Byline By M.J. Akbar : Hema in Bhojpur
No prizes for guessing which of these two questions is more relevant: How silly is Hema Malini? How clever is the BJP? Hema Malini, whose cheeks were once idealised by Lalu Yadav as the ultimate metaphor for the perfect surface, was not made a Member of Parliament by the BJP because of her exceptional IQ. Since we are in the market for small mercies, let us merely note with approval that Hema Malini has not fallen into the trap, inhabited by a few of her ilk, of hiding her intellectual insecurity by arranging a doctorate so that she could write Dr Hema Malini on her visiting card. Hema was a successful actor, if not a good one; it is possible that if she had been a good one, she might not have been successful. Bollywood has its own laws of demand and supply.
I have no problem whatsoever with filmstars joining politics. Politics is a church of democracy in which everyone must be welcome. But the right to membership does not qualify you to be pastor. Some former actors make good pastors. M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh were outstanding, indeed far better in public life than on the public screen. The great veteran M. Karunanidhi has worked closely with the industry, and of course his bête noire Jayalalithaa has also proved that you can be a competent leader of your state after a career in films. I suspect that if Shatrughan Sinha ever sees his dream turn into reality and becomes chief minister of Bihar, he won’t be that bad either.
Amitabh Bachchan is a remarkably mature and intelligent person, without fusspot sentimentality and with genuine concern for the deprived; with his communication skills he would have been a magnetic leader if he had remained in politics. However, I cannot see Hema Malini as a future Ahalyabai, and her husband Dharmendra might not quite make the grade as another Rana of Mewar. As for someone like Govinda, he still doesn’t look as if he quite knows what he is doing.
Hema Malini is in the Rajya Sabha because Indian democracy wants its Page 3. The main political parties, including Congress and BJP, have decided that they could do with a few cheerleaders whose primary role is that of a magnet. Their function is to draw crowds since regular politicians can’t raise more than a yawn. I suppose there is nothing more dispiriting for a candidate than to bellow into thin air. With Hema Malini around, the candidate can be certain that there will be a few people around to check the quality of face or perhaps surface.
While therefore it may be sensible to put a Hema Malini on display at election time, it is not so wise to let her open her mouth. There has traditionally been a place, at rallies, for entertainers, including poets, who are hired to ease the restlessness of crowds waiting for a leader to arrive. I suppose it would be too much to ask Hema Malini to do the Bharatnatyam at every political rally, but someone could put together an inoffensive standard patter-page. The temptation to go off and say something honest is best resisted.
That of course is the only problem with Hema Malini’s now famous advice to “outsiders” that if they can’t succeed in Mumbai they should return to their villages. She was honest where a more practised political professional might have dissimulated, using the craft of phraseology to suggest to his audience that while his heart lay in thinly-veiled racism, his lips would remain sealed because there were nasty reporters lurking around. Hema Malini has only repeated what the Shiv Sena has been saying since it became a force in Maharashtra.
The irony of course is lost on Hema Malini. Shiv Sena started life by telling South Indians that they were not sons of Mumbai’s soil. Hema probably did not pay attention then; she was busy listening to a carefree Rajesh Khanna wonder what tomorrow would bring: “Zindagi ik safar hai suhana, yahan kal kya ho kisne jaana”. Tomorrow has arrived, and look what it’s brought, a place on the Shiv Sena-BJP dais. By her own yardstick, Hema and her husband Dharmendra, native of Punjab, are safe. They succeeded, so they don’t have to return to their village. It’s all those slumdinger Bhaiyyas and Biharis, stupid Olivers who keep asking for more, who need a return ticket.
A couple of weeks ago a few gunmen from a group called Ulfa persuaded Biharis in Assam to find their way to railway platforms, but I have it on the best authority that Hema Malini has no wish to be that insistent. Fog-lifters have to clear up what cheerleaders leave in their wake. A clarification has been issued which, in the classic tradition of all clarifications, begins by blaming that serpent in democracy’s garden of Eden, the media. All those reporters, it is actually they who should be sent home first. Poor, innocent, sinless Hema was at some function where reporters, instead of being good little boys and girls and watching the show, kept pestering her with questions. Moreover, she was unable to hear the questions clearly, but being the fabulous sport that she is, went ahead and answered questions that she could not hear.
“I replied in a humorous way,” she explained through her personal fog-lifter, a certain M.A. Mehta, “merely to keep them away”. That’s it, then. She did not want to keep North Indians away from Mumbai, she wanted to keep reporters away from Hema Malini. That is a far more honourable objective. If an election were held on that issue, I daresay the North Indians of Mumbai would give Hema their unanimous support, particularly since she noted that she had the highest respect for North Indians. Evidence? She had acted in a Bhojpuri film once! And just the other day she danced at the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad. What more could a reasonable Bhaiyya want from a Rajya Sabha member?
Ms Malini may of course have been thinking of success as the criterion for eligibility in Mumbai, rather than race. In which case, she has understood her city wrong. Mumbai is a city of aspiration, not success. In Ms Malini’s old profession, I doubt if even 1% succeed. That does not prevent the other 99% plus from aspiring. The success of Mumbai lies precisely in the fact that it is full of failures. You can only fail if you try, and everyone comes to Mumbai only to give his and her destiny a chance. There is no other city in India with the range of opportunity that Mumbai provides, which is why so many hearts break on its hard, perhaps even harsh, pavements. Mumbai makes fortunes with as little sentiment as it says no. It is easier to keep Mumbai away from the rest of India, Hemaji, than to keep the rest of India away from Mumbai.
There was one sentence of genuine clarity in the statement issued in Hema Malini’s name: she had no authority to advise North Indians to leave Mumbai, she said. Spot on. India is a free country of free people, and the Indian’s right to seek one’s future in any part of his country is an unambiguous right. Hema Malini could do us all a very important service if she could persuade everyone on the Shiv Sena-BJP platform to accept this. The BJP, which sent the actress to Parliament, claims to be a national party and acts like a regional one. When it makes up its mind, it should send a circular to those on its Page 3 longlist.