Two days ago, when we visited Sumalatha Ambareesh at her home, she was relaxed, contrary to what one would expect from a candidate awaiting election results of a constituency that was unpredictable even for most exit poll analysts.
Putting all guessing games to rest, the 55-year-old actor-turned-politician is all set to win from Mandya and become the first independent MP from Karnataka in 52 years, only third in its history.
Sumalatha, widow of former Congress MP and actor MH Ambareesh, made her political debut as an independent candidate from Mandya after the grand old party denied her a ticket.
The party gave the seat to its coalition partner JDS and son of Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy and grandson of former Prime Minister Deve Gowda, Nikhil Kumaraswamy.
Given the fact that she was contesting against the politically powerful Gowda family as an independent in a constituency where the Congress-JDS has 80% of the vote share, anybody would have guessed the winner. Also, the Mandya lok sabha constituency has eight JDS MLAs.
However, ever since the announcement of Nikhil’s candidature and Sumalatha decided to contest, disappointment among party workers was visible on the ground.
Till last reports came in, Sumalatha was leading by over 1.25 lakh votes and is likely to be declared a winner soon. The last time Karnataka elected an independent candidate was in 1967 and 1957.
Sumalatha, who has acted in more than 200 films in five languages, was mostly busy with personal work during the one month between polling on April 18 and result day on May 23.
“A lot of personal work was pending. I finished dubbing of a movie and promotional work for another one. Then I also had my son's movie. I had to see how that was going. I was busy with different things,” she said. Her son, Abhishek Ambareesh (25), is an aspiring actor.
But there was no political meeting during this time, she said.
"There are people who came casually. Cannot specify it as political. Most of them who came to wish were anyway friends earlier,” she said.
She may not have contested on a party symbol, but received show of support from many, including workers of the party that denied her the ticket.
Many local Congress workers had publicly expressed their support to Sumalatha after they were miffed with Nikhil's candidature.
In addition, there were supporters of Ambareesh, who was a three-time parliamentarian from the constituency.
Backing her and campaigning on the ground were Kannada actors Yash and Darshan. The BJP did not field a candidate in the constituency and expressed its support for Sumalatha.
“I did not plan any of this. All the things that happened in my life were unplanned. When Ambareesh passed away, people asked me to contest. I contested for the people who supported Ambareesh. If I win, people will be looking up to me to fulfill his legacy. I have to take forward the work he left behind,” she said.
Sumalatha's entry into movies too was not planned. Born in Chennai to parents from Andhra Pradesh, she did her initial education in Bombay in a school named ‘Karnataka High School'. “May be I was destined to be here,” she added.
"My family has a lot of members in the forces. They wanted me to study. After my 10th examination, I was offered a movie. My family was apprehensive, but my friends suggested I could finish it during holidays and come back. Before I knew, there were many offers with great actors like Kamal Haasan, Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and Malayalam superstars like Prem Nazeer. There was no time to look back and regret,” she recalled.
It was during one of these film shoots that Sumalatha and her late husband Ambareesh met and later, got married in 1991.
“Though it sounds very dramatic today, it gradually developed over six to seven years. From colleagues, we became friends and then close friends. After a point, we realised we felt something for each other which was more than friendship, more than liking. We did not meet often. He was doing two-three shifts. I was doing movies in five languages. We spoke over the phone. Our STD bills would be so high. We never wrote letters. If at all we did, it was me. He never did,” she said.
Was it a surprise when Ambareesh joined politics?
“It was always visible. He always had people around him. His circle was not small. He even took people to politicians if they wanted some help. So it was always there. I wasn’t like that. I had to get used to that. The house would always be full of people. It was an open house.”
Sumalatha, on the contrary, enjoys reading, listening to old Hindi songs and attending concerts of old Hindi songs with friends.
Ambareesh died in November 2018. He did not contest in the 2018 Assembly elections owing to his poor health. During his tenure as the Mandya MLA, he was pulled up for being irregular for sessions and meetings, which he said was due to his ill health.
He was also a minister in the Siddaramaiah cabinet and Union minister in the Manmohan Singh government.
The family never thought of having another politician in the house, said Sumalatha.
"He would say one person in the family is enough as it demands too much. Need an entire support system. I don't think even Ambareesh would have been able to (do what he did) without us. But we had fierce political discussions at the dining table. He would say that ‘my wife would make a good parliamentarian but we don't want her to’,” she said.
“We agreed on some, disagreed on others. We discussed about everything from local issues to US presidential elections,” she recalled.
“It was more locally than globally. On the national level, we were on the same page. At times, state election for example, I would say certain candidate would win. He would disagree and list out the reasons, break it down, caste-wise, etc. He had a precise approach. Not many people knew that.”
South India is not new to actor-turned-politicians. The likes of MGR, Jayalalithaa and NTR are examples of some of the very successful ones.
This Lok Sabha election, too, we saw actors contesting. But Sumalatha’s family was apprehensive.
"They were worried about the targetted attacks by the opposition and that's what happened too. I expected it, but not to this level.
After all, we have known each other for years. My son is his (Nikhil) friend. I have seen Kumaraswamy in our house for 25 years. But my resolve only got stronger. I did not say anything that would give them fodder. I knew I had to take the bad with the good,” she said.
The election in Mandya saw three other Sumalathas contesting who got around 15,000 votes in total.
Sumalatha has kept her option open when it comes to supporting any party or alliance as an independent.
“I spent 15 days going around and asking people if I should join any party because a Congress ticket looked difficult. People asked me to contest but as an independent. But what I realised is it is not easy to get stuff done as an independent and many don’t understand that I cannot join a party after I win as an independent. So I would support any government that would work for the interests of Mandya,” she said.
Her priorities for Mandya include water crisis, farmers’ crisis, sugar mills and women’s health.
Women's reservation bill?
"I don't see women reservation bill happening at all. If there was a chance they (Congress) have lost it. You have seen elections over a period of time getting more abusive and violent. It is all about winnability. Nobody cares if it is a woman. You have seen the number of women coming, tickets given. I don’t think reservations are an answer. It is not going to happen. Simple. If the bill is passed, they will be forced to field women, so it won’t happen".
Sumalatha's answers mostly began or ended with Ambareesh. As we wrap up the chat, Sumalatha pointed out how Ambareesh would stand out with his colourful clothes and shoes in Parliament.
“When others wore khakhi or white, I could spot him from the visitors' gallery among 500-odd MPs present. He said that’s who he was.”
So would we see her stand out in the parliament?
"Oh no! Am not so adventurous," she quickly replied. "I am here only to take forward what he (Ambareesh) left behind".
But she said she is much more confident that her first day at the film set.
"I was young and everything was new. I was nervous. It is not the same now."
Would Sumalatha continue acting in movies?
"Movie is the last thing on my mind. But I cannot completely stay away from it. I have been a part of it for 40 years now," she said.
What would Sumalatha have become if not an actor or politician?
"An IFS officer may be? A diplomat.. ambassador to some country may be?"
After the interview, I returned home in an auto that had the photo of Ambareesh stuck on the front glass. As I initiated a conversation with the driver Srinivas V, he told me everybody was a fan of Ambareesh, Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan in Karnataka. But what about actor-turned-politicians? Did they like them as much?
"Well, we may not like them as much when they become politicians. Because as actors, they may be working for themselves. But as politicians, they have to work for the people. If they don't, then we will not like them or support them. They need to work for the people irrespective of how great an actor they are," he said.
With inputs from Stacy Pereira)