Politics and cinema in the Indian context have had intrinsic relations.
In 1927, a questionnaire was sent to Mahatma Gandhi by the Indian Cinematograph Committee. A Bombay daily sought Gandhi’s message on the occasion of the 25th year of Indian cinema. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary, responded that Gandhi had the least interest in cinema and a word of appreciation should not be expected.
However, Gandhi’s impact is evident in the work of many, from Dadasaheb Phalke to Aamir Khan. The films of V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, and, more recently, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, among others, dealt with the core themes of Gandhian ideology—non-violence, love and sacrifice, Hindu-Muslim unity, the rural-urban divide, rejection of crass commercialism, women’s emancipation, and fear of moral decay.
It was through their movies that Gandhi emerged as a towering moral force. While these filmmakers may not have imbibed his ideas consciously, their films revealed his influence.
Cut to the 1960s and Prithviraj Kapoor, the first Bollywood star to enter parliament as a nominated member. He was a staunch Congressman, a Jawaharlal Nehru confidant who staged plays highlighting the Nehruvian ideals of socialism and secularism at his Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai.
Nehru tapped Kapoor for “cultural diplomacy” and often asked him to lead delegations abroad. When Nehru met Joseph Stalin, the dictator kept asking him about Raj Kapoor and his movie Awara. Raj’s daughter Ritu quoted Nehru as later telling Kapoor: “What is this vagabond (Awara) that your son has made? Stalin was talking about it all the time.”
As member of parliament (MP), Kapoor stayed at Princess Park, not far from India Gate, in New Delhi. Every morning when parliament sessions were on, Kapoor would sit on the lawns and meet a range of visitors. He was president of the Central Railway Workers Union for four years and was widely credited with getting a 75% rail fare concession for stage artistes and other performers.
On one occasion, Kapoor had a spat with MS Golwalkar while travelling, just after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the parent body of most Hindu nationalist organisations, including prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP) ideologue was released from jail. The two had met at Khandala station, between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Pune. Some RSS supporters were chanting provocative slogans. Kapoor entered the compartment and gave Golwalkar a lecture on the need to rein in his acolytes.
“There is only one chair and so many want to sit on it. There is such a scramble for it that not only will many bones be broken but the chair itself will be smashed,” Kapoor spoke metaphorically, adding, “In politics, discipline is absolutely essential and your crowds are witness to the utter lack of it.”
Actress Zohra Sehgal, whose sister Uzma Mumtaz had been romantically linked to Kapoor, recalls how a mob had once threatened to stop a play, Pathan, at Prithvi Theatre.
Sehgal, writing about the incident in a book published in 1997, recollected that Kapoor kept his calm, asked the protesters to pick out the Muslims from the cast and said: “For me, they are all kalakars (artistes), you pick out Muslims.”
“The mob could not find any Muslim as they all looked Hindu,” Sehgal wrote.
Although Kapoor was a Nehru supporter, that did not stop him from admiring another Independence hero, Subhas Chandra Bose. Kapoor had raised money for Netaji’s Indian National Army.
On some occasions, Kapoor could say no to Nehru. As prime minister, Nehru once wanted to meet him and sent an official to bring the actor for dinner. Kapoor declined, saying he was with his theatre team. Nehru, himself a stage and film lover, then invited them all the next day.
An entire group of 60—actors, musicians, and carpenters who were part of the troupe to build the stage for plays—landed at the prime minister’s residence at Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi. The members had access to Nehru’s private dining room and the prime minister himself took them around, showing them the museum and the gifts he had received from visiting dignitaries.
According to Dharam Chand Seth, Kapoor’s cousin, the special bond between the actor and Nehru was unmistakable. “I once overheard Panditji (Nehru) telling Papaji (Kapoor) that when you walk with me, you give me strength,” Seth said.
Sehgal’s book delves on the close ties and mentions how Kapoor was often asked to lead cultural delegations overseas. “Prithvirajji had to refuse (sometimes) on account of an impending (theatre) tour. Panditji (Nehru) chided him for not having an understudy for his (stage) roles,” Sehgal says.
“I know someone else who is without an understudy,” Kapoor said. “Who?” asked Nehru. “You,” responded the actor.
Nehru in the post-Independent era from 1947-64 was close to a generation of politically inclined filmmakers and actors such as Sohrab Modi, Kapoor and his son Raj, Mahboob Khan, Dilip Kumar, Nargis Dutt, and others, championing social causes such as raising funds for the Indian armed forces during wars and cultural diplomacy. Of course, many of us know about how Mangeshkar’s song “Aaye mere watan ke longon” had made Nehru cry at an Indian Army fund-raising event during 1962 war with China.
Nehru had also approached Kumar when his close associate VK Krishna Menon was contesting from North Bombay. The actor addressed several election meetings for Menon who won the seat comfortably.
Today many Bollywood stars such as Paresh Rawal, Anupam Kher, Kirron Kher, Raveena Tandon, Hema Malini, and Rajnikant, and filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar, Vivek Agnihotri, and others have emerged as vocal and belligerent supporters of Modi. It actually stands out in sharp contrast with the subdued style of actors-turned-politicians of the past.
Modi is different from Nehru in perhaps every possible way—stature, ideology, and style. However, the Indian prime minister appears to be at par or even scoring over Nehru in terms of using strong political tactics in successfully bringing a wide array of film personalities for his political and social campaigns.
In the current era, Modi, too, has been quick to understand that politics alone would be insufficient to get his message across to the masses. Soon after taking power, Modi launched his dream project “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (nationwide cleanliness drive), an initiative that saw him taking several film personalities on board espousing Modi’s mantra of “Na gandagi karenge, na karne denge (We won’t make things dirty, nor will we allow others).”
Modi had invited nine leading film personalities to join the cleanliness drive and requested each of them to draw nine more into the initiative. They included Priyanka Chopra, Salman Khan, Kamal Haasan, and Aamir Khan, among others.
Many of Modi’s supporters in the film industry have also provided their voice to the ongoing ideological debates about nationalism, religion, and dissent.
Rasheed Kidwai is author of Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics (Hachette India). He is a visiting fellow with the Observer Research Foundation and a political analyst with News18. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.