Bollywood and the Ballot: India’s Shimmery Election

Bollywood stars are essential to the cultural identity of India, but their involvement in the 2014 election have some questioning the wisdom of the "Bollywood-ification" of politics.

Above: Indian woman in traditional sari dress image from Shutterstock.com.

Bollywood film stars are essential to the cultural identity of India, but their involvement in the 2014 election have some questioning the wisdom of the “Bollywood-ification” of politics.

On 16 May the world learned the results of the largest election ever held. With polling spread out over the course of a month, India’s national general election saw more than 800 million people cast ballots. It takes a lot of people to make an election happen in a vast country of over 1.2 billion people—poll-workers, reporters, not to mention thousands of candidates. But there’s one unexpected group of people central to this election: movie stars.

Bollywood film stars are not just popular in India, they are essential to the cultural identity of the people. And for better or worse, Bollywood films and songs have long been part of Indian politics. But the degree and the manner of Bollywood stars’ involvement in the most recent election have some questioning the wisdom of the escalating “Bollywood-ification” of Indian politics.

Indian cinema has a rich tradition that runs parallel to that of film in Europe and the United States. Shortly after the Lumiere Brothers conducted the first paid public exhibition of motion pictures in Paris at the end of 1895, a similar demonstration ignited the imaginations of the English and Indian aristocracy in Bombay in July of 1896. By 1897, films were being screened throughout cities in India.

Fascinated by the possibilities of this new medium, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke took out a personal loan and traveled to England to study filmmaking. Inspired by a silent film depicting the life of Jesus, Phalke set out to make films that told spoke to Indian audiences with stories taken from classical Hindu literature, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayan. In 1913, the film Raja Harishchandra, a 40-minute silent biopic about the revered king Harishchandra, opened in Bombay. Phalke continued to borrow classic Indian literature and became a prolific filmmaker, opening India’s first film studio and producing five more films before 1920.

But Raja Harishchandra was not the first distinctly Indian film. In 1905 actor and entrepreneur Jamshedji Framji Madan financed the production of a Jyotish Sarkar’s Bengal Partition Movement, shining a light on the ugly ethnic tensions simmering under colonial rule. From its inception, Indian cinema has sought to use the best technology available to tell Indian stories, in Indian languages to an Indian audience.

By the time The Jazz Singer (1927) was released, Indians had already grown accustomed to distinctly Indian films, so it only made sense that the first Indian “talkie”, Alam Ara (1931), would be in Hindi. It would also feature the first Bollywood hit song “De de khuda ke naam per”, with distinctly Indian (tabla, and harmonium) instrumentation.

Over the next 80 years Indian film would become known world-wide, finding fans throughout South Asia, the Indian Diaspora, and communist countries where Bollywood films filled the void left by banned western films. The below clip from the film Shree 420 (1955) features Raj Kapoor, dubbed the Charlie Chaplin of India, lip-synching a performance (as is common in Indian film, where a handful of exceptional “playback singers” record most of the hits but never end appear on film). The song, “Mera Joota Hai Japani” (My Shoes Are Japanese) became an anthem in the newly independent India, and also enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union, where the notion that “the hat on my head is Russian, however my heart is Indian, resonated with those under the thumb of Moscow.

Today India’s billion dollar film industry produces over 1,000 films a year. Films range from the serious: the Gulaab Gang, which is based on the story of a group of women’s rights activists in northern India to the absurd, Yeh Hai Bakrapur, a fitting movie for the election season with a goat, which happens to bare the name of one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, that obtains fame and travels the country collecting the adulation of onlookers.

Action, songs, dance, drama—Bollywood films have it all, not to mention exotic sets, vibrant costuming, and larger than life staging. It’s no wonder that stars who, like Bollywood ‘Dream Girl’ Hema Malini, appear as embodiments of glamour and prosperity on screens in some of the poorest provinces in the world end up ascending to a status nearer to a god. And just as Bollywood’s roots lie in cinematic recreations of classic Hindu texts, the fantastic visual effects of Bollywood films appeals to an Indian aesthetic deeply steeped in Hindu mythology and imagery—as a simple comparison of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses with film promotional posters reveals.

In a largely provincial country, where local customs are quite varied, Bollywood films serve as a sort of cultural glue. So it’s only logical for political parties to turn to the stars of these films to help get out the vote. Indeed, the inclusion of Bollywood stars at political rallies boosts attendance. Not to mention the large social media following many stars have. Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ have become important tools in the election, and just one mention from a Bollywood celeb could be seen by millions.

Numerous film stars have taken advantage of their status to run for office themselves. Former Miss India and Bollywood starlet Gul Panag ran for Congress with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to put an end to corruption. Running against her: Kirron Kher, a well known actor with decades of credits to her name, who hopes to restore honor to the establishment Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Also running for the BJP was India’s “disco king”, Bappi Lahiri, who has been parading around small towns in Sreerampur Lok Sabha constituency, delighting crowds with his populist election anthem “Sreerampur Ke Janai Pronam” (my respectful greetings to the people of Sreerampur). Who wouldn’t vote for this guy?

The participation of celebrities certainly raises interest in the campaign, but will it produce positive results? India suffers from rampant corruption (a recent poll found that 96 percent of Indian’s believed corruption was holding their country back) some stars have been accused of cashing in on their fame. Many stars were conspicuously absent from the country during the opening of the election, opting instead to attend the 15th International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Even if a star’s motives are pure, there are questions to how effectively celebrities can govern. A recent analysis of parliament attendance records conducted by Mint newspaper found that “artists” (a group including actors, musicians, and writers) have the poorest frequency of attendance.

But the stars keep coming: like the activist-actor-turned-politician Nandita Morarji, and Moon Moon Sen—a well-known actor from a powerful family who avoids getting dust in her eyes when campaigning by having roads watered down before her arrival. In an election where more than 100 of the candidates are illiterate and a famous magician was in serious contention for a highly-coveted seat, it would be a hard to call Bollywood stars a distraction.

For now, it’s safe to say that the heightened activity of celebrities has brought even greater excitement to an already monumental campaign. But after the votes were counted, and as the new Indian government begins to take shape, it will be interesting to see if the larger than life campaign delivers real-world results to the Indian people.