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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 01:22 GMT 02:22 UK
Bollywood and politics: Marriage or an affair?

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

Her father was an aeronautical engineer, her siblings are doctors, and she studied political science at a northern Indian university.

Poonam Dhillon
Poonam Dhillon - 'a star can motivate people'

But with her comely looks Poonam Dhillon opted for a career in Bollywood, the world's most prolific film industry which cranks out some 1,000 movies a year from the western Indian city of Bombay, also known as Mumbai.

Nine years and some 90 films later, Dhillon quit films, settled into domesticity, and plunged into politics soon after.

She joined the India's main opposition Congress party and stayed, as she says, "pretty inactive" for two years.

This year, she joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Now she vows to devote more time and attention to politics and says her political science background will come of use.

Unlikely collection

Dhillon is one of the nearly two dozen film stars who have decided to join political parties ahead of the general elections in India.

They are an unlikely collection of retired stars, out-of-work actors, and some former beauty queens-turned struggling performers.

Actor Govinda will be contesting for the opposition Congress party

Subbirami Reddy, a Congress party parliamentarian and film producer who claims to have signed up 14 film stars to his party, says actors are more politically conscious today.

"Previously, film stars did not read anything or show interest in politics. Today, they are educated and understand politics," says Mr Reddy.

It makes sense then, he says candidly, for parties to approach them because "every star has a following and can bring in the crowds".

That is possibly the reason that most of the stars are going to campaign in the elections, but not go as far as standing as candidates.

One exception is Govinda, a popular comic hero, who is contesting against a powerful federal minister in a Bombay constituency.

These days, the star is hopping on and off the crowded Bombay trains to mingle with passengers and whip up support.

There he recounts his own rags to riches story when he would travel to work in a train "whistling Hindi songs".

When the journey ends, his understanding of the problems of the people is disarmingly simple.

"Nothing has changed in the train. People are same, problems are same," says Govinda.

Politics as spectacle

In an election bereft of substantive issues rousing the voters or polarising the parties, Bollywood stars are expected to draw crowds and generate some excitement.

Dharmendra - with the BJP in Rajasthan

"This is all about reducing politics to a spectacle. This election is like a plot-less, message-less political movie which needs extras (politicians) to liven up the proceedings," sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan told BBC News Online.

Many of the stars who have joined parties seem to be ignorant about important events in Indian history, or even their party's political allies.

Veteran actor Suresh Oberoi, who has joined the BJP, was asked by a reporter why December 6, 1992 (the day a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya was torn down on that day by Hindu nationalists triggering off the worst bout of communal rioting in India since Independence) was an important date.

"Why is it important?" Mr Oberoi wondered.

'Couldn't handle it

Bollywood's tryst with politics has been chequered so far.

Jayaprada (Samajwadi Party)
Manoj Kumar (BJP)
Asrani (Congress)
Zeenat Aman (Congress)
Govinda (Congress)
Celina Jaitley (Congress)
Namrata Shirodkar (Congress)
Sharad Kapoor (Congress)
Moushumi Chatterjee (Congress)
Yukhta Mookhey (BJP)
Hema Malini (BJP)
Sudha Chandran (BJP)
Suresh Oberoi (BJP)
Jeetendra (BJP)
Poonam Dhillon (BJP)
Dharmendra (BJP)
Om Puri (Congress)

In the mid 1980's, Bollywood's biggest star Amitabh Bachchan fought the elections on a Congress party ticket from his northern hometown of Allahabad.

He won convincingly.

He quit midway through his term in the parliament after realising that "that politics wasn't about emotion, it was a much bigger game and I possibly couldn't handle it".

Today there are just a handful of Bollywood stars-turned elected politicians, including two federal ministers, who belong to the BJP.

This is a far cry from southern India, which has its own thriving film industry.

Here the lines between politics and cinema have been traditionally blurred.

Southern cinema, particularly in Tamil Nadu, has been freely used as an instrument for propaganda for a party or caste-based ideology.

The present chief minister of the state, J Jayalalitha, was once a star actress and her mentor MG Ramachandran, who also ruled the state, was a stage actor turned movie star.

When Mr Ramachandran died, two million people turned out for his funereal.

Former chief minister M Karunanidhi was a film scriptwriter. Actor NT Rama Rao ruled over the Andhra Pradesh state for a long time.

"In the south, cinema is entertainment and a political movement. In fact, the political movement takes precedence. A Bollywood star joining politics is more of a spectacle around a charismatic personality. He or she is not a catalyst of change," says Shiv Vishwanathan.

'Fading novelty value'

Poonam Dhillon disagrees.

"I know the media perception of filmstars in politics is a bit negative because of the hordes of actors joining parties," Dhillion told BBC News Online.

"But a star can motivate people, highlight a cause, raise funds for a project easily because people love us. We can be of so much good use," she says.

Analysts like Mr Vishwanathan have no doubt that the majority of these stars will vanish "into thin air" once the elections are over.

"They will not make any difference to how the people vote. Their novelty will fade fast. The voters' attention span is also very small these days," he says.

Even the stars possibly are aware of that.

Poonam Dhillon, for example, says she will continue to do television and theatre even as she pursues a political career.

"I will keep time off every month to pursue politics long term. I am not here for short-term gains," she says.

History, however, suggests otherwise.

Who would be the best prime minister?
Amitabh Bachchan
Shah Rukh Khan
Aishwarya Rai
Preity Zinta
Amir Khan
Another film star
None of them
5921 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Vote now closed

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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Gandhi family loyalists back in from the cold, but no fresh blood in cabinet.




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