By T S Sudhir in Chalakudy
In Malayalam film `Oru Indian Pranayakatha’ that released in December 2013, popular actor and comedian Innocent Thekkethala plays a politician who hops from one TV channel studio to another, obsessive about how he looks on camera and wearing the right kind of make-up.
Cut from reel to real life in April 2014. With the number of cameras, including one from the Election Commission, tailing him on his campaign trail in Chalakudy, Innocent could well have mistaken it for a film shoot. Playing true to character, even in his real avatar as a politician, Innocent ensures his make-up is in place.
66-year-old Innocent is the Left Democratic Front (LDF)-backed Independent candidate from Chalakudy Lok Sabha constituency in central Kerala. This summer, the veteran of over 500 Malayalam films is aiming to find a place under the sun by becoming the first filmstar to be elected an MP from Kerala.
Innocent who campaigns on a Mahindra jeep customised to look like a poor man’s rath, waves to bemused onlookers on both sides of the road, ensuring they do not miss his trademark expression of make-believe joy. The women, clearly a large part of his fan following, react more enthusiastically than the men, many of them gesturing to him that they will vote for him on April 10. Having entertained Malayalees for close to three decades, Innocent thinks he will strike the proverbial pot of gold (read votes), the mud `pot’ being his election symbol.
“In their home, when they switch on the TV, they see me. It has been so for the last 28 years. They cannot vote for anyone else,” says Innocent, in the Thrissur accent that makes him such a lovable actor on screen. Having added the fun element to many a Mammootty and Mohanlal starrer as a much-sought after comedian, Innocent reckons he is the frontrunner to laugh his way to the Lok Sabha from Chalakudy.
Contesting as an Independent means Innocent does not get saddled with the criticism that will be served at the Left’s doorstep. Starting with a clean slate, the Congress will find it tough to attack this cancer survivor. Innocent has often expressed his gratitude to the thousands of fans who prayed for him when he was fighting a battle against cancer in 2012-13. Also the Congress is saddled with problems of its own. Its candidate, 67-year-old P C Chacko (who headed the JPC into the 2G scam) shifted from his constituency Thrissur to Chalakudy, following opposition to him from a faction of the Congress. A peeved Chalakudy MP, K P Dhanapalan is now contesting from Thrissur.
“Chacko obviously does not have much to show in terms of work in Thrissur that is why he moved out. If he had indeed done good work, would he have changed his constituency,” asks Innocent.
But Innocent’s entry into the poll scene has not been without its share of controversy. CPI(M) has backed five Independents out of the 15 Kerala seats allotted to it as part of the LDF, instead of putting up its own candidates. The party has been accused of selling away its seats to outsiders and Innocent is one of those who is charged with buying the Chalakudy ticket. “I also have heard this rumour,” says Innocent, as he pleads innocence armed with that bewildered look that has been his staple expression in many a comic scene.
“That is because those people do not know Innocent,” laughs Jose Thettayil, JD(S) MLA from Angamaly who served as Transport minister in the V S Achuthanandan cabinet till 2011. “Innocent is not a person to spend a single paisa to get a seat. Last time also we were after him to contest from Irinjalakuda and he did not.”
But the suspicion has refused to go away. “It would be uncharitable to accuse CPM of collecting money to give tickets. But that criticism is there mainly because people and party workers did not get a convincing answer to how these men became our candidates,” says former MP Sebastian Paul. On the street, the Reds are being accused of running away from battle. That impression is not helping Innocent’s cause, as he is being labelled an also-ran in this contest.
“It is not seen as a serious election. They are going through the motions. You win or lose, it does not make a difference,” says Jose Dominic, Managing Director of CGH Earth, a responsible tourism venture in Kerala. Business houses in the five constituencies where the Independents are contesting aren’t complaining. They reveal with glee that this time, the CPM did not badger them for funds, like they do every election season.
Innocent’s image as a comedian is acting as a double-edged sword. While many look at him more kindly than they would at a politician, it is also going against him in a highly literate state that takes its politics very seriously. Union minister of state for civil supplies K V Thomas, who is the Congress candidate from Ernakulam confesses to being a huge Innocent fan but reckons it is impossible for him to win. “He is a good actor but in politics it is tough. It is about whether you are with the people” says Thomas.
“It is their acting that I like. I like Mohanlal, I like Mammootty. It does not mean that if one day, they stand for a party, I will vote for them,” says Aditya, a law student in Thiruvanthapuram.
Which is perhaps why in sharp contrast to film actors making the cut in the political theatre in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh, Kerala frowns upon a mid-career change. The state’s most popular hero Prem Nazir had joined the Congress in 1987 but never contested elections, unsure how the voters will react. Actor Murali lost the 1999 Lok Sabha polls from Alappuzha as a LDF candidate. Two years later, character actor Devan tried his luck as an Independent in the Kerala assembly election but failed to get entry into the Vidhana Sabha.
Innocent on his part, is harping on his father’s communist background and his own stint as a municipal councillor in Irinjalakuda in Thrissur district in 1979. But Innocent’s effort to emphasise his Leftist leanings is blunted by Chacko who dismisses him as a “non-party man” who will find it difficult in Chalakudy (Mukundapuram before delimitation in 2008), that has more often than not, returned an UDF candidate.
When asked what happens if he does not win, Innocent displaying his deadpan wit, replies, “If I do not win, it means I lost.” Will there be a retake in the next election if he loses? Innocent says he has not given it a thought. “I have no intention of giving up on my acting career. Even if I am elected, I will continue to act. Politics cannot be a full time job for me. Everyone should have a job. I will fulfil my work and in my free time, do my job as MP,” he says.
In 1991, Innocent brought the house down in the role of Yeshwant Sahai, a politician from north India, in `Sandhesam’, a film that is considered a landmark in Malayalam cinema apart from being a huge box-office hit. Now Chalakudy’s 11.38 lakh voters will decide whether to make Innocent’s latest offering an EVM hit.