Southern India's political parties in bid to recruit film stars

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The Independent Online

You can make promises, you can campaign, you can even throw around lots of money. But in southern India nothing lures potential voters like a big-name movie star.

Two months ago, more than a million people turned out to hear the first political rally by Chiranjeevi, one of the region’s most popular actors, who had set up his own party. Now, in a desperate effort to counter Chiru’s seemingly unstoppable ascent, other, better-established parties in southern India are trying to recruit their own celebrities to boost their appeal ahead of next year’s local elections.

The heart of this political battle is the state of Andhra Pradesh, home of the Telugu-language movie industry, also known as Tollywood. They may not have international profiles, but stars from Tollywood and Kollywood (the Tamil-language movie industry based in Tamil Nadu) are considered close to deities in the south of India – when new films come out, fans often pour milk on posters of their images, an act usually reserved for Hindu gods.

It is understandable therefore, that in the weeks after Chiranjeevi’s plunge into politics, other parties have been scrabbling to match his appeal. The Congress Party, which heads the coalition running the federal government, has lured on board regional stars including Akkineni Nagarjuna, Rajasekhar and Jeevitha. According to a report in The Mail Today newspaper, the party is also trying to recruit the actor Makesh Babu.

The right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking its own stable of stars and has stepped up efforts since the leading actress Vijayashanthi left it to form her own party.

Another party, the Telugu Desam, that was itself established by an actor-turned-politician, the late and legendary NT Rama Rao, is also fighting to secure backing from the industry.

The melding of politics and movies is nothing new in southern India. Mr Rao, better known as NTR, twice served as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and came close to being Prime Minister of India. The late Tamil-language actor M G Ramachandran served as chief minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 until his death in 1984. And the actress Jayalalitha Jayaram has also served as chief minister of the state and is the general secretary of an opposition party.

Experts say there are a number of reasons for the merging of the two worlds; parties have failed to develop an alternative and effective means of building support, and unlike many politicians, actors are not deemed to have sullied their reputations.

“And then there is the fact that in a certain sense, politics across the world has become a spectator sport. To a certain extent it has become entertainment,” said Professor Jyotirmaya Sharma, a historian at Hyderabad University. “No Hollywood scriptwriter could have imagined Sarah Palin.”

For the parties, the biggest prize would be the support of the Kollywood megastar Rajinikanth. The 58-year-old former Bangalore bus conductor whose real name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, is probably India’s most successful and bankable movie star.

Over the years the actor – whose on-screen trademark is to throw a cigarette into the air, catch it in his lips and then light it in one movement – has toyed with Congress and BJP but failed to fully support either. “Nobody can force me in to politics or nobody can force me out of politics,” he said.