When, Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister was on a visit to USA during ire Ronald Regan’s Presidential regime, the fact that a Hollywood star who had starred in as many as 50 films had by then climbed to super stardom as US President, didn’t raise her eyebrows.
In a disarming smile she disclosed that in her country there was already a well-known film star in the Tamil film world who had become the Chief Minister of Madras State. Perhaps M.G. Ramachandran was the first film star in the country to have become the Chief Minister of a State.
For that mariner Tamil Cinema has been a pioneer in projecting film stars or those associated with the film industry in one capacity or another in the political field. The redoubtable DMK Chief Mr. Karunanidhi was himself a great script writer for several classical films in Tamil. M.G. Ramachandran—affectionately called MGR by his fans in Tamil Nadu—was popularly known as the icon of the masses.
MGR broke away from Karunanidhi’s TMK to form the AIADMK. MGR was totally identified with the welfare of the underdog he sought to duplicate in the political field the stellar role he played in the cine world. As a rabble-rouser he used the filmy language to touch the tender chords of his Tamil audience. “I know what it means to be hungry for I myself was hungry for days together and I know that it means to be unemployed for I myself roamed the streets of cities for a job.” Such speeches made the masses feel he was one of them.
The day he was assaulted by another film star (who always plays the role of a villain), there were riots in madras. One of the greatest reforms he introduced to tackle child malnutrition and school dropouts was midday meals for school children, a programme the Government of India is implementing all over the country. MGR, the lionized hero of the celluloid and the political arena, had been the household name in Tamil Nadu. He is the only film star-turned-politician to have been honoured with the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.
Ms. Jayalalitha, the chief of AIADMK, and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, too, entered the political arena through the popular appeal gained in Tamil cinema. She was the heroine in many of the MGR films and struggled hard, despite several setbacks, to become the political heir- apparent of MGR.
Some of the top stars like Mr. Shivaji Ganesan, Ms. Vyjyanthimala, Mr. Dalip Kumar, Ms. Nargis Dutt and others have played just luster roles in politics as Members of the Rajya Sabha. But an actress like Ms. Shabana Azmi is a powerful social activist, though she refused to be sucked into the whirlpool of dirty politics.
Film stars straying into the stormy political waters has been a nonstarter in a State like Kerala. The popular Malayalam film hero, Mr. Prem Nazir, tried but failed. Mr. Ganesh Kumar, an actor on the small and big screens, and son of a leading politician in Kerala, did win the Assembly election in 2001 and became Minister only to resign after sometime. He has since bid adieu to politics.
As in Tamil Nadu, Cinema runs in the veins of the Telugu people. Like MGR, NTR (N.T. Rama Rao) was a magnet in Telugu cinema, with this popular hero taking on the roles of revered Hindu gods in both Tamil and Telugu cinema. This great film hero had to fight pitched battles with Indira Gandhi after he became Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. He resisted attempts by the Indira Gandhi regime to put up her dummies against NTR. NTR glory faded after his son-in-law, Mr. N. Chandrababi Naidu entered the scene.
Mr. Amitabh Bachchan was the first evergreen hero from Bollywood who sought to test the political waters of India. He contested again; Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna from Allahabad and was elected to the Lok Sabha. But India’s greatest superstar was disgusted with the cesspool politics. Even now he says he is not the man cut out for Indian politics.
The Vajpayee regime (1999-2004) saw the entry of veterans like W Shatrughan Sinha and Mr. Vinod Khanna joining the BJP and they were elevated to the post of Ministers in the Council of Ministers.
But it was the 2004 elections that provided the greatest stellar show on the Indian political scene. The heroes and heroines stormed the political scene from Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad, many as campaigners for different parties and a few as would-be actors in the unfolding political drama. These film celebrities lent colour and gaiety to the great tamasha that Indian politics has become.
One could see Mr. Dharmendra, Ms. Hema Malini, Mr. Govinda, Late Sh. Sunil Dutt, Ms. Vijay Shanti, Ms. Jayaprada, Ms. Mousami Chatterjee and many others campaigning for different parties. Out of them many like Mr. Vinod Khanna, Mr. Govinda, Mr. Dharmendra and a few others have come out with flying colours.
If the present trend continues, we could see more faces of yesterday’s heroes in the political scene of the country. If lawyers, educationists and ordinary people can become MLAs, MPs and Ministers, nothing prevents actors and actresses from expanding their role in the larger theatre of India. Most of the seasoned stars have played leading roles of well-known scripts. It is, indeed, only a small distance from a reel to a real life. That they can do it as well as any other seasoned politician has been shown by MGR, NTR, Ms. Jayalalitha, Ronald Reagan (who died on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93) and Mr. Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the Hollywood hero who has become a governor of California.