Blockbuster Politics: How the BJP Cashes in on Bollywood’s Popularity and Why Congress Fails

Politics

Blockbuster Politics: How the BJP Cashes in on Bollywood’s Popularity and Why Congress Fails

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In a 2011 interview, the cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle told a reporter, “Sports teaches us there is always a second innings in life.” Bhogle, if he follows politics, would perhaps agree that this second inning is best played in the underwhelming annals of the many parties that constitute Indian politics – especially, and of late the BJP.

The news of former actress Isha Koppikar of the Kya Kool Hai Hum and Krishna Cottage fame joining the BJP points to the party’s capacity to attract has-beens, obsolete specimens from the world of showbiz. People who seem primed to repeat the modest success of their previous careers, all for the possibility of a little momentum that their antique stardom can be mined for. That said, the BJP’s ability to coax former celebrities into starting these new innings’ (Koppikar is 42 by the way) that they might retire into, only reflects poorly on the Congress’ ability to not.  

In comparison to the Congress, the BJP has always enjoyed support from popular celebrities. Paresh Rawal has in the last four years, morphed from the man who has made us laugh (Babu Bhaiya from Hera Pheri, remember) to a sullen bore, who makes us cringe and cribs incessantly about everything under the sun, other than the magnanimity of the Prime Minister. He will act in a film like Manto but publicly denounce everything Saadat Hasan Manto stood for. His peer Anupam Kher, who still continues to put out stellar work both nationally and internationally, has, as if on a steroidal trip of forced rediscovery, become so obsessed with the BJP’s agenda that he has come to live multiple lives – he will lap up everything Hollywood has to offer, even playing father to Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, but will not hesitate to hit out at “pro-Pakistan” Indians like Gurmehar Kaur.  

narendra_modi

The BJP’s focus is not on minds but faces with reputations that though worn can still tip social media trends.

Image Credits: Getty Images

Then there is Smriti Irani, once India’s favourite TV bahu, former singer Babul Supriyo, and Bhojpuri actor and singer from Bihar, Manoj Tiwari. Kher’s wife, Kirron is already a Lok Sabha member and names like Akshay Kumar and Nana Patekar (no longer perhaps) have been in the recent past proposed as potential contestants for the upcoming elections. Kumar has already done his bit for the party with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, a factually incorrect paean to PM Narendra Modi’s pet project, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The strategy to convert popular celebrities into the party’s unofficial spokespersons, as succinctly as it is possible to put, is to make hay while the “stars” shine.

It is well worth considering why Modi’s firmament continues to attract these personalities. Other than the fact that politics seems a convenient second glove to wear in the cold of a fading career, the BJP, compared to the hapless Congress, is clearly the more attractive destination. The reasons behind it are several. Firstly, a majority of these celebrities are upper-caste Hindus, a faction the party both constitutes and supports outright. The possibility, thus, of a Naseeruddin Shah seeking a silver lining in this orange cloud, as has been proven recently, is minimal.

Self-interest might be the predominant reason movie stars take the political plunge because populist movements are ideal to resurrect or even honourably retire from yawningly outdated careers.

Secondly, the BJP’s monopolisation of the hyper-nationalistic sentiment is the kind of bottomless well that artists love to scream into, until kingdom come. Bollywood has had more one-night-stands with patriotism than anyone else. It is a match made in heaven, where the “josh” is always high. Then there is the PM’s very public courting of the entertainment class, not to mention how the party has turned to cinema as electoral bait. One month into election year, and we’ve already seen The Accidental Prime Minister, a movie on the flaws on former PM Manmohan Singh, that saw the BJP double up as the film’s publicist, and Uri that endorses the 2016 surgical strikes. Can you really ignore the timing of the release of the two films?   

On the other side, the case of the radioactive Congress is a curious one. The seemingly secular party of the country has no takers. Even the Bachchans – Amitabh Bachchan won an election on a Congress ticket in 1984 and Jaya Bachchan joined the Samajwadi Party – have remained aloof despite the family’s old friendship with the Gandhis. Sunil Dutt was probably the last actor-turned-politician from the party who was admired by the aam aadmi. The politics of Congress’s social media head Divya Spandana Ramya, an actress in Kannada films, seems to be restricted only to Twitter. You can’t possibly call her a people’s politician. And Raj Babbar, with a gift to court controversies, is as big a hit as a neta as he was as an actor.

narendra_modi

The strategy to convert popular celebrities into the party’s unofficial spokespersons is to make hay while the “stars” shine.

Image Credits: Karan Johar/Twitter

Contrast this with film associations elsewhere – Britain and America for now – where it is not unusual for artists to side with anti-establishment or liberal movements. It is rare, however, for an Indian artist to take an anti-establishment position, as Om Puri learnt the hard way. Self-interest might be the predominant reason movie stars take the political plunge because populist movements are ideal to resurrect or even honourably retire from yawningly outdated careers.

Meanwhile, the BJP’s focus is clearly on cloning popularity. Its focus is thus, not on minds, but faces with reputations that though worn can still tip social media trends. Trends that the BJP, unlike the Congress, knows can turn an election on its head.

The Congress, at least some of its relatively younger leaders like Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, and the Gandhi siblings themselves, at least on paper, ought to be at least equally attractive. The failure to do so must elicit questioning in the party. The BJP, for all its dearth of intellectuals and liberals to foreground, has found the perfect fit in celebrities: They relay the message, can put on a performance, and are unlikely to challenge power internally (or will wait for as long as Shatrughan Sinha has) – a win-win.

The Congress, on the other hand is either too slow or too callous to ignore the possibilities that this low-hanging fruit offers. Koppikar’s induction is evidence that the BJP doesn’t mind wearing outdated hats, as long as it candidly glitters a bit and draws in a fair bit of attention, maybe even curiosity. The Congress, albeit in cynical hindsight, would do well to take note, reach out, and maybe once in a while click a viral selfie with the stars.

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