In India, action heroes and dancers audition for votes

In the close national elections, India's major - and minor - parties are turning to Bollywood for their cast of candidates.

She steps onto the stage in Rampur in a silken sari and places her palms together, greeting the crowd with an elegant "namaste."

She is Jayaprada, a Bollywood film actress of the 1980s. The crowd is a little boisterous, and after a few wordsabout what this actress-turned-candidate would bring her constituents, one man in the crowd cannot contain himself any further. "Come on," he shouts, "give us a little dance."

Presumably, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has days like this too.

As in America, the line between politics and cinema here in India blurred long ago, and the involvement of movie stars in endorsing candidates or becoming candidates themselves has become a feature that many Indians have come to expect. Some of these actors are sincere activists for their parties; while others are there to endorse a candidate just as they would endorse a bar of soap, or a mobile phone. Whether their presence adds anything to the national parliamentary elections that began last Tuesday and are spread over three weeks is a matter of discussion.

"I think in a tight race like this, where there is no clear winner, you've got to make the voter believe that this party is the winning horse," says Rajeev Bhargava, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "So if you show them that everyone is really jumping on the winning bandwagon, you might attract the marginal voter who hasn't decided yet which party to support."

Movie stars have been a part of politics here almost since the arrival of cinema. Yet this year, their faces cover nearly every newspaper, especially those that dedicate whole sections to Bollywood "gupshup" (gossip). And to be honest, gupshup occasionally takes precedence over issues.

Take the case of Deol Dharmendra Kewal Krishna. This action hero of 1970s Indian cinema recently filed papers to be a candidate for the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state of Rajasthan. But questions have emerged as to whether Mr. Dharmendra has properly declared his financial assets.

This has also raised an old scandal for Dharmendra, who, after all, represents a party based on traditional Hindu values. Back in the 70s, Dharmendra had a rather open affair with a costar, Hema Malini, a woman so beautiful that she was called "Dream Girl." During the filming of a movie, Ms. Malini became pregnant, and Dharmendra - a devout Hindu -- announced his intention to convert to Islam, and soon afterward legally made Malini his second wife.

Dharmendra expressed his dismay at the amount of attention given to this scandal. "I wanted to make a soft entry into politics. But now someone has put his foot on the tail of a lion. Make me a dictator for five years and I would remove all the dirt from Indian politics to make it clean."

In India, it takes all kinds to complete the cast of Indian political characters. There are motherly-looking types like the Tamil Nadu chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalitha, and there are fiery intellectual fashion plates like Shabana Azmi, a former Rajya Sabha member. There are action heroes like Vinod Khanna, the current cabinet minister, and there are goofball disco dancers like Govinda Ahuja, the current Bombay Congress party candidate.

Newspapers like to make fun of these stars. The Indian Express recently interviewed newly politicized actors, asking them questions like, "Who is the current president of India?" The results were not encouraging.

Yet Mani Shankar Iyer, a longtime Congress party parliamentarian from Tamil Nadu, welcomes actors into politics, not just from Bollywood, as Bombay's film industry is called, but also from regional film centers such as Chennai, Calcutta, and Bangalore.

"We need people from every profession," says Mr. Iyer. "Some of them, like Shatrughan Sinha, are very successful in politics. Mr. Sinha said something that was very perceptive. He said that what he finds familiar in both film and politics is that in both areas, you can find glamour and power, except in politics the power is a little more."

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