THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala — In 2000, a group of men in Kerala took to the streets shouting slogans about Malayalam superstar Mohanlal—not very surprising, considering the adulation showered on him by admirers. But this group had not come to praise him—instead, they waved black flags outside theatres playing Mohanlal’s movies, threw black paint on his posters and issued calls to boycott his movies.
The protesters were part of the RSS and they were angered by the movie star’s move to become a director of Malayalam Communications Ltd, a company floated by the CPI(M) to launch its TV channel Kairali. The protests, recall long-time political observers, ended only when the actor backtracked from his association with the Left party venture.
19 years later, the actor has been forced to clarify once again that he has no political ambitions. But this time, there is a twist in the plot—the flashpoint is his probable links with the RSS, and the ones threatening to hit the streets in protest are his devoted fans, many of whom consider worshipping at the altar of Lalettan (as he is popularly known) a full-time occupation.
Taking on Tharoor
Last week, O. Rajagopal, the BJP’s lone Kerala MLA, confirmed rumours that the RSS was trying to persuade Mohanlal to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Trivandrum, against the popular Shashi Tharoor from Congress— either on a BJP ticket or as an independent candidate backed by the BJP.
‘People close to the actor’ kept denying media reports that he would contest elections, but half a dozen of his close associates told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that Mohanlal had been monitoring reactions from fans closely to gauge how the news would be received.
“Though the star has no ideological and political differences with BJP-RSS, he is anxious about the possible negative reaction the candidature would generate among majority of the people in Kerala, who remain averse to the Sangh Parivar politics,” said film critic and writer GP Ramachandran.
Mohanlal was also awarded the Padma Bhushan last month—while even his fiercest critics agree that an actor with his talent and body of work was worthy of the honour, the timing raised some eyebrows.
The BJP has not had much luck in Kerala politics thus far—in 2014, Rajagopal gave Tharoor a tough fight in Trivandrum but lost by 14,501 votes—but it is hoping that the Sabarimala issue, which polarised political opinion, will give it an advantage this time. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have made several visits to the state in recent months. The party’s local leaders have even recommended defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who is from Tamil Nadu and represents Karnataka, as a possible candidate from Trivandrum.
Action star Suresh Gopi, now a Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the BJP, is a possibility, but Tharoor, who is set to contest for a third consecutive time from the constituency, is considered a difficult candidate to beat. The former diplomat, who was a political novice in 2009, is now a popular politician who connects with his constituents both online and offline.
Landing Mohanlal’s considerable star power would have been a coup for the BJP.
From villain to superstar
It’s hard to overstate Mohanlal’s decades-long influence over the Malayali imagination. He made his big-screen debut as a villain in 1980, with Manjil Virinja Pookkal, and became a bonafide superstar by the latter half of that decade—along with that other superstar of Malayalam cinema, Mammootty.
The latter’s political leanings have been clear for years. Mammootty is the chairman of the aforementioned Malayalam Communications, and each time an election draws near, there is some speculation that he will be a Left candidate. It has not happened yet.
Mohanlal rose to fame playing the middle-class everyman, but soon graduated to a string of roles in which he played a moustache-twirling, upper-caste, macho hero who was sometimes made out to be a divine incarnation. The subtext of both his movies and more recently, his blogs, put him closer to the BJP camp, though he has a rapport with the Congress as well. It was under the Congress-led UPA government at the centre that he was inducted into the territorial army as a Lieutenant Colonel.
“We hope that he would not commit the political foolishness of joining BJP ranks. Such an actor of wide popularity and acceptability would not commit such a blunder,” Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala, the leader of the opposition in Kerala, told HuffPost India.
Another Congress leader, VT Balram, pointed out that though many of Mohanlal’s movies have failed at the box office after 2000, his name itself is a strong brand. Last year, a movie in which Manju Warrier played a diehard fan of the actor was called, simply, Mohanlal.
“Even now, the presence of Mohanlal ensures initial crowd for even the worst movies he acts in. However, there is no guarantee that the prevailing popularity would be translated as votes,” said Balram.
Why are fans angry?
The leader of one of Mohanlal’s biggest fan clubs recently said in a discussion on TV that they are suspicious of the BJP’s intentions.
“We, the fans of Mohanlal, wish to see him only in movies, playing exceptional characters. He has nothing to do in Parliament, where shrewd politicians are engaging in war of words. If our beloved actor decides to plunge into electoral politics, we have no option but to organise protests across the state,” said R Vimal Kumar, president of Kerala Mohanlal Fans and Cultural Welfare Association, the only one among more than 70 fan clubs which has been endorsed by the actor himself.
The actor also took over as the president of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (A.M.M.A) last year, and has been facing questions over the organisation’s stand in the case of the sexual assault of a Malayalam actress, allegedly planned by fellow actor Dileep.
Vimal Kumar referred to the examples of other, less popular Malayalam actors such as Mukesh, who have contested elections and won but not really been able to make a mark.
An association with a right-wing party, feel fans, would also jeopardise the star’s popularity in a state where his fans extend across ideologies and religions.
Rajagopal, of the BJP, was still hopeful when HuffPost India spoke to him on Friday.
“We are still persuading him. Our state leadership feels he would be the best candidate for Thiruvananthapuram. He is a native of Thiruvananthapuram with strong rapport with the local community. He can do better in Parliament,” he said.
But for now, Mohanlal seems to have let protesters make up his mind for him again. He told The Times of India on Monday that politics was not his “cup of tea” and that he has “no inclination whatsoever”.
The actor, who is currently acting in a biopic of Kunjali Marakkar IV, the Muslim naval chief of the Hindu Zamorin of Calicut who fought four major battles with invading Portuguese forces, told HuffPost India that his mind was currently only on the film.
“It would be one of my most challenging characters and the cinema would be the most expensive one in Malayalam,” he said. “I want to make Marakkar memorable and there is no other agenda right now under my consideration.”