Celebrity Power in Indian Elections

Salman Khan (center), a Bollywood super star, campaigns in support of Congress party candidate Milind Deora at a rally in Mumbai.

Salman Khan (center), a Bollywood super star, campaigns in support of Congress party candidate Milind Deora at a rally in Mumbai

Photo by Al Jazeera English and used under a creative commons license.

In India movie stars and filmmakers wield enormous influence and that point was drawn dramatically by Danny Boyle in the movie Slumdog Millionaire (hint: it is the toilet scene). Interestingly, the entertainment industry's (especially Bollywood or the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai) involvement in Indian politics was pretty marginal with a few a actors and some film makers participating in the election campaign process. But, there was an exception. The Southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is the first state in the world to effectively harness and use the film medium for political purposes right from the 1940s. During the late 1960s this nexus between politicians and the Tamil film industry reaped handsome dividends for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and led to the formation of the first non-Congress government in the state. Since then various offshoots of DMK party have alternately been in power in Tamil Nadu. By the 1980s there was a steady trickle of entertainers into the political arena. In some cases they successfully contested and formed governments (like NTR and his Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh) or were voted/nominated to the Indian Parliament.

Fast forward to 2009 and the involvement of entertainers from Bollywood (or the Hindi film industry) based in Mumbai and the Tamil and Telugu film industry have registered a significant spike in the election campaign. Telugu actor Chiranjeevi launched a new political party in Andhra Pradesh, while Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt failed to get nominated because of his criminal record in the 1993 Mumbai blast. In Tamil Nadu former actress and Chief Minister Jayalalitha is in the running after being defeated in the previous elections. But, it is the involvement of Bollywood folks that has captured peoples’ imagination.

Bollywood actor cum blogger Amitabh Bachchan offers a glimpse of his thoughts on the upcoming Indian elections. He writes:

“The elections are upon us. Elections in the largest and most thriving democracy in the world. TV has nothing else to offer but the electoral scenario unfolding upon us. Exit polls and analysis and who will win from where and who said what to whom and why. Even the media questionnaires that come across to us are full of queries on politics. Friends have become foes, foes have become friends. Games and manipulations all parties play to come to power. To win for the next 5 years and remain in governance. To them politics is an aphrodisiac, an elixir, that compels them to perform.”

Bachchan's wife Jaya Bachchan has been active politically for a few years now.

What could be the driving force that has prompted so many Bollywood actors to step out of their comfort zone and do their bit for this Indian election campaign? Gaurav Shukla of India Election 2009 might have unearthed the answer to that question. He writes:

“Celebrities who used to keep politics at an arms length have surprisingly chosen to rally around the need to vote this time. Industry experts suggest that the Mumbai terror attacks in November last year may be the reason for this change…Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, John Abraham, Kamal Haasan, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Anurag Kashyap, Shriya Sharan, Shruti Haasan and Sushmita Sen are among those who have joined the chorus.”

Bollywood actor Aamir Khan helped launch a voter awareness campaign for Association of Democratic reforms with the tagline: “Sachche ko chune, Achche ko chune” — meaning “vote for the honest, vote for good people.” Besides being the face and voice of the voter awareness campaign, Khan went one step further and helped produce the videos and audio pieces. AamirKhanblog writes:

“The ads have been made by the actor’s production company, Aamir Khan Productions, free of cost. An ‘A’ list Bollywood ensemble has put together this campaign. The creative head is Prasoon Joshi of McCann Erickson, Rakyesh Mehra is the director, Avinash Gowarikar the still photographer, and Shashi Sinha of Lodestar Media the media planner for the campaign. Everybody is working for the campaign gratis.

The ad campaign is being aired in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Assamese and Oriya so that it can reach out to the masses.”

Aamir Khan, who is also a blogger reminds Indian voters to make an informed choice when they cast their post. He wrote in his blog post:

To all Indians, remember to vote, and make an informed choice. Meaning, check out all the candidates from your area before you decide who to vote for.

Khan is vacationing in Montana, but according to media reports will fly back to Mumbai and cast his vote on April 30th, the day the commercial and entertainment capital of India goes to the polls.

Besides Khan, a whole slew of Bollywood actors and filmmakers have volunteered their time for various election mobilization and awarness programs. Perhaps, the most significant one is the involvement of the entertainment industry in the non-profit organization called Jaagore (that translates to “Wake up”). The NGO has created powerful short video clips like this one where Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor points out that average age an Indian is 23 years old, while the average age of a a cabinet minister in the Federal Governmnet is 62 years old.

Or, watch this video clip by Bollywood film director Rakeysh Omprakash, where he points out that in the state of Rajasthan a politician won the elections by one vote.

This post is part of the Global Voices special coverage on Indian Elections 2009


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