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Arnold, Take a Tip From Bachchan

Like Schwarzenegger, India's superstar Amitabh Bachchan also parlayed his celebrity into an electoral victory -- and Bachchan could give Arnold some serious advice.
 
 
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If I were Arnold Schwarzenegger I would be placing a call to Amitabh Bachchan, India's most successful actor ever, right about now. India's booming film industry has been a fertile ground for launching political careers, and those star-politicians just might have better career advice for the new governor than his highly paid consultants.

Amitabh Bachchan, once dubbed "Actor of the Millennium" in a BBC news poll, was a demigod in Bollywood. Like Arnold, he too parlayed his screen image into a stunning electoral victory over a veteran politician, in his 1984 bid to become a Member of Parliament. Like Arnold, he promised to be a force for change, a new broom that would sweep clean India's murky political system.

Bachchan wasn't the first star-turned-politico -- there were Sunil Dutt and Rajesh Khanna and M.G. Ramachandran and many others -- but he was certainly the first superstar a la Arnold. Yet his political career didn't follow his angry-young-man-triumphs movie script. Beset by scandals and court cases, he resigned his seat in four years and ended up in near bankruptcy. And therein lies a cautionary tale for California's new strongman.

California's politician-weary electorate turned out in record numbers not because they had any clear idea how Arnold would solve the budget crisis. Let's face it: Arnold's image counted. Perhaps his supporters are hoping the screen machismo of Conan the Barbarian will smash through the bureaucracy and inertia that has Sacramento tied up in knots.

That was what the public in India wanted from Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan had been the lanky, glowering anti-hero in an industry that had long favored romantic heroes prone to love songs in gardens in Kashmir. Bachchan, by contrast, was a smoldering loner who took on the system single-handed.

But when he entered politics with his old friend Rajiv Gandhi, who became prime minister, he soon found his entire family embroiled in a scandal about defense contract kickbacks and bribes that eventually drove Gandhi from office and Bachchan from politics. Bachchan always claimed he was unfairly hounded, but to his adoring fans he had betrayed the dream. He was supposed to be the loner who took on the establishment. He turned out to be yet another establishment politician playing their game.

Amitabh Bachchan tried to be a young technocrat-politician instead of Amitabh Bachchan, superstar, and found the public would have none of it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger spent his electoral campaign dismissing his violent, gun-toting movies as "just films" not to be taken seriously. Yet he knows full well that that's where his appeal comes from. The public wants Arnold the Terminator, not that other wholesome Austrian import, the singing family von Trapp. So even as he laughed off his screen persona, Schwarzenegger played it up in his one and only electoral debate when he blustered that he was ready to drive his Hummer through rival candidate Arianna Huffington's tax returns.

Now he gets to drive his Hummer to Sacramento. But with California's staggering budget deficit, he won't be able to hand out subsidized rice to keep the masses happy, like one Indian movie star turned politician. Though he ran as a Republican, for many of the first-time voters who voted for him Schwarzenegger was really an independent, the outsider who could shake up the system. They haven't been paying attention to the ideologues and advisors like Pete Wilson who already surround him. Now they will.

If I were Arnold Schwarzenegger, I'd hold onto that Terminator image for dear life and not try to reinvent myself as the sober statesman-politician he tried to sound like on election night. Amitabh Bachchan learned the hard way: it doesn't work.

The Bachchan story has a happy ending, however. The aging star finally came back from exile as the dapper host of the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." If Arnold's stint as a strongman in Sacramento ends up denting his invincible image, perhaps his career could continue after all.

PNS editor Sandip Roy ( sandip@pacificnews.org) is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.