As the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger grabs headlines across the world, Indians can give a world-weary shrug and cite “Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, N.T. Rama Rao, M.G. Ramachandran, Sunil Dutt, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Shatrughan Sinha, and yes even Arun Govil (remember him?)—need we go on?”
Yes, I know there was Ronald Reagan, but he was never a star in Arnold’s league.
Over here in California, the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger has left Democrats and liberals scratching their heads befuddled as to how a pumped-up ex-weightlifter with a thick Austrian accent could sweep a state in which every other elected statewide-office bearer is a Democrat. Till the very last minute they thought that the crowds who thronged to his meetings would not follow him all the way into the voting booth, that at the last minute sanity would prevail and they’d go for a more predictable choice.
Ironically, though we live in the home state of Hollywood and our lawmakers periodically rant and rave about licentiousness and violence on screen, we don’t fully appreciate the power of the blockbuster. Political reporters fretted about the vagueness of Schwarzenegger’s plans. They complained that he offered few concrete ideas of how he would stuff the gaping hole in the budget. He, in fact, proposed to add to it by repealing a hike in the car fee. The other candidates fumed that he skipped most of the debates. But Californians of all shapes still closed their eyes and decided it was worth taking a leap of faith on candidate Schwarzenegger because someone who can play both Terminator and Kindergarten Cop can’t be that bad.
The fact is, Arnold Schwarzenegger was exciting in a way none of the other candidates was. I didn’t support him; I have never liked his movies. My image of him is still the bulging-biceped grunting Conan the Barbarian I saw at the Lighthouse cinema in Kolkata years ago. Was I to even imagine that one day I’d live in a state ruled by him?
But I can see his appeal. It’s not that Californians are fools duped by the glamor of Hollywood. It’s because movies are real to people in a way few of us give them credit for. It’s no coincidence that the big politician-stars of India all came out of the blockbuster industry—whether it’s Amitabh Bachchan or M.G. Ramachandran. These are people whose mega images inspired mega passions and mega loyalties. It’s no coincidence that art film stars like Shabana Azmi went to the Rajya Sabha as nominated candidates. Though Azmi is incredibly smart and articulate and could probably run for office if she chose, her screen persona allows people to admire her but not whip themselves into frenzy for her. People won’t try and immolate themselves if Azmi ends up mortally ill as happened in M.G.R.’s last days.
America has had a sneering love-hate relationship with its films. While we throng to the blockbuster and devour the overpriced sodas and popcorns, Hollywood movies are always looked down upon as intellectually inferior. The fact is, for better or for worse, movies, Hollywood movies, are America’s face to the rest of the world.
Today I met a young Afghan woman journalist. She is one of the first women to be trained in journalism in over a decade in Afghanistan. For five years she was cooped up at home, studying English secretly, while the Taliban ruled the country. On her first trip abroad ever she landed in California in the middle of the electoral campaign. I asked her what Afghans were making of Arnold and her face lit up and she said that they were very excited because everybody knows Arnold, everybody likes his movies.
It would have to be a very charismatic politician with deep pockets and a long electoral campaign who could withstand that kind of juggernaut of celebrity that reached the heart of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in pirated form.
But for me, who only watched one of those Terminator movies, Arnold’s electoral campaign is the vindication of the power of the movies. People have described this election disparagingly as a circus, but though politically I may not like the outcome, as an election-watcher this is the first time I have seen Americans truly animated about an election.
It reminded me—yes, here I go again in the “been there, done that” frame—of elections in India when all the dadas in the neighborhood would have heated arguments over endless cups of tea, where our neighbor’s home was an electoral war zone since the three brothers who lived there all supported different branches of the Communist Party, and my mother would be trying to educate our illiterate maid about which symbol she should stamp her vote on.
Elections were exciting, unpredictable, and full of promise. Of course, the promise was often betrayed, but it would rise again with some new firebrand star. The aim of movies is to excite, to surprise, and to give us hope. Is it any wonder that a megastar like Arnold managed to combine the two and reach off the screen to give Californians a sense of excitement about an unpredictable future? The only surprise is it took so long for someone to figure out that synergy. Why, in India, we figured it out years ago!
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.