In 1984, Amitabh Bachchan, who happened to be a family friend of Rajeev Gandhi, contested the Lok Sabha election from Allahabad constituency at the latter’s request. Bachchan’s decision to take the political plunge surprised many because he was the reigning superstar of Bollywood at that time and had never before expressed any inclination to join politics. Bachchan won the election by a record margin of 1,87,895 votes, by defeating Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna. However, he resigned in 1987, following a smear campaign over the Bofors gun deal.
A similar thread runs through the brief political career of Mithun Chakraborty as well, who was nominated to Rajya Sabha in 2014 by the All India Trinamool Congress. Mithun resigned from Parliament in 2016 in the wake of the Saradha scam. The actor was the brand ambassador of the Saradha Group, which ran a Ponzi scheme that went bust in 2013. Now, as was expected, Mithun has joined the BJP ahead of the assembly polls in West Bengal. Another instance of a film star switching parties with quicksilver dexterity.
Not only Mithun, in the last one month, film actors and TV stars from Kolkata have joined the BJP and the TMC with an avidity unseen and unheard of in the city’s turbulent political history. Tergiversation seems to be the name of the game in the state. Writing in a national daily about the star rush at the political turnstiles in Bengal, national award-winning filmmaker Ashoke Viswanathan says that film artistes and TV stars are vying with each other to acquire a political umbrella of some sort. If we remember, actors like Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Chhabi Biswas always preferred to stay out of politics in their heyday.
This brings us to the important question: Are those young and not-so-young film stars, who have joined either of these parties really that politically inclined and well-informed enough to serve the interest of their respective parties? What do they plan to bring to the table? The popular Tollywood actor Yash Dasgupta, who joined the BJP recently, expressed concern over lack of employment in the state. He also said that the reason he chose to join the party is because BJP gives youngsters the chance to work for people.
To any discerning and dispassionate observer of the political scenario, the flimsy filmy tamasha that is currently playing out in Bengal has to do with winning votes and nothing else. It is as clear as daylight. In fact, both the BJP and TMC have pulled out all stops out in tom-tomming their achievement at having roped in film and TV stars and turncoats in their respective parties. These film personalities have oodles of charisma which politicians lack. So, these stars inject the right dose of excitement and curiosity into their political campaigns by acting as crowd-pullers.
If we go by the record of attendance of film stars in Parliament in the last two decades, actors like Govinda, Rekha, Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha were mostly conspicuous by their absence. They hardly participated in debates during parliamentary session. In the two years that he had been a member of Rajya Sabha before he resigned, Mithun attended Parliament for all of three days. It seems that filmstars hardly bother to step out of the aura of their mystique. As health and family welfare minister in the Vajpayee Cabinet, Shatrughan Sinha had to be reminded to be present in the Lok Sabha by then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan.
Perhaps Shabana Azmi remains the only exception who, as an MP, hardly skipped any debate in Parliament. She would always take a stand on issues of public importance. Hema Malini is another actor who is a regular in Parliament and attends most of the debates. In 2017, the then Samajwadi Party MP Naresh Agrawal even went to the extent of saying that film actors should resign if they were not interested in Parliament. In January 2016, residents of Pathankot were upset with Gurdaspur MP, the late Vinod Khanna for not visiting his constituency after the terror attack on the IAF base that left seven security personnel dead.
In both Bollywood and Tollywood, film actors hardly have had any serious involvement in politics. They were never in it for the long haul. Sunil Dutt perhaps stood out from the crowd in this respect. In 1987, the actor, who was a Congress MP from the constituency of Mumbai North West, grabbed headlines when he undertook a 2,000-km long arduous Mahashanti Padyatra across India. In 1993, Dutt, taking moral responsibility for his failure to prevent the Hindu-Muslim riots in his constituency, resigned as MP. He visited the riot-affected in Malad, pleading for peace, hands folded.
In the south, actors-turned-politicians like MG Ramachandran and Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu were exceptions on the political landscape, who proved themselves as successful chief ministers in their eventful political careers. People of the state had immense faith in their political capabilities and commitments. What we are witnessing in Bengal is nothing but cynical exploitation of glamour for political gains. But will it be that easy to pull the wool over the eyes of the Bengal electorate?
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.