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Urmila Matondkar: New star on the political horizon

Actor Urmila Matondkar has brought life to her electoral campaign as she contests for the Congress from Mumbai North with the promise to deliver

Kunal Purandare
Published: Apr 25, 2019 02:43:45 PM IST
Updated: Apr 26, 2019 10:32:58 AM IST

Urmila Matondkar: New star on the political horizonUrmila Matondkar during an election campaign in Mumbai North constituency, which goes to polls on April 29
Image: Mexy Xavier

On Gudi Padwa, the Maharashtrian New Year, this April, Urmila Matondkar added colour to the festive fervour by playing the dhol amidst a star-struck crowd in suburban Mumbai. Clad in a traditional five-yard multi-coloured saree, complemented with gold and glass bangles, an intricately designed neck piece, a nose ring and mogra gajra in hair, she even played the lezim with neighbourhood women.

The image was a contrast to the time when the actor scorched the silver screen, running in an oversized vest and tossing her hair on a beach, or gyrating in colourful sarongs and skirts in Rangeela. The 1995 film not only brought her instant stardom, but also made her a desirable diva with a glamorous persona. She became a symbol of sensuousness and her sex appeal was discussed more than her acting. Almost 25 years later, Matondkar, now 45, is playing a different role in real life: She is the Congress candidate from Mumbai North—a constituency from Malad to Dahisar comprising six Assembly segments—for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

“I remember being the happiest when I was acting. That’s been the most fantastic part of my life. There was a lot of hard work and it was a tremendous journey,” says Matondkar, who began as a child actor in the Marathi film Zaakol (1980) and Hindi film Masoom (1983), and has since featured in hits such as Satya (1998), Kaun (1999), Bhoot (2003) and Ek Hasina Thi (2004). The fact that a girl from a middle-class Maharashtrian household made it big in a competitive industry without anyone in her family being remotely connected to the film world is something that she feels proud of.

Her father, a bank employee, and mother, who worked with the state government, ensured that their children were socially aware since their growing up years. This upbringing played a vital part in Matondkar’s foray into politics although she was initially “averse to it”. She says, “My father instilled values in us that if you are an actor, you definitely have a social responsibility towards people."

Urmila Matondkar: New star on the political horizonCongress party workers at Matondkar's rally in Mumbai
Image: Mexy Xavier

Former Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam approached Matondkar through her socialist father, who was previously affiliated to the Rashtriya Seva Dal, a couple of months ago. Initially, she merely agreed to join the Congress and campaign for the party, but refused to contest the polls due to the lack of time to devise a strong campaign. After giving it some thought, she agreed to contest the elections despite the challenges.

Nirupam says, “I found her to be aggressive, sincere and mature. She was vociferous about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its policies. I felt Urmila could come out openly against the Narendra Modi government, something that many are scared to do." Besides, he explains, Matondkar is charismatic, glamorous and carries a good name in the Maharashtrian community. “I felt she was a good bet for us in North Mumbai, where there are over six lakh Maharashtrian voters.” 

As a first-time contestant, Matondkar is aware that she has her task cut out. Not only is she pitted against BJP strongman Gopal Shetty, who won by a margin of over 4 lakh votes against Nirupam in 2014, but the debutante also has nothing to show voters in terms of work. “I just have my honesty and integrity,” she shoots back, and admits that since it’s her maiden election, she needs to work that much harder among people. “I would not want them to vote for me because I am an actor. I want them to do that if they see the promise in me.” And she isn’t just talking.

Urmila Matondkar: New star on the political horizonThe actress-turned-politician clicks a selfie with residents of her constituency
Image: Mexy Xavier

The actor-turned-politician has hit the ground running since her candidature was announced in late March. In the last few weeks, she has braved the heat and dust to woo people in her constituency, has eaten from roadside stalls, had cutting chai on the streets, played cricket with the local youngsters and clicked selfies with them. From five-star hotels and air-conditioned vanity vans that she was accustomed to as an artiste, this has been a reality check. Though the difference between facing the camera and hitting the political road is like “North Pole and South Pole”, she says she was never oblivious to the problems of the common man. “Of course, it hits you more if you are in the middle of the slums, but it’s not like I have come [to Mumbai] for the first time from London or Los Angeles,” says Matondkar, who studied for her bachelor’s degree at Matunga’s Ruparel College till the second year.

Celebrity-politicians don’t infuse much confidence among people [Govinda, for instance, squandered the mandate of the voters and quit politics after he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Mumbai North in 2004] and the performance of some stars who were nominated to the Rajya Sabha is nothing to write home about either. Matondkar refuses to speak about the others, but says she has no intention of starting something and disappearing. “I have a 27-year track record [in movies]. I deliver. Even in my bad films, I was as good as I was in my good ones. Because I believe in the word ‘deliver’,” she emphasises.

On her campaign trail, she’s making the right noises, coming across as more than just a political novice. She has accused the BJP of divisive politics and putting democracy in danger. “The saddest part is not that they haven’t delivered… some other anarchy has been spread. Whether anybody likes it or not, it [the country] is going towards dictatorship,” she tells Forbes India at a Congress worker’s office in Kandivali where she has finished a TV interview and is racing against time to finish the many more lined up before going on a road show.

Matondkar also refuses to acknowledge Shetty’s invincibility, saying he has won only one election. Tell her that the Congress lost all six Lok Sabha seats in the city in 2014, and that her opponent bagged over 70 percent of the votes polled, she retorts, “It was because of the propaganda that was created around one man [Prime Minister Narendra Modi] and because of the sky-high promises that they offered. But he hasn’t delivered. People have been fooled.”

Urmila Matondkar: New star on the political horizon
Nirupam agrees and says the constituency is a Shiv Sena-BJP stronghold because of the demographics. “But it can be won by someone who is adored by the Maharashtrian community. Urmila will be the greatest surprise on May 23 when the results are announced,” says the Congress leader, who is contesting from Mumbai North West this year. 

Niranjan Shetty, spokesperson for Mumbai BJP, welcomes Matondkar’s candidature, but dismisses Nirupam’s prediction, saying elections always come with surprises. He admits that the actor’s celebrity status is an advantage, but contradicts her take on Shetty. “She should check his track record. He came from a humble background and rose from being a corporator to an MLA and MP. The world has changed… there is greater awareness among voters. They can distinguish between whom to choose: A parliamentarian who will be there 24x7 or an actress. People have already burnt their fingers with Govinda...  I don’t think she has anything to show in terms of work on a public forum,” he says.

Amid such barbs, Matondkar is bringing life to her electoral campaign. She playfully posed in an autorickshaw during an interaction with drivers in Gorai, laughed with members of a laughter club in Borivali, and even rode pillion on a motorcycle wearing a colourful turban to file her nomination papers. She takes offence at the notion that only actors resort to such theatrics when told that even Hema Malini posed with a sickle in a farm in her constituency Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh. “Every politician is doing this. Have you seen the prime minister wearing a hat in Tripura? Why are we being singled out?” she says. In fact, Matondkar claims that she refused to dance the garba on the insistence of the media who thought it would be a nice photo-op. “That is not what I want to win the elections with.”  

Despite that, she does not shrug off the reality that the glamorous heroine tag has stuck to her. Almost sarcastically, Matondkar says she won’t mind if people say she won—“a miracle should it happen, as the press is making it out to be”—because she is an actor. 

As an actor, however, there was more to Matondkar than the seductress that she is perceived to be. She has worked with all the leading stars—the Khans, Kumars, Kapoors and Deols—and has held her own against seasoned actors in several films of different genres. As Jackie Shroff, her Rangeela co-star, puts it, “Adaptability is her greatest strength. Urmila is one of the finest actresses, dancers and persons… she can do anything, any role, easily. She is disciplined and focussed."

Limelight is a by-product of acting. Despite that, Matondkar has managed to fiercely guard her privacy all these years. “I am a recluse,” she admits. In fact, since her last full-fledged film as an actor, EMI (2008), she went off the radar for almost a decade, only to resurface in 2016 to announce her marriage to Kashmiri businessman Mohsin Akhtar Mir. Is she prepared for the scrutiny that comes with the political territory? “I knew my public life will not be private [as a politician]. But I wasn’t ready for the negativity, dirt and mudslinging that I have been subjected to,” she says.

Sachin Sawant, general secretary and spokesperson, Maharashtra Congress, says it is commendable that a successful actor like Matondkar has entered the political slugfest. “Her participation has infused new energy and enthusiasm among us. Compared to 2014, we are aggressive this time and playing on the front foot,” he says. 

Like everything she has done so far, Matondkar intends to devote herself to politics wholeheartedly, even if she loses the polls. “I have never done anything in a haphazard manner in my entire life,” she says. Two years ago, for instance, she learnt Spanish for fun, but was so engrossed in it that her friends started teasing her that she’s behaving as if she was headed to Spain. Matondkar also learnt yoga on a professional level and claims she can even take yoga classes. She takes pride in the fact that she has achieved success on merit. “I come from a modest background; I have made it high up there because of my hard work,” she says. She intends to chart the same course with her political journey. 

Shetty of the BJP, too, believes she should continue to be politically active even if she loses the elections. “Let her role not be limited to only contesting an election. Those who are interested in doing good work for society are always welcome,” he says. 

The adulation that she got as an actor, says Matondkar, meant that people accepted her in whichever role and manner she went in front of them. She gets the same vibe now as she mixes with them at the grassroots. “She has been getting a great response. People see a social worker in her and believe in her intent,” says Sawant. As Matondkar herself puts it: “What’s amazing is the hope and wish that you see in people that somebody come and change this."

With folded hands, in cotton sarees or chikan kurtis, a star who was once beyond reach is now reaching out to people, with the promise to deliver.

(This story appears in the 10 May, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)