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On Film Stars, Politicians, and Gods

Priya Lal

Sometimes, when reality gets too unreal, you have to let unreality become real.

N.T. Rama Rao as Krishna

Okay, okay. I'm a native Californian (shhh, don't tell), so I've been kind of following the media hype surrounding the Golden State's recall race. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gary Coleman, unburied sex scandals � these days I'd rather sink my teeth into the sordid details of the private lives and political aspirations of bad actors than focus on the other headlines, such as those about Iraqi civilians and American soldiers dying in Iraq. The concept of the United States government spending tens of billions on a war against "terror" and the idea of the Terminator in office make my head swim; both possess the same sort of unreality; appearing rehearsed and professionally staged.

Either way, I end up feeling like I'm watching a movie when I read the newspaper. But which plot would I prefer as my reality: war, or a popular uber-hunk running for office? I'll take the latter any day. Amidst all the fuss about Schwarzenegger, I turn, as always, to South Asia for illumination. And after doing so, I can't help but ask, "What's the big deal?" Film stars in politics? Eh, that's nothing new. India has been doing it for years. In India, film stars can even become gods.

That's right. Schwarzenegger may have muscles, a cool Austrian accent, and maybe someday he'll have the Californian gubernatorial seat, but he's far outshined by the record of India's film "heroes" and "heroines". For example, N.T. Rama Rao (popularly known as "NTR"), star of the South Indian Telugu cinema's silver screen, not only served in public office for decades, but he also cultivated an image as a "living god". NTR developed a penchant for working on mythological films early on in his acting career (he played the Lord Krishna 17 different times). After he appeared as the deity of the famous Tirupati temple in the hit Sri Venkateswara Mahatyam, religious folk began adding an extra leg to their pilgrimages to Tirupati � stopping to worship NTR in front of his nearby home!

The first "hero" to infiltrate the Indian political arena was, like NTR, also from the subcontinent's nether regions: the much-fêted M.G. Ramachandran ("MGR") of Tamil Nadu. MGR, who founded an influential regional party and served as the state's Chief Minister, developed a cult-like popular following that culminated in the construction of a small temple built in his name after his death. The shrine, located in the town of Koddikarai, is centered around an image of the actor-politician. It is garnered with party flags as well as malas, holy garlands, and incense. MGR's spirit lives on in politics even today; his fellow actress and mistress, Jayalalitha, is the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

While Dravidians (southern Indians) can legitimately claim the honor of leading the revolution to erase all lines between film, politics, and sheer myth, credit must also be given to their fellow countrymen in higher latitudes � the Bollywooders. Today, Bollywood stars are working equally hard to take this idea of a seamless film star-to-political official continuum a step further � even moving beyond regional politics to the national level. Hindi film legends Amitabh Bachan and Shabana Azmi have both done time as Members of the Legislative Assembly (Azmi is still going strong, actually, but more about her, below). And today, Vinod Khanna and Shatrugan Sinha have earned the distinction of becoming the first of the filmies to make it into the national cabinet, serving as Deputy Minister for Tourism and Minister for Health, respectively.

Ah, India. A step ahead of America and the rest of the world in destroying the public's worship of imaginary boundaries between entertainment and politics, fantasy and truth, fame and power. Are we Westerners, still so far back in the stone ages, that Schwarzenegger's bid for office manages to outrage us? Do we still place so much fanciful weight in the concept of "meritocracy?" For of course, the California recall frenzy is generated by a pervasive feeling of indignation, which necessarily proves the existence of a widespread credence in a "pure" politics that is somehow being sullied by an action hero's bid for office. This tampers with our perception of "pure" reality that is somehow tainted when touched by the unbelievable.

But before I get carried away with potentially grand evolutionary proclamations, let me fill you in a bit more on the spicy subcontinental mix of film stars, electoral campaigns, popularity, and populism that I began speaking of, above. As you read, keep in mind that, as usual, "masala" is the operative metaphor. First, some words about film in India. In short, Bollywood is India. India is Bollywood. By discussing one I am inherently discussing the other. Of course, when I say "Bollywood", I don't mean to marginalize India's splendid array of regional cinemas, like the Tamil and Telugu industries I mentioned above. Rather, I intend instead to encompass the vastness of modern Indian popular culture under the convenient moniker of "Bollywood", which in some ways is kind of the center, the heartbeat of it all.

What is a Bollywood film? There are several crucial elements of every movie produced in the most populous city of India, Bombay, the "Hollywood of the East". (I prefer to think of Hollywood as the Bollywood of the West, but I'll use the reverse heuristically here.) First, the plot. Every Bollywood plot must mix together an excessive reliance on melodramatic formula and a touch of the truly fantastic, the almost preternatural. Genres exist � comedy, tragedy, action, etc. � but not in the sense that we Westerners understand them. Often, they're kind of all mixed together all at once, but one rule is always obeyed: there is ALWAYS a clearly identifiable "hero" and a "villain".

Second, the song and dance. Every Bollywood movie is a musical. There's no getting around the requisite periodic bursts into spontaneous ditties, when actors and actresses morph into vessels for the dubbed voices of pop singers as they perform elaborately choreographed dance routines. During these numbers, the physical setting of the film changes about every five seconds, usually involving either a montage of beautiful nature scenes or landmarks in foreign capitals. The actors and actresses outfits also change with each scene shift. Often, during the "couple" sequences, the heavens open up and rain begins to pour, leaving the hero and heroine wet and quivering as they embrace passionately without ever properly locking lips.

Third, audience participation. "What?" you ask, "how can the audience be an element of the movie itself?" Trust me, it just is. The yelling, dancing, and constant spoken commentary that go on in cinema halls across India are inextricable aspects of the entire filmic experience. So is the unceasing stream of film star gossip that flows in an unbroken line from the northern peaks of the Himalayas through the slums of Calcutta to the beaches of Goa. And so is the public singing; the passing around of film songs between rickshaw drivers on the streets and old aunties in the home.

Okay, so what does any of this have to do with Schwarzenegger or deifications of politicians in the state of Tamil Nadu? And what was all that stuff above about Bollywood being India and India being Bollywood?

Films produced in Mumbai (a.k.a. Bombay) share the three qualities I described above with films produced in different languages by India's regional cinema industries. All employ what I once heard someone refer to as an "excess of signification", and all challenge our understanding of the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. The most difficult thing to grasp about film in India is what exactly goes on during that "suspension of disbelief". What allows viewers to greedily inhale the melodrama, the silliness, the extravagance, and the formulas, while never failing to cheer on the heroes and heroines in the end when they inevitably triumph in their Manichean struggle against the bad guys? I'm not going to attempt to cram a dissertation into a paragraph here, but I want to suggest that whatever it is that takes place in South Asian movie theaters has more than a little bit do to with what goes on during electoral campaigning in India. Perhaps it's not so much a question of suspending disbelief as it is one of stretching belief. And perhaps Americans have something to learn from all of this.

The lesson is really quite simple. Sometimes, when reality gets too unreal, you have to let unreality become real. In India, and I risk sounding unforgivably vague here, I think the public lives the kinds of life that forces them to recognize that there are two sides to every coin; that there are hidden narratives in every story. The formal economy obscures the black market, but they're simultaneous realities. Secularism in name conceals communalism in practice. Respect for female honor shrouds institutionalized violence against women. City skyscrapers tower over acres of slums. And, of course, "democracy" masks corruption, "meritocracy" veils nepotism, and "good" shrouds "evil". But, nonetheless, they all coexist in the same messy universe that is modern India.

So, the question is, why fight the superficial manifestations of the absurd, the unbelievable? Is it not better to surrender to the dualisms, embrace the contradictions, and then proceed from there? I don't need to talk about the myriad ways in which India could use more than a touch of political reform, more than a spot of social change. But will insisting upon the superiority of politicians that come from rich, upper-caste, patriarchal, elitist backgrounds with extensive networks of family connections, to politicians who used film stardom as a stepping stone to office, really aid the process of democratization in the country? If the people aren't going to stage a revolution, perhaps they'd be better off using the system to bring it closer to them.

There are those who argue that the numb-dumb American and Indian mass voters are too easily duped by the presence of movie stars, and will therefore elect into power parties with agendas contrary to their own interests. But I tend to view such criticism as reductive and cynical, for the same reasons that one might be wary of high culture pundits who argue that mass popular culture (like Bollywood's fantastic formulaic flicks) is the post-Marxist opium of the people (the spectacle as fascist, the signifier as sedative, and so on). The point is that people participate in the spectacle of Indian cinema, and they use the song and dance and fantasy in meaningful ways in their own lives. The same principle, to a large extent, applies to a voting citizenry's relationship with the spectacle of electoral campaigning. If a film star is more accessible to the public than, say, Sonia Gandhi (the current Italian-born Congress party chief who doesn't even speak Hindi and is in her current position only because she is the wife of the assassinated ex-Prime Minister who was the son of Indira Gandhi who was the daughter of the first Prime Minister. . .) and wants to use that accessibility to effect positive social change, then more power to the film star.

Just because entertainers engage the electorate doesn't mean their political campaigns always have to evade the issues. As a prime example I hold up the political career of my favorite filmy queen, whose name I cited briefly above: the lovely, outspoken, and famed Shabana Azmi. Ms. Azmi, the daughter of leftist, politically engaged Urdu poet Kafi Azmi and actress Shaukat Azmi, is a rarity in Indian cinema and even more of a rarity in Indian politics. Certainly, in her 30-year film career, she's been one of those "arty" types (everything that's not Bollywood-style cinema in India is subsumed under the moniker of "art cinema"), but she's done her fair share of time in Bollywood. In her Bollywood flicks, such as C.P. Dixit's hugely successful Fakira (1976), she's earned her widespread popular fame. But in her arty pieces she's challenged gender roles and sexual taboos, revealed social injustices, and championed the dispossessed. And, surprise � she's made it to the Indian Parliament, where as an MLA she's been a firm fighter of religious communalism, the oppression of women, and the marginalization of the poor.

Okay, so Azmi is exceptional. After all, not every film star to enter politics gets a Special Retrospective program of the New York Film Festival in conjunction with the Human Rights Film Festival dedicated to them under the title, "The Artist as Activist". But Azmi's example, I think, does demonstrate that what's wrong with Schwarzenegger running for office is not that he's trying to ride his filmy fame to the higher crests of political power. It's that he's wrong on his issues. Though Schwarzenegger's been vague thus far, we know at least that he's anti-gay marriage and pro-prayer in school. He supports the death penalty, voted for California's insidious Proposition 187 to deny illegal aliens basic social services, and his rigorous fiscal conservatism sounds suspiciously like it might develop into free-market libertarianism.

Amidst the hype generated by Schwarzenegger's celebrity status, surprisingly few voices in the media are asking about the superstar's stance on the real issue of the day: the war in Iraq. I can't help but wonder what is going on in a country where the public demands highly un-Bollywood-like subtlety and realism (none of this hyper-formulaic hero/villain acting or song and dance) in their movies, but concedes bombastic Manicheanism and science fiction figures for their President's war spending. And now that we're on the subject of "W", let's take a closer look at how he got to where he is, anyway. Hint: two words � Daddy and Dollars � give the secret away. Dynastic politics, the politics of nepotism, reign supreme in India, and that phenomenon isn't as foreign to America as one might like to think. Besides Bush, take the example of the entire Kennedy family. And don't forget that Al Gore's father, Senator Al Gore Sr., paved the way for the former's entrance into politics (for more examples of nepotism in American politics, see Are family connections a more legitimate channel to power than the rise of fame is for an entertainer? Or are Americans just in denial about the fact that behind their national myth of individual social mobility lies the less romantic reality that being born into the right circumstances might be what really counts?

I wrote earlier, masala is the driving force behind Indian popular culture and politics. I'll add religion to that mix, albeit at the risk of seeming blasphemous. How else could the twin giants, NGR and MGR make it from movie star to divinity incarnate, from politician to "god"? Several factors make these transitions possible, not the least being the happy syncretic possibilities inherent in the versatile polytheism of Hinduism and the tendency towards populism in Indian politics.

A key factor in the whole film-to-politics phenomenon, though, is the willingness of the Indian public to entertain the "unscientific" and accept that reality doesn't always measure up to the idealized version of an equal opportunity paradise that the US advertises itself to be. In a country where film stars are sometimes literally worshipped and politicians develop cult-like followings, however, such acceptance doesn't have to translate into political impassivity. In the final assessment, after all, film-star Azmi's ardent supporters are dedicated to positive social change and letting their suppressed voices be heard in a way that non-filmy Sonia Gandhi's placid, status-quo Congress party-wallahs aren't.

Similarly, the fact that Indians can bend the rules of something so distant and rigid as religion to view humans � themselves � as their own Gods, doesn't have to be dismissed as a mark of quack primitivism. Which is the more enlightened: supporting a President who uses our tax dollars to bomb innocent civilians, or refusing to believe in the existence in an artificial line between ourselves and the divine? Is celebrating politics as a separate sphere from the less "rational" arena of popular film somehow a mark of superior cultural development? Americans, take another look.

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