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'Megastar' draws big crowds in Indian election

Chiranjeevi waved to the screaming boys standing in the tree branches and saluted the throngs of men dancing atop the bus roof.
India Megastar Politics
Indian movie star-turned-politician Chiranjeevi gestures as he speaks during an election campaign near Vijayawada, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Thursday, April 16.Aijaz Rahi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chiranjeevi waved to the screaming boys standing in the tree branches and saluted the throngs of men dancing atop the bus roof.

As his caravan crawled down the main road of this south Indian city, the movie-star-turned-politician bowed toward the women getting trampled and the driver who abandoned his car, doors still open, to join the raucous crowd.

Chiranjeevi, the beloved hero of 149 adventure-romance films, has quickly become a political force since leaving Tollywood, the Telugu-language film industry that he ruled for three decades, to found his own party and contest elections in the key state of Andhra Pradesh.

Transforming celebrity into political power
Blending Huey Long's populism, Ronald Reagan's charisma, Michael Jackson's moonwalk and Rod Blagojevich's haircut, the stocky, mustachioed actor, known to many simply as "Megastar," aims to become the latest in a long line of south Indian movie stars to transform godlike celebrity into political power.

Chiranjeevi, or "the immortal one," thunderously assails the state's two leading parties as corrupt and out of touch. He promises to fight for the poor and downtrodden, as movie audiences in Andhra Pradesh have seen him do for years.

Whether the masses flock to him for his celebrity or his politics, his debut has been extraordinary. The crowd at Chiranjeevi's first rally: one million people. (The crowd at Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington: 250,000.)

"Chiranjeevi creates confidence in people," said Jyoti Prasad, 22, a student at a recent rally in eastern Andhra Pradesh. "'I can do good' — he makes me think that."

Chiranjeevi, who belongs to the low Kapu caste, presents his party as an insurgency that will undo the power structure run by the same parties and influential castes for decades. He aims to become the top official in Andhra Pradesh, which no Kapu has ever done. The state has more than 75 million people with a booming IT sector but a vast poor, rural population.

"The government is self-centered," Chiranjeevi, 53, said in an interview aboard his campaign bus. "They don't have love and affection for the people...I always keep the poor man in my mind. We can bring change."

No clear favorite has emerged
Voting is finished in the state, but results won't be counted until May 16. He's a long shot, but no clear favorite has emerged in the Indian election, which is being held in five phases with some 714 million eligible voters.

The vote comes during a time of uncertainty, with the global recession threatening to undo two decades of economic growth and the largest parties struggling to rally support. Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam Party is one of a host of small, regional parties that have arisen, many with narrow visions but broad ambitions to become players in any coalition that emerges from a splintered vote.

His party is competing against the ruling Congress Party, which sees the state as a stronghold crucial to its shaky coalition; and the Telugu Desam, a powerful regional party founded in 1982 by the late N.T. Rama Rao, the only Tollywood star whose popularity rivaled Chiranjeevi's.

The path from cinema to politics is well trod. The biggest star of Tamil films, M. G. Ramachandran, ruled the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu for a decade before his death in 1987. His former co-star, J. Jayalalithaa, remains a leading state politician.

South India is so devoted to its movie stars that fans have been known to commit suicide in their honor. Historians say the bond comes from regional and linguistic pride, and a desire to stand against Hindi, the language of Bollywood, the country's biggest film industry, and the most widely spoken of India's 22 official tongues.

'Movies are the only entertainment'
Bindu Sonayak, an English teacher in the sleepy city of Vijayawada, sees a simpler explanation. "Movies are the only entertainment for us," she said. "They are our gurus."

Chiranjeevi, whose real name is Konidela Shiva Shankara Vara Prasad, peppers his campaign with references to his films. In his stump speech, he always mentions "Khaidi," a smash hit inspired by Sylvester Stallone's "First Blood" — but with song-and-dance numbers. During rallies, he often wears the wraparound sunglasses that stare back from countless movie posters. His campaign videos include iconic scenes from his movies, including ones with him bare-chested. His 1985 knockoff of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance has been viewed more than 14 million times on YouTube.

Chiranjeevi recently lost momentum when a top aide resigned, calling the party "a poisonous tree" and accusing it of selling its seats. Chiranjeevi dismissed the allegations, saying, "We are very rich. We don't need to get more money."

Analysts say he has also failed to articulate a coherent plan for change and has ceded too much power to family members. The actor scoffs and points to his unlikely film career. Though he belonged to the wrong caste and had few industry connections, he hip-swiveled and roundhouse kicked his way past Tollywood's old guard to the top.

Chiranjeevi has converted his extensive fan club network — "Wherever there is a TV, there is a fan club," said one member — into a political base made up mostly of young men, giving his campaign a presence in nearly every village across the state.

Caste is the undercurrent
Caste is the undercurrent of much of Indian life, and Chiranjeevi, the son of a police officer, serves as an inspiration to low-caste communities. He says he has offered more than 200 of the seats his party is contesting to minorities and people from low castes, more than any other party in the state.

He has also proposed a raft of populist plans, including money for groceries for the poor, two to five acres for the landless, and 100,000 rupees (US$2,000) in a trust fund for every female baby. His rivals have promised free color television sets and 2,000 rupees (US$40) a month to all poor families.

Chiranjeevi's fame is as inescapable as the south Indian heat. His portrait, complete with trademark mustache and devilish smile, bobs on the back of hand-painted rickshaws. Students re-enact his famous scenes in talent shows. Fans pay exorbitant prices to attend the first screening of each new film.

Tollywood releases roughly 150 movies a year, and Chiranjeevi's nearly always follow the same path: evil landlord/corrupt cop exploits poor villager/virtuous woman; amidst elaborate fight scenes and dance routines, Chiranjeevi saves the day. Many voters believe his films are proof enough that he stands with the poor.

'Messages through movies'
"He sends messages through movies," said Vijay Lakshmi, 30, a teacher. "He will do good things in politics as well."

Some fans, however, think he should have stayed in film.

"I like his acting, but I don't have faith he can help people," Raja Chebrolu, 54, said at a rally in the small town of Kankipadu. "I've never seen him in person so I came. But I won't vote for him."

Just then, Chiranjeevi spread his arms like wings and pointed his thumbs toward the sky, his signature salute.

The screams from the crowd drowned out the rest of Chebrolu's words.