP in 2012. But as columnist Ajaz Ashraf points out (Firstpost, May 2013), Jaya enjoys the reputation of being a “serious” parliamentarian. Her attendance record, for instance, though lower than the average, was 57 per cent. She has participated in debates 16 times, had asked 146 questions and has even notched an attendance of over 90 per cent in a few sessions. Jaya won her second and third term in the Rajya Sabha as a Samajwadi Party MP even though Bachchan was reportedly opposed to her continuing in politics.

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Another star who is being taken seriously as a politician — though currently marginalised by his party — is Shatrughan Sinha. The Bihari Babu formally joined politics in 1991, but 15 years before he went to the BJP, he had been a part of the mass movement launched by Jaya Prakash Narayan against the then PM Indira Gandhi.

Sinha was the first Bollywood actor to enter politics by formally joining the Opposition party and wields political clout even now, despite not holding a portfolio. But, unlike him, his contemporary Dharmendra has performed abysmally as a BJP MP in Parliament. During his five years in the Lok Sabha (2004-09), he hardly ever attended Parliament. He had no great interest in his party either. Speaking in Bikaner to a news channel in April 2004, in response to Congress leader Naval Kishore Sharma’s allegation that the actor had not mentioned the assets owned by his wife, Hema Malini, in the affidavit he had submitted while filing his nomination papers for the Bikaner Lok Sabha seat, Dharmendra declared he did “not know anything about the BJP’s political philosophy”. He added for good measure, “All I know is that if I were to be dictator for five years, I would clear up this mess.”

Dharmendra’s campaign style was his own — though it did remind voters of the role he played in Sholay , where he threatened to jump off a tall structure. During many of his street-corner campaign meetings in April 2004, he would come up with sweeping statements such as promising the people that he would solve all their problems if they elected him. “I will stand on the top of the Houses of Parliament, and shout: ‘People of Delhi [the Government of India], if you don’t listen to me, I will jump!’”

To balance out Dharmendra, the Congress had Govinda, whose parliamentary presence was equally dull. His début in electoral politics, however, was spectacular. Chandrima Bhattacharya of The Telegraph , who was present when the actor began campaigning on April 23, 2004, at Bhatigaon, a fishing village in Madh Island, Malad, reported on the phenomenon. “He gets off his air-conditioned black Ford and climbs into an open-hood tricoloured jeep. He is wearing an embroidered kurta-churidar of fine white cotton and has donned a yellow pagdi with red print, Rajasthani style, and has bygone-babe Zeenat Aman by his side.” Telling the crowds that he wasn’t one to make long speeches, the actor assured them, “I promise to bring four basic amenities: pravas (clothes); avas (home); gyan (education) and swasthya (health).” But little was seen of him in Parliament thereafter.

Govinda doesn’t speak of any of that anymore. But as Govinda exits, someone else will step in. As parties gear up for what’s going to be a do-or-die Lok Sabha election next year, the road from Mumbai to New Delhi is likely to be studded with stars. Some may fall by the wayside, but there will always be a dozen others shining bright. Till the next election, perhaps.

Rasheed Kidwai is the author of Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics

Published on November 16, 2018

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