Stars and Strides

(L-R) Nusrat Jahan, Sunny Deol, Ravi Kishan, Hema Malini, Sumalatha Ambareesh and Mimi Chakraborty
Kaveree Bamzai is an author and senior journalist
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In the age of social media, smart performers with great speaking skills and charismatic personalities can succeed in the political arena as well

MIDWAY THROUGH HER campaign, newly- elected MP from Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mimi Chakraborty, had to start wearing gloves because of fans who reached out to her, often scratching and scraping her skin in a frenzy of excitement. If that doesn’t tell us why TMC is fascinated by film stars, nothing will.

Kolkata-based social scientist Prasanta Ray says it is nothing but an attempt by the party to create political capital out of the beautiful faces of Mimi and fellow actor-turned-MP Nusrat Jahan. “It’s exactly what they did with actor Dev (Deepak Adhikari) in 2014, exploiting his muscular physique, and what Moon Moon Sen tried to do in Asansol this time, asking for votes in the name of her mother, the legendary beauty and actress Suchitra Sen. She was exploiting her mother’s legacy and TMC was exploiting her.” TMC first picked up on this strategy in 2001 when it fielded the great Madhabi Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray’s magical Charulata, from Jadavpur against Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Her loss, says Ray, can be explained by the organisational skills of the CPM leadership.

The 17th Lok Sabha has 16 actors and performers as MPs, which is almost equivalent to the 3 per cent share artists had in the previous Lok Sabha. As if we didn’t have enough theatrics from the politics, what with a certain wink and a hug and a cackle that earned an unfortunate reference to Shurpanakha, we have professional actors taking centre stage.

Already the awesome twosome from TMC, Mimi and Nusrat, have created a stir in the Lok Sabha by posing outside Parliament in western wear, which had purists sniffing—even more eyes popped when they saw them in identical athleisure dancing in joy in a TikTok video. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez better watch out. When actor MPs bother to attend Parliament, they can be quite entertaining, whether it is Kirron Kher, Chandigarh MP, who has retained her seat, gesturing excitedly to a friend on camera, or Hema Malini’s speech on International Women’s Day which ended with a quote from her own dance ballet, earning a smile even from the normally stoic Sonia Gandhi.

This Lok Sabha will certainly see more entertainment, whether it is from BJP’s Ravi Kishan, the Bigg Boss contestant and Bhojpuri actor who won from Gorakhpur, or BJP’s Hans Raj Hans who won from North West Delhi. Riding on the coattails of the Glam Squad is nothing new for politicians. Jawaharlal Nehru began the practice of sending actors to the Rajya Sabha as nominated members with Prithviraj Kapoor. Dilip Kumar and Nargis joining politics because of their loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family—they too were nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

In 1953, Nehru said about the nominated members: “They do not represent political parties or anything, but they represent really the high watermark of literature or art or culture or whatever it may be.” But now, with the election of political neophytes such as the well-meaning but self-declared novice, freshly-minted Gurdaspur MP Sunny Deol, the idea is not to improve the quality of argument in the Lok Sabha but to mobilise unquestioning support as and when it is required, says Ray. What explains the particular attraction the border town of Gurdaspur has for actors? The birthplace of Dev Anand, one of the most politically active actors in Bollywood, it was represented in the Lok Sabha by Vinod Khanna from 1998 to 2017, right till when he died. Scholar and writer Chaman Lal attributes it to the BJP style of advertising which makes people enamoured of actors. “Otherwise, Sunny Deol has no political oratory or skills to impress people, he could not even make any speeches in the election; but it seems BJP used his films like Gadar and Border to whip up emotions to sit their own narrative of ultra-nationalism.” Clearly, it worked.

The South, traditionally, is where politics and performers meet in happy harmony. But as Ray notes, in the case of south India, it is film stars who are drawn to politics, whether it is MG Ramachandran who formed the AIADMK on Dravida dignity or NT Rama Rao who launched Telegu Desam Party on the back of Andhra pride. “Elsewhere, the politicians reach out to film stars to capture some of the stardust.” This time, with the exception of Sumalatha, actress wife of the late Ambareesh, who won as an independent from Mandya in Karnataka, southern stars performed underwhelmingly. Kamal Haasan, whose Makkal Needhi Maiam, got 3.78 per cent of the vote (which is more than that of the BJP), didn’t win a single seat but is consoling himself with better prospects during the Assembly elections in 2021, while Prakash Raj who fought as an Independent, called the verdict a slap in his face. Media analyst Amit Khanna is not surprised, and calls Prakash Raj, who contested from Bengaluru Central, no better than a “nukkad natak actor wanting to be a national interlocutor”, a description he extends to Swara Bhaskar, who campaigned extensively for Kahnaiya Kumar, Digivijaya Singh and Atishi Marlena.

Anubhav Mohanty from BJD in Odisha, Bhagwant Mann from AAP in Punjab and Amol Kolhe from NCP in Maharashtra have all benefited from their public image. In particular, Kolhe, a doctor-turned-actor-turned politician, who has played both Shivaji and Sambhaji on popular Marathi TV shows, benefited from his screen characters. A former star campaigner for the Shiv Sena, he defeated three-time Shiv Sena MP from Shirur this time, attracting huge crowds to his rallies. Mohanty, former Rajya Sabha MP, defeated recent BJP convert, Baijayant Panda, from Kendrapara. Mann won for the second time from Sangrur, becoming the lone AAP MP in the Lok Sabha, which was enough to make him declare that if Narendra Modi was a wave, then he was a tsunami. Mann calls himself a social critic but there is adequate evidence that he will entertain MPs with his comedic take on politics and politicians.

Though some actors such as Shatrughan Sinha and Urmila Matondkar lost in the election, the overwhelming mandate for actors suggests that in the age of social media, smart performers with great speaking skills and charismatic personalities can succeed in the political arena as well. It has to be backed with hard work—after all, it has taken her 16 years to find a place in the Lok Sabha and five years of consistent constituency work in Amethi, before she could win an election and erase her primary persona, that of Tulsi in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. In fact a recent WhatsApp joke sums it up best: Rae Bareli main badi bahu, Sultanpur main choti bahu aur Amethi main Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.

In this attention economy, there’s no greater measure of one’s popularity than being the subject of a meme or WhatsApp joke. Ask Mimi and Nusrat. For performers and politicians, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. A meme is the ultimate public performance and trolling is the modern-day equivalent of applause.