Bollywood and the ballot box

Actor Sunny Deol joins Bharatiya Janata Party in presence of Union Ministers Piyush Goyal and Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday. (ANI)

Bengaluru: In joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), popular Bollywood actor Sunny Deol became the latest addition to a long list of film stars across the country, who have jumped out of movie screens seeking a role on the political stage- a trend that perhaps first began with veteran actor and poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who was elected to the first Lok Sabha in 1952.

Deol, the quintessential Jat whose reel victims include powerful criminals, a hand pump and possibly the whole of Pakistan in his roles in movies like Gadar and Border, reloading the saffron outfit’s parliamentary poll-related arsenal packed with jingoism and resting firmly on the shoulders of the defence forces of the country.

“The feeling on Indian nationalism, patriotism when so beautifully evoked through film can really touch the chord of every Indian citizen,” Nirmala Sitharaman, union defence minister said on Tuesday, after formally inducting Deol into the party.

Sunny is the third person from his family after his father Dharmendra and step mother, Hema Malini, to join the BJP.

Analysts say that it is a long standing relationship between the two professions but more pronounced in the southern states like Tamil Nadu and erstwhile unified Andhra Pradesh among other places where film stars have become regional superpowers than mere crowd pullers like in north Indian states. Celebrities joining politics is neither new in India or most other countries globally that has seen popular actors like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, occupy the highest constitutional posts in the country and state.

More recently, 41 year old Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious president in a popular TV series, won a landslide victory against a seasoned incumbent like Petro Poroshenko in the presidential polls in war torn Ukraine.

India’s obsession with movie stars no less.

From West Bengal to Karnataka to Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh, political parties have tried to cash in on the popularity of film stars either in canvassing or as candidates. But the reason for entry of film stars in the north and south differ, Manisha Priyam, political analyst and academic says.

“In the north, you need a film star who fits into factors of the party than have their own larger than life image,” she adds. Though several bollywood stars have taken the plunge in the past and the ongoing parliamentary elections, only the late Sunil Dutt and a few others have been able to make a successful transition from film to a political afterlife. A stark contrast to personalities like N.T.Rama Rao, M.G.Ramachandran, J.Jayalalitha and M.Karunanidhi whose film and political career had pretty much the same foundation.

“In Tamil Nadu, it became common to use cinema as a propaganda tool,” Baradwaj Rangan, a film critic said. Even Amitabh Bachchan’s entry into politics was more due to his proximity with the Gandhi’s than any particular kind of character he modeled himself around, analysts say.

Films like Uri: The Surgical Strike, a fictionalized account of the 2016 cross border strikes have been used by the BJP to whip votes in its favour. The dialogue ‘how’s the josh?” often used in BJP rallies to pump up crowds. Some like Toilet: Ek Prem Kathahas lent to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, others like The Accidental Prime Minister, a biopic on former PM Manmohan Singh, has been used to target the political opposition.

Film personalities like Guru Dutt, Balraj Sahni and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas among others have used films to make political comments, unlike actors today who prefer ‘mainstream masala’ over content to hit the 100 + crore exclusive clubs.

“In the north it seems that you only develop a political career when you actually don’t have much of a film career left,” Ashish Rajadhyaksha, film historian and Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society said.