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August 30, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Ambareesh

'Nobody expects me to achieve in real life what I achieve in films'

Ambareesh Full time politicking certainly seems to have added to his girth, if not to his stature. The huge figure sprawled across his plush white sofa in an ungainly man nodded offhandedly as he talked into the telephone. Former Karnataka minister S Ramesh, known as an organiser in the Congress, walked busily around the room, speaking into his cell phone in bad Hindi. "I have a press conference in a half hour," he declared importantly, and bustled out, his starched white clothes rustling behind him.

Ambareesh, looking very middle-aged, despite his obviously dyed jet black hair and his youthful attire of a blue and white striped T shirt and trousers, smiled lazily, crinkling up his bloodshot eyes. M D Riti was reminded of the time, perhaps ten years ago, when he was the Kannada screen's undisputed reigning hero, enjoying the title of 'rebel star' because he invariably acted in routine dishum dishum movies.

Photographs of his attractive and much younger wife, former leading lady Sumalatha, and their cherubic looking young son, dotted the living room. "My wife uses Internet, I don't know much about it," he confessed, leaning further back into the cushions.

He first joined the Congress just before the last Karnataka assembly poll in 1994, too late to be given a ticket, but well in time for campaigning. However, his reception from the people turned out to be far more lukewarm than either the star or his party anticipated: he was greeted with slippers and rotten vegetables at a couple of public meetings.

The injured actor retired from active politics, but continued to nurse his political aspirations. When the Congress did not give him a ticket during the 1996 general election, he promptly quit that party and joined forces with fellow Vokkaliga, H D Deve Gowda, who gave him a Janata Dal ticket in 1998. Ambareesh won that election and was an MP for several months, without achieving anything significant.

The vehicles lining the road outside his grand house in Bangalore's Jayaprakash Nagar second phase included an open campaign jeep decorated with propaganda material and buntings. But Ambareesh seemed to be in no great hurry to go campaigning, as he spoke to

Why did you return to the Congress after leaving them for the Dal barely five years ago, and even winning an election on a Dal ticket?

The Dal has become two parts. And both are led by people whom I am fond of. Deve Gowda has supported me so much all these years. And J H Patel has been very good to me too. I could not leave any one person and shift to the other.

I tried very hard to keep them together. I mediated umpteen times, whenever there seemed to be a rift between these leaders, to try and keep the party united. But they split all the same. I simply did not want to choose one and hurt the other. So I had no choice but to go back to the Congress. If you want to serve the people, you must have the support of a party.

Besides, I had come into politics through the Congress, and I knew the party well. So I rejoined them.

Why did you enter politics five years ago?

I was always interested in social service. I used to dabble in it even when I was a full time film star. It is not possible to help the people in a big way without getting into politics.

Why did you choose the Congress at that time? Did they invite you?

Yes, yes. I had a great admiration of G Made Gowda, the veteran Congress leader and MP from Mandya. He drew me into the Congress fold.

So why did you leave the party?

That is an old story that I do not want to go into now.

Did the party ask you to contest this election? Or did you ask for a ticket?

No, they asked me to stand.

But your followers accosted you in Srirangapatna and asked you not to go back to the Congress.

It is easy for leaders to change parties. But for the small party worker living in a village, it is very awkward to be found holding a Janata Dal flag one day and a Congress flag the next. It costs them their self respect and their standing in the village.

One group of my supporters were in favour of my joining the Congress, the other was not. I did not want to hurt my fans. When one young man actually threatened to kill himself if I joined the Congress, I told them that I was ready to quit politics altogether. That shook my supporters. They said, please don't quit, go ahead and join the Congress and we are all with you.

The boy who was ready to consume poison to prevent me from doing that finally told me in public that he was only worried that this might not be my last party hop, and that I may go back again to the Dal after a while, embarrassing him even further!

So you have your supporters backing you and campaigning for you in Mandya, irrespective of which party you belong to?

Yes, they are all my personal fans.

Why did Made Gowda now announce that he will quit the Congress and politics? Was he miffed that you got the ticket for the Lok Sabha poll, and not him?

Of course not. The offer came first to him, and then to me. But he turned it down, and came instead to my house to ask me to contest. I am very pained to learn of his decision to quit the party and politics in general. I hope he changes his mind, and doesn't stick to his stand.

Are you going to Bellary to campaign for Sonia Gandhi?

If they ask me to, I certainly will. They have not so far.

What is your opinion of Sonia Gandhi?

I think it is very unfair that so many men should gang up to fight one woman. The only allegation against her today is that she is a foreigner, and nobody said that when her husband was alive. She belongs, after all, to one of the best families of the country, which has sacrificed so much for India.

She too must have some of that same commitment to the Indian people, otherwise she would have run off long ago, having endured so much hardship after having two children by an Indian man, one of the greatest men of this country. Now she just wants to work for the people, and I think she would be able to do a lot of good for the country.

Have you started campaigning yet?

No, not yet. I will begin only after the last date for withdrawing nominations is over in my area.

Do you think there is too little time for you to campaign this time?

Yes, far too little, particularly for people like me, because every single village wants me to visit them, and that is practically impossible in such a short time.

Do you and your party have good support in Mandya?

The people like me as a film artiste. It has nothing to do with which party I belong to. They only go by my record of having been an MP, because of which they know that I will work well for them.

What is your party's popularity in Mandya now?

Five years ago, Deve Gowda came into the limelight and the people of Mandya followed him blindly, routing the Congress. Now our party chief in Karnataka, S M Krishna, has a small chance of becoming the chief minister of Karnataka. We cannot really bank on that, it is just a small chance. But everyone feels, let us just make use of that chance. So this time the people of Mandya may blindly vote for him and the Congress.

Do you think you can achieve a lot for the people of Karnataka by being an MP?

Don't you think an MP can do a lot for his state? If our government comes to power, we can do a lot for the people. If not, we can oppose the government and do a lot for the people. An MP has real respect, you see, both in Delhi and in Karnataka. Its a very special position to hold.

Does politics affect your film career?

I have already cut down on it a lot. Over the past two years, I have only acted in one film. However, I must confess that it is not only because I don't have time, but mostly because I am also aging. I cannot really compete with the young stars known the scene.

Will you still continue to act at all?

Yes, but only when good roles come my way. Not the old hero rebel star type of roles that I used to do, but something different. Perhaps only in films with a message.

Why have film stars not risen to the top in politics in Karnataka as they have in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh?

I guess it all depends on the personalities involved in politics. It is not only in our country, but even in America: see Ronald Reagan's following, which ultimately made him president of the US.

Do you think someone like Dr Rajkumar could change this situation if he entered politics?

Oh yes, certainly. The entire state would be his in just 24 hours! But as a person who knows him well, I can say he has no interest in most worldly things, including politics.

Do people respond to you as a film star or as a politician?

As a film star first, and as a politician next.

Do people expect more of you, because you are a film star, and not just a run-of-the-mill politician?

Yes, in the sense they expect me to be clean, not corrupt, and genuinely dedicated to them. That is all. Nobody expects me to achieve in real life what I achieve in films, of course. They are just happy if they know that I am trying to help them. If I achieve 20 per cent of what they ask of me, they are more than satisfied.

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