As an MP, actor Govinda had one of the worst attendance records in Parliament: He attended less than 10% of the sittings in the Lok Sabha and spoke for less than two minutes in his entire term. When a senior Congress leader suggested that he should get more involved, the actor retorted that he was on a film shoot: “Films are my rozi-roti, politics is not!”
Govinda is not alone. Indian politics is littered with instances of celebrity actors who have chosen to see their role in public life as a temporary flirtation, not a long term commitment. They have used their star power to get elected (or selected in the case of the Rajya Sabha) but then chosen to treat political office as another award rather than a duty to the people. Then, whether it be Hindi cinema’s biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan, who gave up politics in the midst of the Bofors controversy, or even TV stars like Deepika Chikhalia, who rode on her appeal as Sita in Ramayana to become an MP and then quickly disappeared, the roll-call of star-politicians is not very impressive.
Which is why J Jayalalithaa stands out as arguably the most successful star-politician the country has ever seen. The only two other star politicians who can claim to be in the same league are MG Ramachandran and NT Rama Rao. MGR was the original Tamil cinema folk hero who became an iconic political figure. As Jayalalithaa’s mentor, it is fair to suggest that without MGR, there would be no Jayalalithaa: It was MGR’s aura that sustained the AIADMK in its formative years and created a formidable party structure for Jayalalithaa to build on. NTR too, was a larger than life figure in Telugu cinema and politics, his dramatic ascent to power coming in his first election itself, a rise akin to a cricketer who scores a double century on debut.
Jayalalithaa who acted in more than 120 films in Tamil and other languages was not a mega-star in the MGR-NTR bracket and yet she proved to be more durable in politics than both her male counterparts. MGR had the benefit of an entire propaganda machine that was built around his persona with the singular objective of creating a demi-god like image for the actor. His acting roles were deliberately conceived to make MGR stand out as a near-mythical messiah of the masses. Jayalalithaa had no such advantage: Her cinematic personality, like many other actresses of that era, was of the beautiful heroine and little else.
NTR too, benefitted from the various god-like roles he played on screen: His supporters saw him as a real-life avatar of his screen image, making it that much easier for him to attract voters. Occasionally, he even dressed up in his screen roles for public meetings, an obvious attempt to blur the lines between cinema and politics. Jayalalithaa made no such conscious pitch though it is true that before every major election, old MGR-Jaya romantic films would play out on Jaya TV.
To that extent, Jayalalithaa deserves greater credit than both MGR and NTR because she had to fight that much harder to achieve glory in politics. From the time she stepped into the cesspool of politics, she got no special favours: On more than one occasion in her early years, she was a victim of misogyny and prejudice. She was considered the “outsider”, the interloper who had no right to appropriate the MGR legacy. That she still succeeded was largely due to her efforts in building a rapport with the AIADMK cadre, and eventually with the people of Tamil Nadu. She did not become Amma overnight in the manner in which MGR was almost instantly conferred the honorific title of Puratchi Thalaivar or revolutionary leader. Jayalalithaa had to build a reputation as the benevolent matriarch through a series of pro-poor welfare schemes that eventually cast her in the role of Amma or Mother-Provider.
That she was able to survive being sent to jail on serious corruption charges is a testimony to her resilience. That despite her whimsical and authoritarian behaviour, she never seemed to lose the mass connect is evidence of her popular appeal. Therein lies a lesson also for other star politicians, most of whom seem comfortable living in their own private bubble, unwilling to make any of the sacrifices that a career in public life demands. Jayalalithaa quickly understood that politics is a 24X7 occupation, that there were no shortcuts to power and that she would have to deliver on her promises if she was to retain power. While she should be criticised for her self-aggrandisement, she cannot be faulted for her administrative efficiency. Her numerous freebie schemes, often dismissed as empty populism, were actually designed to create a secure political constituency that would look beyond her star power.
Sadly, most other film star politicians, especially from Hindi cinema, have taken their voters for granted, in the mistaken belief that they owe little to society. Their stardom imprisons them from the real world and often makes them ill-suited for public life. Barring a few exceptions like a Shabana Azmi, how many Hindi film stars have actually chosen to spend quality time getting involved in social and political causes? Which is why it may be a while yet before we see a Bollywood equivalent to a Jayalalithaa, a charismatic star in her first innings of life, but a true politician in her second.
Post-script: In 2011, I reached out to Jayalalithaa for an interview with a copy of her favourite Ruskin Bond book. A real bibliophile, Jayalalithaa thanked me for the book but disregarded the interview request. “I have work to do, interviews are a distraction!” she told me with typical imperious disdain. And that was the end of our brief meeting.