01:11 - Source: CNN
India 2019: World's biggest election in numbers
Mumbai, India CNN —  

For decades, Urmila Matondkar has enjoyed a successful career as a leading lady in Bollywood.

But recently the 45-year-old has been enjoying a different kind of spotlight. Matondkar is joining a growing parade of stars running in India’s hotly contested general election, which polling ends on May 19.

Standing for the Congress Party, India’s main opposition group, Matondkar is seeking a parliamentary seat in Mumbai, the home of India’s film industry. Matondkar’s fame means she already has something many novice politicians crave: Name recognition and a devoted fan base.

India’s elections are fiercely competitive – 8,251 candidates were fielded from 464 parties in the last general election in 2014.

Actor Urmila Matondkar on April 8, 2019 in Mumbai, India.

In that environment, and as this election increasingly looks to be a close call, parties in recent weeks have sought to capitalize on star power – especially, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which had added a number of celebrities to its line-up.

This month, Daler Mehndi, one of India’s most famous singers, joined the BJP. He follows cricketer Gautam Gambhir, actress Jaya Prada and singer Hans Raj Hans, who all recently joined the BJP to run in this cycle.

When stars announce their campaigns, their first political rallies are almost guaranteed huge crowds, says Komal Nahta, film trade analyst: “They have that glamor quotient.”

“(Voters) will come to their doorstep to look at you,” agrees Matondkar, describing the public’s reaction during her campaign tour for the Mumbai North constituency.

But fame alone, Matondkar says, isn’t enough. “You need to develop … trust between them and you,” she adds.

The power of Bollywood

In South India, which has its own regional film industry, big stars have long been a fixture on the political scene.

Jayaram Jayalalitha had appeared in 140 films before entering politics in 1982. She went on to be chief minister of Tamil Nadu state for more than 14 years.

In 1999, when Jayalalitha withdrew her party’s support for the coalition in power in Delhi, the government fell and India was forced to hold early general elections.

By the time she died in 2016, Jayalalitha had left an indelible mark on the state’s politics. Today, her party still routinely invokes her name and image to woo voters.

In recent decades, the trend for movie stars transitioning into politics has reached northern India.

In 2003, for example, Smriti Irani joined Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Once one of India’s most popular television actors, Irani spent more than a decade climbing the party ladder and using her star power to help the BJP campaign. Experienced in front of the cameras, Irani advocated for the BJP on national television during the 2014 election, quickly becoming the de facto party spokesperson.

This time around, Irani, 43, is attempting to unseat Congress Party president – and Modi’s principal challenger – Rahul Gandhi, by standing in his constituency of Amethi, in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

It’s her second attempt there. In 2014, she failed in her bold attempt to take what has traditionally been a family seat from the scion of India’s biggest political dynasty. Rahul is the son of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first – and longest serving – prime minister of the country.

Rahul Gandhi, president of India's main opposition Congress party, at a public rally ahead of India's general elections in March  2019.

Despite losing that battle, Irani was rewarded with a cabinet post and a nominated seat in the upper house of the Parliament when Modi became Prime Minister in 2014.

Amethi has been a Congress Party stronghold for more than three decades. The BJP is counting on Irani’s fame to dent Gandhi’s winning margin – a role that fits her image as a steely but dutiful daughter of India, which stems from the well-known soap character she played.

Her campaign is among the most widely covered in the Indian media.

In the important state of Uttar Pradesh, which holds the highest number of seats for the Indian Parliament, the BJP is also fielding Hema Malini, a popular 70s actress. She has been a member of parliament for two terms after shifting in to politics in 2003, and is seeking re-election in the city of Mathura, which she won by more than 300,000 votes in 2014.

It’s a family affair. Her husband Dharmendra, also a film-star turned politician, has joined her on the campaign trail. Malini’s stepson Sunny Deol, also an actor, is running as the BJP candidate in Gurdaspur, in northern Punjab state.

Movies and politics

In 1995, Matondkar appeared in the romantic comedy “Rangeela.” The film was a box office smash, featuring the Hindi soundtrack debut of A R Rahman and bringing Matondkar overnight stardom.

In the following decades, Matondkar’s career gained pace with hits including the 1998 critically acclaimed crime film “Satya” and the 2003 period drama “Pinjar,” which was set against the backdrop of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947.

The star power she accrued during her decades-long career is now being deployed in politics.

Matondkar says she decided to step into the political arena to fight for freedom of speech and build tolerance in a country which has seen public lynchings, mob violence and caste-based attacks in recent years.

Indian Bollywood actress Urmila Matondkar addresses the media after joining the Congress party in Mumbai, India on 29 March, 2019.

She is one of the few Bollywood stars to stand for the Congress Party.

“The politics of hatred, of division that are happening in the country. This is not what was promised to us,” says Matondkar.

Until last year, Modi and his BJP were widely seen by many political commentators as unbeatable. But growing concerns over the economy, the right-wing nationalism espoused by the ruling party and a series of state-level election losses in December, have put a question mark over the outcome of the general election.

“Both the sides are very nervous,” says Nahta, the film analyst. “That is why they are running to cricketing stars or film stars or television stars because it is do or die for both the parties – the Congress and the BJP.”

At Matondkar’s office in North Mumbai, party workers, volunteers and supporters queue for hours just to catch sight of her.

Kula Budhelia, a senior Congress Party leader in Mumbai, describes how Mumbai has six large constituencies, but while Matondkar is only running in one of them her face is in the spotlight across the city.

“Star power really helps,” he says.