Bollywood Gets Political for Indian Election Season

Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi rehearses in Tampa Bay, Florida, for the International Indian Film Academy Awards.

Several top stars created a controversy by skipping town on election day to attend an awards show in the U.S., while politically themed local movies have been popping up to cash in on the world's largest democratic process.

As voting day arrived in Mumbai Thursday for India's ongoing national elections, controversy erupted around a group of top Bollywood stars who had skipped town to attend an awards show in the U.S. 

Instead of participating in the world's largest national democratic process, major local film figures -- such as actresses Kareena Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, actors Saif Ali Khan, Vivek Oberoi, Hrithik Roshan, Shahid Kapoor and acclaimed lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar and his actress wife Shabana Azmi, among others -- were all in Tampa Bay, Fla., to attend the 15th International Indian Film Academy Awards, which kick off today and run until April 26.

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The IIFAs, a lavish awards show held annually in a different global city to promote Indian cinema, are being hosted by the U.S. for the first time this year, with Hollywood stars Kevin Spacey and John Travolta scheduled to make appearances. 

With an estimated 800 million people eligible to vote in a country with a population of over a billion, India's enormous general elections are being held in nine sequential phases across the country. Elections began on April 7 and will conclude on May 12, with counting day slated for May 16. 

The backlash against the Indian celebrities missing their regional election day in Mumbai was strong on social media.

"Bollywood stars are at the IIFA show. Make a list of their names, and if they ever tweet anything about politics or the country, ignore them," wrote Twitter user Kartik Dayanand.

"This time I'll watch IIFA awards only to know who are the biggest 'Hypocrites' who went to Tampa Bay, instead of voting," tweeted Shuvankar Mukherjee.

But the celebrities who chose to stay and vote received a thumbs up. On social media, filmmaker Ashoke Pandit hailed star Aamir Khan, actors Farhan Akhtar and Sunny Deol, actress Vidya Balan and director Madhur Bhandarkar "for staying back to vote & not attending IIFA. True Indians!"

India's film stars have had a long history with politics and the country's elections, including lending their star power to endorse candidates and raising general awareness about the right to vote. Over the years, many stars have also run for office, such as Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan (who won a Parliament seat in the 1980s before withdrawing from politics), the late superstar Rajesh Khanna, veteran actor Vinod Khanna and actress Hema Malini, among others. South Indian film figures have also played a prominent role in politics, such as former actress Jayalithaa Jayaram, who is the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state.

The current ongoing elections have again seen various stars hitting the campaign trail, such as actress Kirron Kher, actor Jaaved Jaffrey and former TV actress Smriti Irani, among others. 

Celebs who voted Thursday shared messages and pictures on social media. Actress Preity Zinta wrote: "It's time to stop complaining about the system & take action. Boys n girls either Vote now or forever keep Quiet !"

Actress Sonam Kapoor tweeted: "#vote #jaihind (Long Live India)," while her fellow star actress Tisca Chopra, whose credits include the Indian version of 24, shared a photo of her finger smeared with the election marking, stating, "A messy mark that will hopefully lead to a cleaner country."

Cashing in on the political mood, some recent Bollywood releases have revolved around elections and current campaign issues. Bachchan featured in the comedy sequel Bhoothnath Returns, playing a ghost who contests an election against a corrupt politician. Youngistaan revolved a young prime minister coming to power, a passing reference to real-life politician Rahul Gandhi (the grandson of India's first woman prime minister, the late Indira Gandhi), who is projected as the leader of the Congress party. The satire O Teri focused on the corruption scams around the 2010 Commonwealth Games that took place in New Delhi.

Following the IIFAs awards ceremony on April 26, a recording of the show will telecast on StarPlus, the flagship Hindi entertainment channel of Star network, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox.

Author and screenwriter Advaita Kala praised actress Vidya Balan, the wife of Walt Disney India CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur, for exercising her right to vote, "Balan skipped IIFA and voted... that's why she be cool #respect."

Popular lyricist and writer Prasoon Joshi was also complimented after he told a news network that he voted before running to catch a flight to make it to the IIFAs. "So there. You always have a choice," wrote Twitter user Aniruddha Guha.