Why are actors so successful in south Indian politics?

Two major cinema actors are set to take the political stage in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu. What drives Indian actors into politics and why do they succeed? Murali Krishnan reports.

Indian actor Rajinikanth with PM Modi (AFP/Getty Images)

Two of the most identifiable names in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu are foraying into politics, and into rival political camps.

Celebrities in the Tamil film industry, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, are expected to shake up politics in the state.

The iconic former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, died in December last year. The former movie star, who served four times as chief minister, had widespread support and achieved a demi-god status.

Choosing sides

Hassan was recently seen sharing the stage with leaders from the opposition party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). He has also been critical of Jayalaithaa's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party.

Hassan is still keeping his fans and potential constituents guessing, but insiders told DW that his entry into politics could be early as next month in conjunction with local body elections.

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"I will not launch a political party in haste. But you are the ones who should call me. You are the ones who should accept me and decide. You should decide on when I should come and there need not be any timeframe," Hassan said at a recent press conference in Chennai.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been making desperate efforts to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. They are hoping to exploit the political vacuum by aligning with AIADMK and also hoping that they can draw Rajanikanth, the 67-year-old superstar.

But Rajini, as he is popularly called, is still keeping his followers in suspense despite making his political intentions clear a couple of years ago.

"There are credible rumors about Rajinikanth launching his own party. It will happen but he is taking his time for various reasons and will decide at the opportune time," Padmanbha Kumaran, head of a Rajni fan club, told DW.

From celluloid into politics

Many Indian film actors have made the leap or rather transited easily from cinema to politics and Tamil Nadu is no stranger to onscreen heroes transforming into successful politicians.

Big names include M K Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, who have shaped the state's politics figures over the past three decades.

"The primary drive seems to arise from the pre-existence of a mass base due to the proliferation of actor fan clubs - especially between 1967 and 1990 when actors and script writers were immersed in Dravidian politics," cultural journalist Sadanand Menon, told DW.

Indien Schauspieler Amitabh Bachchan (STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Famous Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan had a brief political stint in the 1980s

"This is something ingrained in the Tamil Nadu psyche which is quite unique," noted film critic Shubra Gupta told DW.

"These cult figures with super star status have played mythical roles and that has conformed to a culture."

A cult like status

This phenomenon of actors entering politics is also true is in other southern Indian states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which has seen a similar trend that is not as pronounced as in Tamil Nadu.

A good example in Andhra Pradesh is the actor Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao - or NTR as he was popularly known. He migrated from the theater to the big screen and played the roles of Hindu gods in the mythological era of Telugu cinema.

NTR strode on the screen like a colossus and used this popularity to start the "Telugu Desam" party based on fostering pride in Telugu, the local language. He served as chief minister on three occasions during a period of seven years between 1983 to 1994.

"Tamil movies and to some extent Telugu movies were propaganda machines that catapulted such stars into politics, Anbumani, a film historian, told DW. "Many have used movies as their primary political vehicle knowing there is a large grassroots base."

It is a still a big question whether Kamal and Rajini have similar attributes and can ride high on what their predecessors achieved.  But given their massive fan base, they are willing to test the political waters.

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