Why do movie stars not impress the public anymore as politicians?
Some of the biggest film stars in India are also celebrated politicians, not only on screen but also off-screen. In India, the most successful of them have been down under – in the South of India where movie stars surround politics. Although there are several Bollywood actors sitting in Parliament, they are no match for the political stars of South who had been pioneers of political gatherings and even rose to the ranks of Chief Ministers like M.G Ramchandran, N.T Rama Rao etc.
What the South achieved and Bollywood couldn’t
The biggest reason for this could be the culture in South India, where movies play a significant role in their everyday life. They are not just a source of entertainment, and the movies are a lot closer to their lives. The movie scripts and the roles these stars play are much closer to common people and their lives; they touch upon several social issues and the star’s political ambitions. The lines between movie and reality blurred as they saw the stars as the messiah they were waiting for to show them the way forward and solve their problems. With it came the fans’ faithfulness to the charisma of their favourite actors, one might say that is one reason why the fan clubs are also politically inclined. But if you look at Bollywood, it is all about the city of dreams, Mumbai, and the audience has no real connection with the actor’s ethnic, cultural, regional or linguistic identities. But the actors in South garner substantial fan base on the basis of culture, region, social/economic status or sometimes even caste, which, as we all know very well, are heavy influencers of votes in Indian politics. The Kollywood (Tamil Nadu) and Tollywood (Telangana & Andhra Pradesh) are two big movie industries in the South, and they also have had the credentials of having the biggest actor-turned-politicians in Indian Political history.
Tamil Nadu – where it all began
This is a state where there cannot be politics without cinema. But most importantly it is also a state that had the first actor turned chief minister and has had several movie stars become Chief Ministers of the state. It began with C.N Annadurai (founder of DMK party) and M. Karunanidhi (both were scriptwriters for movies and were from middle-class families), who fought for social justice of the lower castes and rapidly gained popular support. But on a critical note, it was their fight against Hindi imposition, Rajaji’s Kula Kalvi Thittam an education policy that was seen as casteist policy and fight against north Indian domination that helped them garner the public support. Then came M.G Ramchandran (MGR), who founded his own party AIADMK (ADMK earlier) in 1972 and used his films to spread and preach his party’s ambition. When the existing government failed to live up to their expectations, he used his stardom and movies to preach his ambition to win elections. Jayalalita, was next in line and was the successor of AIADMK. What was common in all of this was how
● their image helped brand themselves as not only actors but as the political stars of their time
● triggering deep-rooted emotions of protecting cultural & linguistic pride was used to their advantage (Hindi imposition and oppression by the North)
● the existing social conditions helped augment their political strategy
A new era in Telugu politics
A great struggle by Telugu people for their pride (who claimed that Tamilians looked down upon them and there was nepotism) led to the formation of a new state, Andhra Pradesh, who would have thought that the same element would change the election scenario later. N.T.Rama Rao was a renowned face across the state, and his political entry couldn’t have been at a better time, Rajiv Gandhi calling the then CM of Andhra, T. Anjiah, a “Buffoon” only helped him further his campaign. His stardom from his movies where he played roles fighting for the common people’s rights and betterment helped him in creating the image of a saviour. With the help of that image, he used the “Telugu Pride” as his campaign sutra, which won elections and made him the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. While one can always argue on how caste had also played a key role in his winning of the elections with a bumper majority in a few areas, the stardom and ‘Telugu Pride’ were the key deciding factors.
The story of the last two decades
Inspired by their predecessors, several actors tried their luck in politics and launched their own parties but in vain. In Tamil Nadu, Vijaykanth, a big actor tried the same old recipe by launching his own party but couldn’t achieve the ranks like his predecessors MGR or Jayalalita. Similarly, R. SarathKumar launched his own party in 2007, and it hardly won 2 seats every time it contested. In Andhra Pradesh, Chiranjeevi, a Mega Star of Tollywood, launched his own party in 2008 (launched at the same place as that of N.T.R) and failed, this led to the merger of his party Prajarajyam into INC. His brother Pawan Kalyan, who seemed promising with his own party Janasena, failed even more miserably by winning just one seat out of 175 seats it contested. Kamal Haasan, a versatile and celebrated big actor, launched his own party in 2018 and couldn’t win even one seat out of 36 seats they contested in Tamil Nadu. One could only wonder if Thailava Rajnikanth would also face a similar fate if and when he decided to enter politics.
Why didn’t these new stars succeed when the older ones did?
Let’s look at a few things that changed in this period:
● The socio-economic conditions were very different then when compared to the last couple of decades (Increase in income levels, literacy rate, gender equality etc.).
● People are also more informed now due to easy access to information & technology.
● Control of news and social media narrative – every party owns/gets support from a news channel which promotes the party and its agenda.
● Emergence of strong regional party contenders with a strong support from their own caste groups, while earlier it was mostly a fight against INC or CPI/M which were national parties.
● The most important thing is how their election campaigns were surrounded, the earlier ones were mainly targeting emotions of the electorate – mainly their pride or were centred on social issues faced by the electorate.
● Currently, the political manifesto is nothing but a list of populist schemes and freebies which are more or less extensions of previous schemes.
● Unfortunately now, all parties have similar schemes and agendas so it becomes difficult for people to distinguish what the party stands for and what their ambitions are.
Shooting star amidst normal ones
Amidst all these failures, proving our theory is the story of K Chandrasekhar Rao (though not a movie star). His TRS party achieved a landslide victory, post bifurcation of AP to form Telangana, in 2014 elections. This party won just 10 seats out of 45 seats in 2009 and only remained a minor political player back then.
But soon after the bifurcation, they won twice consecutively with an increasing massive majority, with 63 and 88 seats out of 119 seats in 2014 and 2018 respectively. The reason for this increasing trend as you might have already guessed is that the entire campaign was mainly targeted at ‘Telangana Pride’, an emotional one and not around freebies.
The continued success generally attributes to good governance and implementation of development and welfare policies, but to form a new government from being a nobody, the gameplay must be different. It cannot afford to have a manifesto which looks like an extension of previous schemes or identical to competitors.
Politics is very similar to the corporate business world. It's the ability to chalk out and implement a distinctive differentiation against your competitors that makes or breaks your journey. It is this emotional connect which lays the foundation to target the right audience and build your image and eventually decides whether you win or lose.