The South North Divide


While the film stars of Tamil Nadu and the now bifurcated Andhra Pradesh have ruled the political waves, despite being equally as crazed, none of the north Indian film stars have succeeded in politics

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)

The big picture of Indian politics shows that film stars play a bigger role in south India than in the north. It is both true and not-so-true like everything else in the country. It is only in Tamil Nadu and in former Andhra Pradesh that film stars became chief ministers. MG Ramachandran (1977-88) and J Jayalalithaa (1991-96; 2001-2006; 2011-2016) in Tamil Nadu and NT Rama Rao (1983-84; 1985-89; 1994-95) in Andhra Pradesh. In the other two south Indian states, Karnataka and Kerala, there was no breakthrough for the film stars, though there was speculation that Kannada superstar Raj Kumar and Malayalam superstar Prem Nazir would plunge into politics, but they did not.

The story of Hindi film stars, mainly from mainstream (read commercial cinema of Mumbai) is almost like a footnote in the politics of north India. Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Jayaprada, Jaya Bhaduri have all made their entry into politics, and excepting Rajesh Khanna, all of them have entered Parliament as candidates of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and Samajwadi Party.

But they were all on the margins of their parties. They were not leaders as Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Rama Rao were. In contrast to their domineering presence in the celluloid world, they were almost bit players in the political arena.

Film Power

The question is: why have film stars in south India stormed into power based on their popularity, and why did the stars in the north fail to shine as brightly? There are interesting sociological reasons for this. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) used cinema to spread its political message among the people, and DMK founder CN Annadurai understood the power of cinema. The only other leader who understood the political power of cinema was Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, whose focus of Agitprop was of the ilk of Eisenstein and his revolutionary film Battleship Potemkin. Ramachandran was the face on the silver screen of the DMK. The major reason behind his huge popularity was that he only played pro-poor roles; he would not be seen chasing women in the films; it is only the heroines who would be in dream sequences of craving to meet him. He was also never seen drinking or smoking in his films. But this close link between DMK and Tamil cinema lasted for about two decades, through the 1950s and 1960s. Jyalalithaa became a star at a time when political messaging in Tamil cinema was declining. There was no link between a political party and Telugu cinema, as was between the DMK and Tamil films. When Rama Rao formed his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in May, 1982, and formed the government in January, 1983, it was the political vacuum in Andhra politics that paved the way for his success. Of course, his constant portrayal of himself in his films as Lord Krishna did help. By the time he entered politics at the age of 60, Rama Rao was no more a superstar, though he was immensely popular among the poor people,

as was Ramachandran among

the poor Tamil people.

People’s Connect

The cinematic charisma of MGR, Jayalalithaa and Rama Rao was only a part of the reason for their political success. It was their political engagement that sustained their careers in the corridors of power.

It is this lack of political engagement on the part of Hindi film stars that is the main reason for their marginal presence in politics in the north.

Political commentators have been inclined to make the generalisation that people in the south are crazy about films, and therefore they fall for the charm of film stars in politics, and that the people of north India are more discerning and politically savvy, and therefore they are not impressed by film stars. The issue is much more complicated. There are deeper sociological reasons for the disconnect between the Hindi film stars and the Hindi viewership.

Mumbai-based mainstream Hindi cinema is cosmopolitan. Its audience is spread across the country, and Hindi-speaking north India is not its main base.

The main reason is that there are not too many film halls across north India compared to the south. The main form of entertainment for the south Indian villager is cinema. It is not so in the Hindi heartland. In rural north India, cinema is a distant phenomenon. Hindi cinema does not touch the lives of the villagers in the Hindi heartland because it has no political message to offer them which is potent enough. North India remains socially and politically conservative. The message of rebellion and revolution at the social level, the main focus of cinema in many of the south Indian languages, especially in Tamil, has not broken the conservative barriers of villages in the north.

People’s Disconnect

It can be argued from a sociological point of view that cinema is a powerful agent of social change in a society, and that its potential for social change has been used more effectively in Tamil, Marathi and Bangla more than it was in Hindi. Hindi films could not play the role of a social catalyst because its audience was urban and spread across many languages and regions.

As they are forced to cater to a larger, multi-lingual audience, Hindi cinema does not make a direct emotional connect with the audiences, as did Tamil movies with a political message. There are fewer politically-oriented films in Hindi than in Tamil, though in the 1950s, many of the Hindi films did project the socialist message of the Nehruvian era. The north Indian audiences do not identify with the hero/heroine and message of a movie as they do in Tamil. Secondly, none of the Hindi film stars who came into politics came into it because of their passion for politics, as it was in the case of MGR, Jayalalithaa and NTR.

Amitabh Bachchan came in because his friend Rajiv Gandhi asked him to do so. Shatrughan Sinha has shown a certain flair for politics but it is not deep enough. The only man who showed political commitment was Sunil Dutt, who fought elections for more than two decades and connected with the electorate in North West Mumbai not as a film star but as a social worker. Dutt remains an exception in the glamorous Mumbai film world. He was a dedicated politician. Politics was not a hobby for him, as it seems to be for many other Hindi film stars flitting in and out of politics in the north.

The only other person who shows the same kind of political engagement in the manner of Dutt is the former television diva, Smriti Irani of the BJP. The party might have recruited her for her glamour quotient in 2014 but she soon outgrew that limited iconic status and she has shown political grit when she fought the Lok Sabha election against Congress stalwart Kapil Sibal in Chandni Chowk in 2009 and again against Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2014, though she lost in both the contests. But she persisted. She has shown political ambition which is generally not seen in film stars.

Major Vacuum

The dominance of MGR and Jayalalithaa has created a leadership vacuum in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) as can be seen from the present plight of the ruling party in Tamil Nadu since the death of Jayalalithaa. In the rest of the country, political leaders emerge without the need for cinematic charisma. The emergence of a political leadership in Tamil Nadu, which is not connected with cinema, will remain a major challenge.

It seems that unlike in its early days, when cinema was used for projecting a political and social message, it is now mere entertainment, and film stars are no more than entertainers.

Aamir Khan may be an exception with his Rang de Basanti right through 3 Idiots to Dangal. But he has not shown any political inclination. Political parties may want to use them during election campaigns for their glamour but the film stars are not expected to either garner votes or become serious politicians.

But it would be unfair to dismiss cinema as mere fluff. Both cinema and television reflect the rapidly changing Indian society and much more accurately than politicians can ever hope to do. There is much that politicians can learn about Indian society from cinema and television. It needs to be emphasised that greater exposure to cinema and television in north India will help the people in the Hindi heartland to break out of their age-old prejudices. People in north India are both suspicious and afraid of cinema and television because they know that they can shatter their traditions and prejudices.


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