Elections in India will be held from April 11 to May 19
On a humid evening in India’s south, drummers and dancers heave to Kamal Haasan’s blockbuster hits, whipping a huge crowd into ecstasy just as the moustachioed megastar himself steps onto the stage.
There is a red carpet, confetti and coloured lights rippling over the sea of jiving fans screaming Haasan’s name, but this is no concert — it’s an Indian political rally worthy of a superstar.
The path from celebrity to politics is well-trodden in India and Haasan — an icon of Tamil Nadu cinema, or “Kollywood” — is one of many stars on the hustings ahead of the national election starting next week.
Thousands of candidates are contesting the election — the biggest in history, with 900 million eligible voters — but not all have the X-factor of Haasan and other stars on the campaign trail.
The 64-year-old launched a political party in 2018 to much fanfare and excitement in Tamil Nadu, where he is a household name after decades as a leading man on the silver screen.
His rallies more closely resemble movie sets from his career than the boilerplate campaign functions hosted by India’s political hopefuls.
In Coimbatore city, musicians and dancers in riotous colour performed energetic dance numbers from Haasan’s films as fans packed the rally ground for a glimpse of the star.
In the crowd, fans cradled framed images of the film icon brought from home, and wore scarves imprinted with his face, as they sang and danced along to his classics.
The man himself is not even contesting the election, but is fielding 40 candidates to vie for seats for his party in the national parliament, far away in New Delhi.
But there is no mistaking who is the force behind the party, his face beaming down from rallies, posters and giant screens.
“All the candidates are my faces, and I will be the chariot puller,” he thundered at a recent rally in Coimbatore, assuring the crowd where their votes were going.
— ‘He sounds more believable’ —
Parties of all persuasion seek celebrity endorsement come election time, particularly exploiting the country’s devotion to film and cricket.
With millions of voters and a dizzying array of candidates and parties, allying with a hugely-recognisable face works wonders, said Rasheed Kidwai, who has written a book about Bollywood’s role in politics.
“A prominent face that is already recognised by the masses obviously helps because of the massive size of our parliamentary constituencies,” he told AFP.
“Their onscreen image also helps in creating a better connection with the masses.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP is fielding Hema Malini and Kirron Kher in this election, both Bollywood veterans and leading lights of the Indian film industry.
Smriti Irani, a massive television star, was appointed a cabinet minister in Modi’s government after the BJP stormed to power in the last election.
Gautam Gambhir, who was part of India’s 2011 World Cup winning side, joined the BJP in March, following in the footsteps of countless cricketers turning star power into political capital after retiring.
Modi’s chief opponents in Congress also court big names, with film star Urmila Matondkar recently throwing her weight behind Rahul Gandhi’s party and fellow actors Raj Babbar and Shatrughan Sinha already on board.
Vaasanthi, an author on celebrities and politics, said many actors found the reality of campaigning and governing more taxing than anticipated.
“The parties want to use their glamour but it is not like standing in front of the camera and acting,” the Delhi-based writer, who goes by one name, told AFP.
Some of Haasan’s opponents have suggested he lacks political acumen, a jibe that rings a bit hollow in Tamil Nadu, a state governed by one celebrity leader or another for the better part of 50 years.
“The opposition is asking, ‘Who is this guy? He is just an actor’. Yes, I am an actor, everyone knows that. An honest actor,” Haasan told a crowd to cheers recently.
Among his diehard supporters, Haasan can do little wrong.
“I have been a fan for years,” said Abhirami, a housewife sitting with her young daughter in the front row of the Coimbatore rally.
“There is a lack of good leadership in Tamil Nadu. Now that he has joined politics, I am here to support him. He sounds more believable and honest that most politicians.”