The three bullets that killed his friend shocked actor Prakash Raj. What followed stunned him even more. Within hours of the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in September 2017, Twitter trolls — many of them followed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — began posting celebratory messages. When Raj questioned Modi’s silence on the posts, the trolls hit back with bigotry, referring to his Catholic mother and Hindu wife.
A year and a half later, Raj, 54, is ready for battle again — the biggest one of his life. For 30 years, the multilingual winner of five national film awards has challenged the norm in the movie industry, acting in five languages — Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu — in a country where few have made that transition easily. This time, he’s taking on India’s entrenched political establishment in the 2019 general elections, history’s largest ever democratic exercise.
Tall and with a big build, Raj doesn’t have the chiseled face or body of a typical film star. Instead, it’s his rugged looks, warm but naughty smile and twinkling eyes that will greet voters from campaign posters as Raj contests as an independent candidate from Bangalore Central constituency, India’s hub of tech innovation and the capital of the state of Karnataka. The government in power — led by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — is the target of much of his criticism. But he’s also unsparing of the Congress, India’s grand old party now in opposition. He’s adamant about not joining any party.
“Political parties are a trap,” Raj tells me, sitting in his office, with a window overlooking the city’s busy traffic. “Ultimately, a member of parliament from a party has to do what the party wants — not what the people want.”
It’s hard to put Raj in a box, let alone a trap. He may be one of India’s best-known current actors, but Raj says he hates watching movies. “I would rather read in my free time.” Or listen to Frank Sinatra. His drink of choice changes with the seasons — cognac in the winter, beer in the summer. Raj mostly plays the antihero on the screen — his “Aata majhi satakli,” which loosely translates to, “Beware, I’ve lost all control over my temper,” from the 2011 Bollywood super hit Singham, is one of the most iconic lines in recent Hindi cinema, often heard on the streets of Mumbai. In the film, he plays a corrupt politician involved in smuggling, extortion and abduction. In real life, though, he hopes to wear the white hat.
Losing my son made me realize not to take anything for granted.
He isn’t the first film star to enter Indian politics. But others have either joined a political party or started one of their own, like iconic Tamil star Kamal Haasan in 2018. And barring a handful of individuals, India’s movie stars — even those who have joined politics — have steered clear of controversial political subjects in public to avoid any backlash from a section of their fans or from the government of the day. Not so Raj.
Two months after the murder of Lankesh — who was a critic of Modi — Raj took aim at the government’s economic policies. It was the anniversary of Modi’s November 2016 decision to ban high-value currency notes overnight — a move that slowed India’s economy down for two years. Raj penned a public note demanding an “apology” from Modi. All he got was more vitriol from Modi’s supporters, some of whom have turned up with black flags at the actor’s public appearances. That didn’t deter him. Tackling topics ranging from farmer suicides to reforms that have simplified the tax code but adversely hit small traders, Raj has used Twitter and Facebook to pose questions of the government with the hashtag #JustAsking. But in November, he started questioning himself: Was he doing enough? The answer, he concluded, was no. “I’m a product of all the love and support I’ve got from society, from people,” he says. “It’s their voice that I want to take to Parliament.”
That’s particularly important at this juncture, says filmmaker Deepu (he goes by a single name) when Indian politics is sharply divided between the BJP and the Congress. “Prakash represents a third voice, an independent voice, and that’s crucial,” says Deepu, who has known Raj since they met after the Lankesh murder. Deepu also was a friend of the killed journalist.
The Congress too, Raj insists, has betrayed Indians. Because it’s the principal opposition to the BJP, it takes Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities for granted, the actor says. “It thinks of minorities like a vote bank.”
Though he’s a political greenhorn, Raj has started showing some tactical know-how. He won’t join a party but doesn’t mind smaller parties supporting him. He has met leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party that rules Delhi, and of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi that is in power in Telangana state.
None of that will help Raj win, insists Dr. Vaman Acharya, BJP spokesperson in Karnataka. “He is trying to get noticed by targeting the prime minister, but he’s not going to gain traction,” says Acharya. “Independents rarely win.” Indeed, independent candidates won just three out of 543 seats in the 2014 general elections, nine in 2009 and five in 2004. The BJP has fielded its incumbent MP, P. Chikkamuni Mohan, from Bangalore Central, which votes on April 18. The Congress candidate is Rizwan Arshad, who lost to Mohan in 2014.
But Raj has faced tougher odds. He was born in a low-income Bangalore home. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother — a nurse — brought him and his younger brother up almost single-handedly. He dropped out of college when he realized his passion lay in acting. Then in 2004, Raj lost his son after a freak accident when the 4-year-old suffered a fall while flying a kite. His son seemed fine, but weeks later, he suffered fits and passed away. “Losing my son made me realize not to take anything for granted,” says Raj. “It still hurts.”
Even if he doesn’t win, Raj’s entry into politics itself “is an inspiration for many people” who don’t see any alternative to the BJP and Congress, says Deepu. Raj, though, knows he can breach difficult boundaries. He was born Prakash Rai and changed his last name to Raj in 1994 on the advice of Tamil film director K. Bhalachander, to broaden his geographic appeal: While Rai is clearly a name from Karnataka, Raj carries no such regional stamp. “Bhalachander told me I have a future that’s pan-Indian,” the actor recalls.
His mentor’s belief is now being tested — far beyond the silver screen.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Prakash Raj
- What book are you reading at the moment? Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat by Perumal Murugan.
- What do you worry about? I’m not someone who worries much.
- What can’t you live without? Thai food. I can travel to Thailand, anytime, any day, for the street food.
- Who’s your hero? My mother.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Getting away from the city and living on my farm.
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