Of Success, Al Pacino and Amitabh Bachchan

amitabh bachchan

The reasons behind the success of Amitabh Bachchan are well analysed. People have talked about his deep baritone voice. His tall and brooding persona. His legendary acting skills. And the fact that his portrayal of the angry young man captured the frustrations of an entire generation.

Bachchan may have succeeded because of all these reasons and more. Nevertheless, there is a something that people never seem to talk about—the role that luck played in Bachchan’s success. Bachchan’s golden era started with the success of Zanjeer, which was released in 1973.

But the fact of the matter is that he was not the first choice for the role of Inspector Vijay Khanna, the lead character in the movie. This became the first of the many angry young man roles that Bachchan would eventually play. As Diptakirti Chaudhuri writes in Written by Salim Javed—The Story of Hindi Cinema’s Greatest Screenwriters: “Not one major star of the day was ready to act in the film”.

The script was first sold to Dharmendra for a princely sum of Rs 2,500. The actor’s brother Ajit Singh Deol was supposed to produce the movie and Prakash Mehra would direct it. Things did not work out between Ajit Deol and Mehra, and as a reason Dharmendra opted out of the movie.

The script then went to Dilip Kumar. As Chaudhuri writes: “[Kumar] thought it would make a very good film but felt the lead character was too one-dimensional and did not allow enough scope for ‘performance’.”

The script then went to Dev Anand. At that point of time both Salim Khan  and Javed Akhtar felt that this would be a “horrible miscasting”. Anand asked for a couple of songs to be picturised on him and that was that. The story continued.

Mehra approached Raj Kumar. “He too loved the script, probably because he had been an inspector before joining films, and agreed to do the role, but—and this was a big but—he wanted the film to be shot in Madras. One apocryphal story goes that he did not like the smell of Prakash Mehra’s hair oil and made this preposterous demand to wriggle out of having to work with him,” writes Chaudhuri.

After all these stars refusing to do the film, the script landed with Bachchan. As Chaudhuri writes: “Partly out of desperation and partly out of respect for Salim-Javed, and Pran[who had a pivotal role in the film], Prakash Mehra signed Amitabh Bachchan.” And the rest as they say is history.

The broader point here is that if any of these stars had taken on the role of Vijay Khanna that was offered to them, Bachchan’s story may have turned out to be remarkably different than it eventually did.

Before Zanjeer, the only performance of his worth recalling was in the film Anand, as a side-hero to the then superstar Rajesh Khanna. After Anand, Bachchan had done a bunch of forgetful films. And that is how things would have continued, if Zanjeer had not come his way. In fact, his career could have fizzled out very quickly and he wouldn’t have survived as long as he eventually has.

A sort of a similar story played out with Hollywood star Al Pacino, as well. Pacino first shot to fame, a year before Bachchan, in 1972, when The Godfather was released. Pacino played the character of Michael Corleone in this movie, who was the youngest son of mafia boss Vito Corleone (played by the legendary Marlon Brando).

As Robert H Frank writes in Success and Luck—Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy: “Studio executives…wanted to cast Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Coppola, however, wanted an unknown actor, someone who actually looked like a Sicilian.”

But Coppola was clear that he wanted Pacino and threatened to abandon the project if anyone else was signed on. This forced the studio executives to agree and Pacino landed up with the role of Michael Corleone.

As Frank writes: “In Puzo’s novel, Vito Corleone was the central character. But Vito’s youngest son Michael is clearly the protagonist in Coppola’s adaptation. Pacino, who had previously appeared in only two minor films, thus landed what turned out be the most important role in what many critics have called the best film ever made.”

Interestingly enough Coppola was a young film director at that point of time and as Frank writes: “Inexperienced directors almost never get their way into disputes with studio bosses.” But Coppola did.

The point being that hard work and talent are important for success but they are of no use without luck and opportunity. As Frank writes: “Those who believe that talent and hard work inevitably triumph might argue that because Pacino was relatively young at the time, his skills would have eventually made him successful even if he hadn’t landed the Michael Corleone role. But there are many thousands of highly talented actors who just never get the right opportunity to demonstrate their skill.”

Like Pacino got the lead part in The Godfather, Bachchan got it in Zanjeer. They were lucky to get these parts, which gave them a huge opportunity to showcase their real talent. Of course, after they became successful, a narrative was created around their success. This narrative pointed out to their talent, their hard work and so on.

While all that is true, one cannot take away the fact that at a certain point of time, they were very lucky. And that luck gave a fillip to their careers. As Frank writes: “It is almost easy to create a narrative after the fact that portrays such outcomes as having been inevitable. Yet every event is the outcome off a complex interwoven sequence of steps, each of which depends on those preceding it. If any of those earlier steps had been different, the entire trajectory would almost surely be different, too.”

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared on April 26, on www.valueresearchonline.com

Of film critics and their love for Bajrangi Bhaijaan

bajrangi bhaijaan
One of my favourite armchair theories is built around film critics and Salman Khan—the more the critics hate a Salman Khan movie, the more money the movie tends to make. It doesn’t work all the time, but it works often enough to at least be categorised as an armchair theory.

The superstar’s movies get regularly panned by film critics, and yet they end up making a lot of money. Now that doesn’t mean that the critics are wrong about what they think of Salman’s movies. They are actually quite trashy. An apt comparison are the movies that Amitabh Bachchan starred in the 1980s. Movies like Nastik, Mahaan, Pukar, Desh Premee, Mard, Coolie, Geraftaar, Jadugar and Toofan.

Most of these movies made a lot of money nevertheless they are completely unwatchable now, unless you are a die-hard fan to whom the quality of the movie doesn’t really matter. Bachchan’s bubble finally burst with Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati, which I think is the trashiest film ever made.

Khan’s bubble is still going strong and it was rather surprising that critics liked his latest film Bajrangi Bhaijaan. And these are not the trade critics whose reviews depend on what kind of business the movie they are reviewing is likely to do. These are critics who are genuinely in love with cinema. And they seem to have liked Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the movie has received a spate of ratings of 3 out of five stars.

So what were these guys smoking? How come so many film critics had nice things to say about a Salman Khan movie? Why have things changed this time around? The answer might perhaps lie in what economists call the contrast effect. Comparison comes naturally to human beings especially when they are making a decision. In such a situation, a particular option can be made to be look better by comparing it with something which is similar, but at the same time a worse alternative. This is known as the ‘contrast effect’.

As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice—Why More is Less: “If a person comes right out of a sauna and jumps into a swimming pool, the water in the pool feels really cold, because of the contrast between the water temperature and the temperature in the sauna. Jumping into the same pool after having just come indoors on a sub-zero winter day will produce sensations of warmth.”

This is the contrast effect and it best explains why film critics have fallen in love with Salman’s latest movie. How is that? Look at the movies Salman has starred in the recent past: Jai Ho, Kick, Dabanng 2, Bodyguard etc. Each one of these movies was pretty trashy. In comparison, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a slightly better movie with some sort of a storyline and very good performances by the child artist Harshali Malhotra(who the audience has fallen in love with) and as well as Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Hence, this contrast effect between the earlier movies of Salman and Bajrangi Bhaijaan has led to good reviews. In fact, a similar contrast effect was at work when Ek Tha Tiger had released in 2012. The movie was better than some of Salman’s earlier releases like Veer, Ready, London Dreams etc. And the critics had similarly given it good ratings.

There is another learning here. Bajrangi Bhaijaan has been breaking box-office records. As I write this, the movie has already made close to Rs 200 crore on the Indian box-office. Over and above Salman’s fans who watch every movie of his, however trashy it might be, the non-fans have also been streaming into the theatres because of the good reviews that the movie has universally received.

And what this tells us is that if Salman stars in even half decent movies they are likely to earn much more money than the trash that he chooses to star in. Hope he is reading this.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on July 29, 2015

Aaya Toofan, Bhaga Shaitan: Why Raghuram Rajan is no Amitabh Bachchan

amitabh bachchan
Raghuram Rajan is currently having what I would like to call an “aaya aaya toofan, bhaga bhaga shaitan” moment. For those who are not as fond of trashy 80s cinema as I am, this needs some explanation. “Aaya aaya toofan, bhaga bhaga shaitan (Here comes Toofan, there runs the devil),” is a song from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Toofan, which released in 1989.
The film has a character called Toofan (played by Bachchan) who plays a superhero, fighting evil. And the song keeps playing in the background whenever Toofan is out taking on the evil forces.
Rajan took over as the twenty third governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), yesterday. He had his first press conference at 5.30pm in the evening. In this press conference he outlined a stream of measures that he plans to take over the next few months.
Within seconds of his press conference ending television channels, started to go gaga over his performance. The feeling one got while watching was that all of India’s economic problems have/will come to an end because Raghuram Rajan had taken over as the governor of the RBI.
This excitement seems to have rubbed off on the newspapers as well. The Economic Times has compared him to James Bond. The Times of India called Rajan’s entry “a big bang entry”. Business Standard said that “Rajan hits the ground running” and so did The Indian ExpressFirstpost has called Rajan a Rockstar.
The impact of Rajan’s maiden performance has been seen great. The rupee has risen against the dollar and is currently quoting at 66 to a dollar. The stock market has rallied around 400 points, as I write this. This is in response to a slew of measures that Rajan announced yesterday.
Rajan announced plans to internationalize the rupee, several steps to improve the inflow of dollars into India and improve exports. He also said that the RBI would allow ‘good’ banks to open branches without approaching the RBI for a license. To control the appetite Indians have for gold, he announced that the RBI would soon launch bonds indexed to consumer price inflation.
Some of the capital controls introduced sometime back to prevent the rupee from falling have also been done away with. Individuals will be allowed to spend more than $75,000 per year abroad, if the money is being spent on education and medical treatment. Rajan also announced plans for a nation wide bill payment system for payment of utilities like medical bills and school fees. A string of technical measures to shore up the value of the rupee against the dollar, were also announced. All in all, a great first day at work.
Having said that, there isn’t much that Rajan can do to improve the major ills that are plaguing the Indian economy. Let’s start with inflation. As Rajan said yesterday “the RBI takes its mandate from the RBI Act of 1934, which says the Reserve Bank for India was constituted “to regulate the issue of Bank notes and the keeping of reserves with a view to securing monetary stability in India and generally to operate the currency and credit system of the country to its advantage.””
Hence, the primary role of the RBI is to ensure monetary stability. Or as Rajan put it “That is, to sustain confidence in the value of the country’s money. Ultimately, this means low and stable expectations of inflation, whether that inflation stems from domestic sources or from changes in the value of the currency, from supply constraints or demand pressures.”
There isn’t much that the RBI can do to control inflation. The primary reason for the same is that the government of India is the main creator of inflation. The expenditure of the government has jumped considerably over the last few years and this has created inflation. As Ashok Gulati and Shweta Saini write in a research paper titled Taming Food Inflation in India “RBI has indicated time and again that government needs to rein-in the fiscal deficit before it can reduce interest rates,else, too much money in the system will be putting further pressures on prices in general and food prices in particular… The Economist in its February 2013 issue highlights that it was the increased borrowings by the Indian government which fuelled inflation and a balance-of-payments gap. It categorically puts the responsibility on the government for having launched a pre-election spending spree in 2008, which continued even thereafter.”
There is nothing that the RBI can do about this. With many state elections due this year and a Lok Sabha election due towards the middle of next year, the chances are the government is likely to continue spending big money. Several boondogles to influence the voters, might be on their way.
Also, a lot of the inflation created by the government shows up as food inflation, on which RBI has no control. As Gulati and Saini write “High food inflation, which has averaged 10 percent during FY 2008-09 to December 2012, has been a major concern for policy makers in India.” Even after December 2012, food inflation continues to be higher than 10%.
The RBI has tried to control high inflation by maintaining interest rates at high levels. One school of thought goes that since the RBI cannot do much to control food inflation, so it might as well cut interest rates. The risk here is that low interest rates might fuel other kinds of inflation. So, it remains to be seen whether Rajan is ready to take on that risk or not.
High inflation can come in from other areas which Rajan has absolutely no control over. It can come from rising oil prices due to threat of an American attack on Syria. As an international fund manager told me earlier this week “if that happens(i.e. American does attack Syria) we can have oil prices touching even $150 per barrel.” In that scenario, inflation will spike and that will have a huge impact on economic growth, something an RBI governor has no control over.
Also, if the Federal Reserve of United States, RBI’s American counterpart, decides to go slow on printing money, that will lead to further economic problems in India. The Fed has indicated in the recent past that it plans to go slow on the $85 billion it has been printing and pumping into the American financial system every month, to keep interest rates low. The hope is that at low interest rates Americans will borrow and spend more, and that will help revive the American economy.
The danger of course is that all the money being printed and pumped into the financial system can create high inflation. So at some point of time the Federal Reserve needs to start going slow on printing money.
If the Federal Reserve decides to go slow on money printing, as it has said in the recent past, interest rates in America will go up. This will lead to foreign investors selling out of India and other emerging markets. This will put further pressure on the rupee against the dollar. As the rupee will lose value, it will mean that our main imports i.e. oil, coal, fertilizer, palm oil etc, will become costlier, leading to a rise in inflation. If this scenario plays out, there is not much that Rajan can do about it. The RBI can sell dollars and buy rupees to stop the rupee from depreciating against the dollar. But it is worth remembering that the RBI does not have an unlimited supply of dollars.
Another worrying factor is the slowdown in economic growth and the impact that it will have on government borrowings. The government expects the GDP to grow by 13.4%(in nominal terms) during this financial year (as per the annual budget). This is unlikely to happen.
As Dylan Grice, formerly with Societe Generale and now the editor of the Edelweiss Journal wrote in a February 2010 research report titled Government hedonism and the next policy mistake “If I’m a finance minister mulling out how much money I should be borrowing, I want my GDP growth (and therefore my tax revenue growth) to pay coupons (i.e. interest) on any debt that I take on today…If the interest rate is higher than GDP growth, my incremental tax revenue won’t cover interest payments. I’ll be in deficit and I’ll have to issue more debt to plug the gap and my debt ratio will rise.”
What this means is that the tax revenue collected by the government should be rising at a rate which is good enough to pay the interest on the accumulated debt. If that does not happen, the government will have to borrow more money to make its interest payments. And that is not a good sign. The government will either end up with a higher fiscal deficit or it will have to cut its expenditure in other areas to maintain the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government spends and what it earns. India is in that kind of a situation right now and there is nothing that Rajan can do about it.
Also, to repeat a point that is made often, India’s economic growth is being hurt by the poor physical infrastructure that we have. The country needs better roads, more ports, better railway infrastructure and so on. These are things the RBI governor cannot do much about, even though as Rajan said the RBI has “additional tools to generate growth”.
All this is not to suggest that Rajan is not a good choice for the governor’s job. He is an excellent choice given his impeccable credentials, but expecting him to do miracles is unjustified.
To conclude, let me quote what Jerry Tsai, a famous American fund manager had to say about the penchant of the media to create heroes. “And I can say this from experience: the trouble with getting a little bit of good publicity is, when something goes wrong they love to kill you on the way down. The media like to build things up so they can tear them down.” (Source: What Goes Up – The Uncensored History of Modern Wall Street by Eric J Weiner). Rajan should keep that in mind as he goes about his business of rescuing the troubled Indian economy.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 5, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

If Sanjay Dutt is innocent, I am Amitabh Bachchan

Vivek Kaul
Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak with Sanjay Dutt in the lead role released on June 15, 1993. This was around two months after Dutt was first arrested on April 19, 1993, for his involvement in the Bombay bomb blasts which happened on March 12, 1993 (Bombay is now Mumbai). The story goes that Ghai had shot multiple ends for the movie, and after Dutt’s arrest he used the one which showed Ballu, the character played by Dutt, in a positive light.
That’s the thing with reel life, if the director does not like the end, he can change it. Real life should work a little differently, that’s what you and I might think. But it doesn’t always work like that. At least, not if you are Sanjay Dutt.
On March 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of India, convicted Dutt for illegal possession of arms and sentenced him to five years in prison. Between then and now a small cottage industry seems to have evolved which is trying to tell the world that Dutt is innocent and is trying to change the end of a long judicial process which has finally delivered some justice.
This cottage industry includes those working with him in the Hindi film industry. They cannot believe that Sanju Sir, as they like to call him, will have to go to jail. Rakhi Sawant, who is largely famous for what the Hindi film industry refers to as item numbers, has even volunteered to go to jail instead of Dutt. “If there is any provision in the law, then I’d like to request the court to send me to jail in place of Sanjay. Not because he is a big actor today, but because he has a family and kids at home to take care of,” she has remarked.
Support has also come in from Marakandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India, who on other occasions has spoken out strongly against media’s obsession with celebrities. Katju is also a former judge of Supreme Court. He wants Sanjay Dutt to be pardoned.
He has offered various reasons for the same. In the last twenty years Dutt has suffered a lot. He had to take the permission of the Court for foreign shootings. He has two small children. And to top it Dutt has through his film revived the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and the message of Gandhiji, the father of the nation.
Justice Katju in his appeal to grant pardon to Dutt had also said that “his parents Sunil Dutt and Nargis worked for the good of society and the nation.”
Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has jumped into the rescue Sanjay Dutt bandwagon as well. “Sanjay Dutt is not a criminal, he is not a terrorist. Sanjay Dutt, at a young age, in the atmosphere of that time, thought that perhaps the way Sunil Dutt had been raising his voice against communalism and favoured the minorities, then perhaps he could be attacked. So, as an obvious reaction of a kid to do something, if he has committed a mistake then I feel that he has undergone the punishment for it,” Singh said.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, who normally goes
cholbe na cholbe na against everything, has also come out in support of Dutt. “Today, I fondly remember Sunil Dutt ji. He used to come to my residence whenever he was in Calcutta. If he were alive, he would have no doubt made all efforts to see that Sanjay does not suffer any more. My heart echoes the same sentiments ,” the Trinamool Congress chief wrote on Facebook, getting nostalgic.
Let me demolish this arguments one by one. In 1993, Sanjay Dutt was 33, going on 34. He was no kid, as Digvijay Singh makes him out to be. On the other hand Ajmal Kasab, who was recently hanged to death, was actually a kid, when he carried out the gruesome act that he did.
In the last twenty years Dutt has suffered a lot, feels Katju. But so has everyone else who was accused in the Mumbai bomb blasts case. Yusuf Memon, one of the accused, who will serving a life sentence, is schizophrenic and the Supreme Court dismissed his plea seeking relief from his conviction and life sentence.
During the last twenty years Dutt managed to marry twice (Rhea Pillai and now Manyata earlier known as Dilnawaz Sheikh ). So much for him suffering. And as far as kids go, if people were pardoned because they had kids, nobody in India would ever go to jail.
The movies Katju is talking about are
Munnabhai MBBS and Lageraho Munnabhai. Dutt did not make these movies, he just acted in them. The movies were the vision of director Rajkumar Hirani, who also co-wrote them. In fact, Dutt was not even supposed to play the role of Munnabhai in Munnabhai MBBS. The original choice was Shah Rukh Khan, who later declined due to a back injury. So Sanjay Dutt was simply lucky to have first landed and then played the role which made Gandhi fashionable again. And that is no reason to let him go.
Digivijay Singh in his statement seems to be justifying Sanjay Dutt possessing illegal weapons for self defence. What he forgets is that we are not talking about some
desi katta or a revolver here. We are talking about AK-56 rifles. Its worth remembering that the year was 1993 and not 2013. “And AKs were not weapons you almost ever saw outside some militant districts in Punjab and Kashmir,” writes Shekhar Gupta in a column in The Indian Express.
And as far as the nostalgia of Mamata Banerjee goes there are people who might still feel nostalgic about the late Head Constable Ibrahim Kaskar of Mumbai police. As S Hussain Zaidi writes in
Dongri to Dubai – Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia “In the predominantly Muslim stronghold of Dongri, Ibrahim’s baithak was the first place people went to if they had a problem. It was privy to everything-from people discussing their choking lavatory drain to the excitement of the elopement of lovers or cases of police harassment.” Kaskar’s son is Dawood Ibrahim. So should sons committing crimes be let go because their fathers happened to be nice men? Maybe Justice Katju and Mamata Banerjee can give us an answer to that.
In fact, it would be safe to say that Sanjay Dutt was very lucky not be convicted under the the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (or what we better know as TADA). Dutt was arrested in 1993, for acquiring three AK-56s rifles, nine magazines, 450 cartridges and over 20 hand grenades. One doesn’t need so many weapons and ammunitions for self defence. This despite the fact that Dutt already had three licensed weapons. And when was the last time you heard anyone keeping hand grenades at home for self protection?
Some of these weapons were later stored at the home of a woman called Zaibunissa Kazi. This included two of the three AK-56s rifles that Dutt had got. Kazi was convicted under TADA. Same was the case with Baba Mussa Chauhan and Samir Hingora, who delivered the consignment of arms to Dutt’s house. And so was Manzoor Ahmed, whose car was used to ferry the arms out of Dutt’s residence.
But the special TADA court did not convict Dutt under TADA. This is very ironical given that those who got the arms to Dutt’s house were convicted under TADA. So was the women in whose house the arms were placed, after they were moved from Dutt’s house. He had also admitted to being directly in touch with Anees Ibrahim, the main conspirator Dawood Ibrahim’s younger brother. Further, CBI did not challenge the TADA court’s decision which relieved Dutt of charges under TADA, in the Supreme Court.
In fact Satish Manishinde, Dutt’s lawyer later admitted in front of a spy camera in a sting operation carried out by
Tehehlka that “The moment she (Zaibunissa Kazi) was convicted, I thought Sanjay too would be convicted under TADA .” No wonder Kazi’s daughter feels “I wish I was a celebrity or my mother was a celebrity or a sister of an MP. Even my mother would have got the kind of support Sanjay Dutt is getting. If it is on humanitarian grounds then why only Sanjay Dutt, why not Zaibunisa. Isn’t she a human? Isn’t she a citizen of this country?”
As a line from the song
Yaaram written by Gulzar, from the still to be released Ek Thi Daayan goes “koi khabar aayi na pasand to end badal denge”. Everyone who is trying to appeal for a pardon for Sanjay Dutt is trying to change the end of a long judicial process which has finally delivered some justice.
To conclude, let me say this loudly and emphatically, if Sanjay Dutt is innocent, then I am Amitabh Bachchan.
The article also appeared with a different headline on www.firstpost.com on March 29,2013. 

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek. He can be reached at [email protected])

Will Ramdev succeed in politics? History isn’t on his side

Vivek Kaul

Some two and a half years back I had told an aunt of mine that Baba Ramdev was getting ready to enter politics. My aunt, who recently retired after nearly four decades of teaching in the Kendriya Vidyalaya system of schools, wouldn’t agree with me. “He just wants us to be healthy,” was her reply.
I had been following Baba Ramdev’s early morning yoga classes on television regularly for almost six months in a bid to control my ever expanding waistline. The aasanas that Baba showed over that period remained more or less the same. But the commentary that accompanied those aasanas had gradually become more and more political.
In that context, I am not surprised at Baba’s decision to take the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government head on and ask his supporters not to vote for the Congress in the coming elections.
Baba Ramdev may not form his own party in the days to come. He may not even contest any elections but by asking people not to vote for the Congress he has more or less signaled his entry into politics.
So the question that arises now is that will he succeed at what he is trying to do or will he just be a flash in the pan and disappear from the limelight in a couple of years?
Babas and religious gurus have always been an essential part of the Indian political system. Dhirendra Bramhachari was known to be close to Indira Gandhi. Chandraswami was known to be close to PV Narsimha Rao.
Long time Gandhi family loyalist Arjun Singh was known to be close to the Mauni Baba of Ujjain. Mauni Baba even took credit for Arjun Singh surviving a massive heart attack in 1989.
As Rashid Kidwai writes in 24 Akbar Road – A Short History Behind the Fall and the Rise of the Congress “The doctors at Hamidia Hospital in Bhopal had almost given up on him( Arjun Singh) when a call from Rajiv Gandhi ensured a timely airlift to Delhi’s Escort Heart Institute. His spiritual guru, Mauni Baba of Ujjain, took credit for the miracle. The guru, who had taken a vow of silence, reached Delhi and shut himself off to conduct various yagnas for his health. As Union Communications Minister, Singh had given the guru two telephone connections. The act promoted a Hindi daily to run the headline, ‘Jab Baba bolte nahin, to do telephone kyun?
Like Singh, the various politicians took care of their respective gurus. Indira Gandhi ensured that Dhirendra Bramhachari had a weekly show on Doordarshan to promote the benefits of yoga. Several politicians were known to be close to the Satya Sai Baba as well. His trust being a publically charitable trust did not pay any income tax.
So babas and religious gurus have always been close to Indian politicians and politics. They have been the backroom boys who have rarely come out in the open to take on the government of the day head on.
But there are always exceptions that prove the rule. One such person who did this rather successfully for a brief period was Sadhvi Rithambara. Her fiery speeches in the early 1990s were very fairly popular across the length and breadth of North India and Bihar. I remember listening to one of her banned tapes before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was full of expletives and exhorted the cause of a Ram Mandir being built at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
As Haima Deshpande writes in the latest edition of the Open “By the early 1990s, the Sadhvi was scandalising secular India with her rabble-rousing along a campaign trail to replace Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid with a Ram Mandir. At first, her anti-Muslim tirades were full of expletives, exhorting Hindus to reclaim what she said was rightfully theirs. After a brush with the law, she toned herself down, but her message was roughly the same. While the entry of Parsis to India was like sugar sweetening milk, she would say, that of Muslims was like lemon curdling the country (delivered with a certain inflexion in Hindi, that verb could sound rather crude).” The Sadhvi is now known as Didi Maa and runs a home for destitute women and abandoned children which was set up in 2002, Deshpande points out.
What these examples tell us is that Babas and religious gurus have never operated in the openly in the open sesame of Indian politics. And when they have they have not survived for a very long period of time.
At a broader level people who have been successful in other walks of life have rarely been able to transform themselves into career politicians. When these people have tried to enter politics they have either been unsuccessful or have retreated back very quickly.
Let’s take the case of Russi Modi, the man who once played the piano along with Albert Einstein, when the great physicist was playing the violin. Modi was the Chairman and Managing Director of the Jamshedpur based Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO, now known as Tata Steel). After retiring from TISCO, Modi fought the Lok Sabha elections from Jamshedpur and lost.
Amitabh Bachchan won the Lok Sabha elections from Allahabad in 1984 defeating H N Bahuguna. He resigned three years later. Dev Anand unsuccessfully tried to form a political party in the late 1980s. Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra were also a one term Lok Sabha members. Hema Malini has achieved some success in politics but she is used more by the BJP to attract crowds rather than practice serious politics. The same stands true for Smriti Irani of the Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi fame.
Deepika Chikalia, the actress who played the role of Sita in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, was a one time member of Lok Sabha from Baroda. So was Nitish Bhardwaj who played Krishna in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, from Jamshedpur.
The only state where film celebrities have successfully made it into politics and remained there is Tamil Nadu. Andhra Pradesh has the isolated example of NT Rama Rao who was successful at politics as well as being the biggest superstar of Telgu cinema. But more recently when the reigning superstar of Telgu cinema, Chiranjeevi, tried to follow NTR, he was unsuccessful. He had to finally merge his Praja Rajyam party rather ironically with the Congress.
Imran Khan Niazi, the biggest sports icon that our next door neighbour Pakistan ever produced formed the Tehreek-e-Insaf party in 1996. When Imran Khan started making speeches before the 1997 elections, his rallies got huge crowds. But the party failed to win a single seat in the election, despite the fact that Imran Khan contested from nine different seats. He lost in each one of them. But to Khan’s credit he still hasn’t given up.In India cricketers like Manoj Prabhakar and Chetan Sharma have unsuccessfully tried to contest elections.
The broader point is that people from other walks of life haven’t been able to successfully enter politics if we leave out the odd filmstar. There are several reasons for the same. Their expertise does not lie in politics and lies somewhere else, something Amitabh Bachchan found out very quickly. Politics also requires a lot of patience and money. This is something that everybody doesn’t have.
Also some of these successful people come with stories attached with them. Ramdev’s story was “practicing yoga can cure any disease”. Those who have seen his yoga DVDs will recall the line “Karte raho, cancer ka rog bhi theek hoga“. This story helped him build a huge yoga empire with an annual turnover of over Rs 1000 crore. The story was working well, until Ramdev decided to diversify, and enter politics.
As marketing guru Seth Godin writes in All Marketers Are Liars: “Great stories happen fast. They engage the consumer the moment the story clicks into place. First impressions are more powerful than we give them credit for.”
So Ramdev’s success now clearly depends on the perception that he is able to form in the minds of the people of this country. Will they continue to look at him as a yoga guru who is just dabbling in some politics? Or will they look at him as a serious politician whose views deserve to be heard and acted on? Also will Baba Ramdev want to continue investing time and energy in the hurly-burly world of politics? That time will tell.
But what about the all the people that Baba Ramdev has been able to attract, you might ask me? Crowds as Imran Khan found out are not always a reflection of whether an individual will be successful in politics. And history clearly is not on Ramdev’s side.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 15,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/india/will-ramdev-succeed-in-politics-history-isnt-on-his-side-418952.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected] )