Stars on the campaign ground

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Rasheed Kidwai has hit upon the clever idea of a book on popular Bollywood stars who played a role in national politics — a sound recipe for a bestseller.

Title: Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics
Author: Rasheed Kidwai
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 384
Price: Rs 599

Rasheed Kidwai, a fellow political journalist and friend, also happens to be a film buff. And he has hit upon the clever idea of a book on popular Bollywood stars who played a role in national politics — a sound recipe for a bestseller. With an eye for detail and an elephantine memory, Kidwai makes a compelling raconteur. His book is laced with juicy anecdotes explaining how actors fared as they transitioned from the red carpet to the dusty campaign trail.

Actually, the earlier generation of actors were part-time politicians. Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Nargis joined politics because of their loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family. All three were nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Kapoor was one of the few men who could dare to crack a joke about our first prime minister to his face. Kumar, unlike Kapoor, made little impact in Parliament. He was happy to campaign for any Congress candidate when asked, though he could barely remember their names. On a campaign trip for Sanjay Gandhi in Amethi in 1977, he found no one at the airport to receive him. He humbly waited for the bus for two hours. Kumar, like many stars who came up around the time of Partition, including Meena Kumari, Madhubala and Johnnie Walker, were given new names to hide their Muslim identities. Devika Rani, owner of the Bombay Talkies studio in 1943, persuaded a reluctant Yusuf Khan to adopt a name to which the audience could relate. As a result, Khan’s own father was initially unaware of his son’s new profession.

Nargis, a committed social worker, was such a favourite of Indira Gandhi that she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1980 even though Amitabh Bachchan’s mother, Teji Bachchan, a close family friend, was hoping for the seat. Actually, it was Nargis and her husband Sunil Dutt who persevered in helping Amitabh get a break in Bollywood, after Indira phoned Nargis asking for help for Teji’s son. In fact, cinema folks, including those with the Filmfare Talent Contest and BR Chopra, could not spot any star potential in the gangly youth with unconventional looks. Kidwai recounts how Amitabh once attended a film party with a fair-complexioned friend. A film director who was present wanted to hire his friend over Amitabh for a role and even offered a signing amount. The friend was Rajiv Gandhi.

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In contrast to Sunil Dutt, Nargis and Kumar who entered politics purely because of their faith in the Nehru-Gandhi family, Dev Anand and Shatrughan Sinha were intuitively political. Anand courageously refused to take part in a Sanjay Gandhi event at the height of the Emergency. He was consequently victimised. Doordarshan blacklisted his films and All India Radio was instructed to expunge his name. In 1977, Anand was among the very first big Bollywood names to come out openly in election rallies against the ruling party and share a dais with Jayaprakash Narayan, whom he admired deeply. By 1980, Anand was disgusted with all politicians and floated his own party, the National Party of India, which closed shop within months.

Sinha was also closely associated with Narayan, a fellow Bihari. He befriended prominent student leaders of the JP movement such as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Sinha waited shrewdly for his film career to peter out before taking on politics full time. He retained his clout in the BJP for over two decades, becoming a minister in Vajpayee’s government. Because of his star appeal, Sinha was excused from blindly toeing the party line. But after he was not made a minister in 2014 by prime minister Narendra Modi, he got increasingly embittered. He was not asked to campaign in the Bihar Assembly polls and, shortly afterwards, he turned into a full-fledged rebel.

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In the case of the two leading star couples — Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri, and Dharmendra and Hema Malini — ironically, the husbands had short, unsuccessful stints in politics while the wives blossomed. Bhaduri, in particular, turned out to be politically very savvy. She is now in her third term in the Rajya Sabha and has earned a reputation for being an informed and conscientious parliamentarian who knew how to stay on the right side of the changing equations in the Samajwadi Party. Kidwai’s chapter on the intriguing ups and downs of the close relationship between the Bachchans and the Gandhis is engrossing.

Kidwai, though, does not always stick to politics in the book. He also branches out into the details of the actors’ careers and convoluted love lives. Since some of the juicy revelations are culled from other sources, the author, who took five years to write the book, is not always in a position to authenticate the facts. But it makes for a jolly good read.

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