Khushbu Sundar is not just a celebrity, an actor who turned to politics — she is the first Indian politician to have a temple, saree, jewellery and an idli named after her. Her shift from one party to another — first DMK, then Congress, and now BJP — is being seen by her former colleagues more as a way to make “selfish” gains rather than show commitment to a party ideology.
But is Khushbu Sundar going to be the ‘trump card’ for the BJP in Tamil Nadu, a state that remains out of the party’s reach? Many doubt that. Then there are her publicly stated views on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS supporters, which hang like an albatross around her neck not least because even pro-BJP outlets are taking a dig at her.
With the assembly election in Tamil Nadu due in about seven months and given the political implications of the former Congress spokesperson’s move, Khushbu Sundar is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
From Abhineta to Neta
Khushbu has been incredibly patient as far as politics goes. She shifted to politics with the hope to convert her fan base to a voter base. Having been in politics for more than a decade, she joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on 12 October, leaving the Congress, her party for six years. The 50-year-old polyglot had begun her political career by joining the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in May 2010 on the invitation of party patriarch Karunanidhi. She quit the DMK four years later for the same reason that she did the Congress in 2020 — ‘being sidelined by senior leaders’.
While she was not given any major responsibility in the DMK, she spruced up her Tamil and became a star campaigner for the party.
“She is a self professed atheist and Periyarist, which meant that the party could have been a good fit for her. My understanding is that she impressed Karunanidhi with her modern views and rationalist beliefs, while his son M.K. Stalin was not particularly fond of her. It is not clear why the rift occurred between her and Stalin. But it was enough to send her to the Congress, because she realised she had no political future in the Dravidian party,” said Sandhya Ravishankar, author of the DMK leader’s biography, Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics.
“That was a time when the people of Tamil Nadu would either vote for the DMK or the AIADMK. During those days, the Tamil cinema world had very strong connections to the DMK. Khushbu joined the DMK because she felt she would have better growth prospects compared to AIADMK that was led by actor-turned-politician J. Jayalalithaa,” said Chennai-based political analyst Sumanth C. Raman.
“She has high potential. Despite 10 years in politics, a person of her popularity could have been more active and reached greater heights. She was trying to balance her cinema career and political career, which worked against her,” a DMK leader told ThePrint requesting anonymity.
ThePrint also spoke to DMK leaders who said Karunanidhi’s family members were upset with Khushbu’s proximity to the supremo because she had started meeting the DMK leader directly, without seeking appointments — something that was unheard of in the Tamil Nadu political circles.
“She was in the DMK only until Karunanidhi was active. Soon after his health began to fail him and he was largely inactive in politics, DMK leaders, including Stalin, ensured that she left the party,” Raman said.
It was her comment on Karunanidhi’s successor in the DMK, made during an interview in 2013, that proved to be the last straw. She said even though Karunanidhi had announced that Stalin would be the successor, the final decision rested on the party’s general council. Enraged Stalin supporters hurled shoes at her and threw stones at her residence. She quit the party.
Congress Ka Haath, BJP Ke Saath
Khushbu Sundar joined the Congress in 2014, brought in by the party’s then Tamil Nadu chief E.V.K.S Elangovan, at a time when the Congress was on a downswing. A star campaigner in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly election, Elangovan tapped Khushbu’s popularity effectively.
“I don’t want to speak against or for her. She was with us and she worked hard. But there were other issues. It was her decision to leave,” said a Congress leader from Tamil Nadu who did not want to be named.
But Khushbu began feeling stifled in the Congress.
“They do not want intelligent women. There is no freedom to speak the truth and there were leaders who did not have (a) connect with the ground reality who were dictating terms and suppressing me. Now that I have left, saying I was seen only as an actress, shows the Congress’ cheap thoughts,” Khushbu Sundar told ThePrint.
The Congress said her exit will not affect its performance in the next year’s assembly election in Tamil Nadu.
When asked about her decision to join the BJP, Khushbu quoted John F. Kennedy’s famous lines: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.’
Her induction could be seen as a ‘Hey, Martha’ moment for the BJP, although the gains may not be immediately evident. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the BJP will tolerate an outspoken woman like her. If she has been promised a ticket for 2021 Tamil Nadu assembly election or 2024 Lok Sabha election, it is a big boost for her career, say analysts.
Bombay to Chennai
Born into a Mumbai-based Muslim family, Nakhat Khan adopted Khushbu as her screen name. But her real name would be used to target her on social media four decades later. In a conversation, she said: “Yes, I am a Khan and I am not a terrorist.”
Some trollers have made a discovery about me..my name is #NakhatKhan.. Eureka!!! Fools that's my name given to me by my parents.. AND YES I AM A KHAN..NOW WHAT???late bloomers,wake up..u are 47 yrs late..🤣🤣🤣🤣
— KhushbuSundar ❤️ (@khushsundar) December 4, 2017
Having worked as a child artiste in Bollywood blockbuster movies such as The Burning Train, Laawaris, Kaalia, Naseeb, Dard Ka Rishta and Bemisal, she had nursed the dream of becoming an air hostess.
But her future was already charted out. She was forced to drop out of school to work. Her parents had split and she was now the only breadwinner. The young “non-Tamizh” Muslim girl became a movie sensation and the box office registers began ringing. Khushbu went on to work in over 200 films.
A director’s delight, crowd-puller, charismatic, eloquent speaker, and her strong will formed the basis of her career rise.
“She is a very beautiful lady. She looked like Vyjayanthimala or Padmini. The Tamil film industry welcomed her with open arms. It didn’t matter who you are, what your religion or caste is or what your background is, if you act well, the audience appreciates you. That is why she got a very good break,” said Jayanthi Kannappan of ALS productions, one of the oldest production companies in Tamil Nadu.
“She is a great crowd-puller. Several politicians were jealous because whenever she come to an event, all the cameras would turn to her,” Kannappan added.
Khushbu temple, idlis and jewellery
A mother of two daughters, Khushbu is married to Tamil director Sunder C. She has openly said she is an atheist. She has never visited a temple, yet her fans built a temple in Tiruchirapalli for her. But this temple was razed to the ground in 2010 by the same fans who were hurt by her comments on pre-marital sex in an interview to a Tamil magazine.
She had said: “No educated man would expect his fiancée to be a virgin. But when involved in pre-marital sex, a woman should protect herself from becoming pregnant and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.” A total of 22 cases were filed against her and it took her five years of legal battle before all the cases were dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Despite this, the Khushbu craze continues. A version of the south Indian dish Idli was named after her. Even today, Khushbu Idli is a favourite in Tamil Nadu. She is fond of wearing ‘jhumkas’ or umbrella-like earrings. One such design was named after her.
Soon after, the markets were flooded with products such as Khushbu Coffee, Saree, Sharbat and Cocktail. Next time you are in the coastal city of Chennai, remember to try and get the “Khushbu” experience.
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