Box office to ballot box
In the heart of Jubilee Hills, where Hyderabad's rich and famous live, a smart looking one-storey building is humming with activity.
Men, dressed in white and wearing white and green sashes around their necks, buzz around a reception hall. Framed sayings of Gandhi and Mother Teresa adorn its white walls. "I do not pray for success, I ask for fruitfulness," says one by the saint from Kolkata. In cavernous white rooms covered with paintings of Gandhi, Mandela and the Mother on their walls, there are more waiting men and women, wearing more sashes. Behind the reception is a picture of a thick set man with raised eyebrows, smilingly tentatively. His hands are folded in a namaste, the traditional Indian greeting. Around the corner is a three-dimensional poster of the superstar smiling over a sea of people. It is the only bit of camp in a rather neat place.
I am in Telugu movie star Chiranjeevi's office. The 53-year-old son of a policeman and Andhra Pradesh's biggest film star launched a political party last August. Life imitates art in southern India, which has a long and chequered history of actors joining politics. Now, the Telugu star with his Praja Rajyam (People's Rule) party has become the biggest talking point here.
Chiranjeevi is the latest addition in the long list of movie stars who have moved to a career in politics in this cinema-crazy part of India. Andhra Pradesh already has one formidable regional party launched by a star of yesteryear, which is doing very well. The star is dead, long live the party. Next door, in Tamil Nadu, a former film script-writer is in power, and his main rival is a former heroine, who took over the party from one of the biggest movie stars of India.
His aides tell me that this building is Chiranjeevi's "political office". There is a separate party office in the posh neighbourhood. I am impressed by the slick decor. There is none of the gaudiness that marks many political party offices in India; there are no ugly posters of the star stuck on the walls and outside; and there are no throngs of wastrel supporters whiling away their time. The place has the brisk order of a corporate office, rather than the familiar chaos of a politician's lair. The only poster I detect is the one gummed below the reception desk. "Prajya Rajyam party," it says, "Membership forms available here."
As I settle down in his air-conditioned 'conference room' flanked by a big LCD television set on one wall, and a huge projector screen on the other, the superstar walks in. He is wearing a white shirt and slightly baggy black trousers. He is a dark, thick-set man with tired eyes. "It is fantastic that you people are here," he greets us. "It shows how our party is doing, that we are important."."
Chiranjeevi has spent more than 30 years in the Telugu film industry, popularly called Tollywood in these parts. He has acted in no less than 149 films. He has played the superhero in many of these testosterone potboilers, serenading and rescuing buxom heroines, break dancing in night clubs and streets, fighting villains with white Ambassador cars flying in the air and trucks blowing up in the background.
"All that is over now," he says, with a sheepish smile. "I am not going to do any more films. My fans may be disappointed. But no more films. I have now chosen a life in politics."
He says he is enjoying it. "It is a wonderful feeling. There is a lot of euphoria. People love me. They are looking for an alternative, a third one," he says. Andhra Pradesh's politics is largely bipolar - the ruling Congress party and the strong regional TDP dominate the landscape.
Barely a year into his political life, Chiranjeevi is already excelling in the art of studied politicese. He talks about social justice, the plight of the downtrodden, gender disparities and taming inflation. His one-liners come quick and fast for bite-addled TV news: "We are the richest state with the poorest people", is one of them. If all this is not enough, he's even promising a "package" of "rice, lentils, cooking oil, tamarind and salt" for only 100 rupees ($2) to the poor.
His swaggering film-persona has taken a backseat. But he continues to cash in on his star capital for his politics in his new avatar of a social messiah. His status also provides him with an off the shelf political base: there are, he says, 5000 fan clubs of his around the state. Once dedicated to full-time worship of the star, they now canvas votes for the politician.
Do people see him as film star or a serious political contender, I ask. Do they ask him to shout out their favourite dialogues from his films, and demand a break dance from him at his campaign meetings?
"No they never do that. You know, the people are not looking at me as a star," he says.
They are looking at me as their saviour.
"For other actors, the film image is larger than life. But for me, my personal image is larger than my film image."
He talks animatedly about his party's chances in the polls this time. "You know, the voter turnout here this time was 72%. There was 17% more polling this time. I think these extra votes will go to our party," he says.
"There is a silent revolution around the corner. I am confident that I will win a majority."
Few expect Chiranjeevi's party to win the polls. But the star exudes a quiet confidence born out of reigning over the hearts of millions of his fans for three decades.
It's not been smooth going, he says. He has been pelted by eggs and stones on the campaign. But "the shower of flowers" has often followed the eggs and stones. One of his rival parties has accused him of "selling blood", he says, with a hint of hurt in his voice. Chiranjeevi runs thriving blood and eye banks in the state - some 70% of the blood, he says, is supplied free to the poor.
"Politics is not a bed of roses. I knew that before I joined. I am a strong man," he says.
But isn't politics in India an enervating profession, campaigning in the boiling heat, handling party pressures, keeping ambitions of rivals in check? I ask.
He nods his head. "I don't find politics physically demanding at all. I used to work night and day in the films anyway."
"But yes, there are no retakes in politics. You have to be careful about what you say and do."
Will Chiranjeevi storm the box office at the recently concluded polls? Or will his performance fetch a minor hit? Many of his fans and political supporters put his photo up on the wall with the Hindu gods in their homes. Like the rest of India they will know the answer in less than a fortnight now.