Sunday, April 19, 2009

Film stars: Please keep off politics

Film stars caused their two-paise worth of nuisance in this election. A couple of them may win but it is clear that their appeal as netas is declining steadily. MGR and NTR meant something in politics. Hemamalini and Jaya Bacchan meant nothing.

Star MPs in the last Parliament in fact disgraced the parliamentary system itself. Govinda’s failure to attend even one session showed an attitude of contempt towards Parliament. Vinod Khanna, once trumpeted by the BJP, attended only 5.5 percent of the sittings. Dharmendra’s score was 1.5 percent. If these guys are so high and mighty, why did they become MPs in the first place? The parties who sponsored them must be held accountable by the people who elected them.

In the south things are somewhat better. Actually, film stars turning to politics is a South Indian phenomenon, more specifically a Tamil phenomenon. The reasons are historical. Cinema became an integral part of the Dravida movement and therefore a serious player in politics. It was not a case of roping in pretty faces to get votes.

The anti-Brahmin movement had started earlier in Maharashtra under Jyotiba Phule. But it was Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker who gave it an ideological sweep and a cultural (Aryan-Dravidian) dimension. The revolution he wrought was turned by C.N. Annadurai into a solid political platform. Because Annadurai was the most brilliant film writer of his time, Tamil cinema became a political instrument.

Fascinating details of this union between politics and cinema are marshalled in “History Through the Lens”, a new book by the greatest living authority on Tamil cinema, S.Theodore Baskaran. From the 1920s, he tells us, drama artistes were involved in the freedom struggle. In 1958 the legendary K.B. Sundrambal became India’s first film artiste to enter the legislature. After independence “film actors as a community, who had earlier been backing the cause of the Congress, moved on to support the Dravidian movement”. The Congress never recovered from that.

Dravidian assertion over Brahmins did not develop in other South Indian states as intensively as it did in Tamilnadu. Something else happened in Andhra when that amateur Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, publicly humiliated the then chief minister of the state, T. Anjiah. It was an insult to Telugu pride, but neither Anjiah nor the Congress party was in a position to do anything about it. N.T Rama Rao rose to the occasion and rode to power on the plank of Telugu atmagauravam.

That was a spontaneous response to a moment of challenge. NTR did not have the intellectual resources to turn it into an ideological platform. Even in Tamilnadu the inspirational pull of the Dravidian movement has lately been diluted by caste and sub-caste politics. Hence the ambivalence of wannabe netas like Rajnikant and the uncertainties of fresh entrants like “Black MGR” Vijaykant. In Andhra, Chiranjeevi has serious handicaps – dissensions in his personal circle, the absence of an ideological agenda. Whether he can do an NTR will depend on whether the people see him as a credible agent of change.

In Karnataka even a god-like figure like Rajkumar kept out of politics. The most glamorous Kannada heroine of all time, Jayanti, was defeated by the most unglamorous opponent of all time, Ananthkumar, in 2004. Ambarish is an exception that proves the rule that stars don’t shine in the politics of Karnataka. He is a strange exception – the only minister in the Union Cabinet who never attended office. That beats even Govinda.