When filmstar Rekha was nominated to the Rajya Sabha during the UPA years, political journalists like me who are basically glorified gossip writers were carried away by our enthusiasm. We’d follow Congress leader Rajiv Shukla as he conspiratorially accompanied Ms Rekha in and out of the House and then nod knowingly when one who claimed to have heard from someone authoritative, that this was the Congress’ way of countering its ally, the Samajwadi Party’s Jaya Bhaduri. The difference between us and Rasheed Kidwai is that he actually went back and did some work on this and many other theories that abound about all the filmy characters who have flirted with politics. Some of the flirtations led to long term relationships so solid that their old Bollywood life seems a distant memory, like in Congress MP Raj Babbar’s case and in some like Govinda’s, politics is like a blip. Either way, they both make for fascinating tales.
For instance, Kareena Kapoor’s early crush on Rahul Gandhi was revealed to all in a 2002 Simi Garewal interview. Kidwai gets a key Gandhi family aide, P.P. Madhavan, to confirm that this revelation had enough of an impact on the Congress president to start buying first-day, first-show tickets of Ms kapoor’s films. By the time 2009 happened, she had moved on, but what’s nice about the book, is that Kidwai traces this admiration back to Raj Kapoor and Indira Gandhi’s time. Apparently, the former Prime Minister was so impressed with the Kapoors, she was hoping to have Rajiv married to Ritu, Raj Kapoor’s eldest. This, Kidwai explains, wasn’t because she was starstruck, but because the Kapoors contributed significantly to “cultural diplomacy” and Prithviraj Kapoor also played an exemplary role as a nominated MP. Nehru was struck with amazement when he met Stalin on a tour to Russia as one of the questions he asked was about Raj Kapoor and Awara.
When we watch films like Akshay Kumar’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, it may look like a novel idea that a Bollywood actor is promoting the ideas being pushed by the current government, like Swacch Bharat, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet theme. A reading of Neta Abhineta shows that this has been done through the ages. In his plays, Prithviraj Kapoor would drive home ideas of secularism and would speak openly against Jinnah and the Muslim League. Films like Haqeeqat were made with government funding to tell the story of how the Indian Army resisted the invasion by Chinese troops. And much later, Dev Anand also took his anti-corruption ideas from his films to politics, although not very successfully.
The best part about Neta Abhineta is that it is abundant in its precious anecdotes about iconic films and political personalities. Kidwai writes that whenever Jawaharlal Nehru was very impressed with a movie or play that was screened for him, he’d invite them home to Teen Murti, but this created other hassles. For instance, when Nehru invited Prithviraj Kapoor to his house for dinner, he turned it down because the other crew members were not invited. Nehru took note and, soon enough, all 60 turned up in Teen Murti Bhavan. Similarly, director K.A. Abbas was invited for breakfast because his film Munna really moved Nehru, and he asked if he could bring his crew along. The Prime Minister had to ask for Indira Gandhi’s permission because these frequent invitations were turning out to be quite taxing on his fixed salary.
For this and many more such stories, I urge you to pick up Neta Abhineta. The only criticism I have is that the accounts of yesteryear stars are much more revelatory than those that we’ve seen recently, but you won’t mind that. All you’ll remember are stories like Nargis asking fellow Rajya Sabha MP Khushwant Singh for a favour, to stay at his home in Kasauli while dropping her son Sanjay Dutt to The Lawrence School, Sonawar. He agreed and later, when someone tried to introduce them, Nargis reportedly said — “I’ve slept in his bed!”
Sunetra Choudhury is political editor, NDTV. She tweets at @sunetrac...