KOLKATA: On a sultry Thursday, film actress Parno Mittra, having joined the BJP, sat on her balcony wondering how to satiate the curiosity of newsmen who assailed her. Ranjana Ami Aar Ashbona, one newsman pleaded teasingly over the phone after Anjan Dutta's triple national award-winning Bengali film which turned her into a star overnight. She smiled-wryly.
The Kurseong educated girl, 32, does not know how to deal with the media throng-the same that had ‘confronted’ her at the start of her acting career with Rabi Ojha’s Bengali TV series Khela (2007) which was the first step towards stardom-first as lead character Mohona, which won her the best actress award, and then opposite Abir Chatterjee in Shomoy and Bou Kotha Kao.
It’s with some difficulty that one convinces her to the open up about politics in her life now at Urbana-a posh apartment off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in South Kolkata-a far cry from her earlier Ballygunje residence. “There’s too much politics in Bengal films now. I have to be a cardholder of this or the other party. Am I fully loyal- it’s tested inside out. I hate it; so do most others. It’s so demeaning for artists who need to be independent thinking, creative, not stick in the mud.
If my films cannot be shown to audiences when they ought to see it and so scheduled as to be lost, what’s the fun in creativity? And, if it’s because of my not being in politics, why not something new?’ she wondered, refusing more bytes. In fact, there is a political ‘war’ on in West Bengal to capture the mind space of people before the D-Day for the next joust in 2021.
And, this war is presently centred around which of the competing political parties can lay claim to the undivided loyalty of Tollywood and its stars so as to be able to use the cultural power and symbolism embedded in the Bengali psyche to reinforce their own standing in Bengal.
Given the clout that megastars have wielded since Trinamool captured power and thrust Bengali cinema stars on to political centre stage, there progressively is this realization among its opponents that winning a political war is not just about deep pockets, the philosophy or content, but also how subtler approaches and the sense of drama can be used to find a theme that Bengal society and communities can easily relate to. The message: “The simple and the subtle matter too,” said a BJP neta.
The fight for the celluloid spark to light up politics became clear when the up and rising BJP thrust on to centre stage 11 personages from tinsel town on July 19, including Parno Mittra, Rishi Kaushik, Kanchana Moitra, Rupanjana Mitra and Rupa Bhattacharya. Not that they yet match up to the draw that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool can arraign on celluloid count. But the BJP’s message was simple and straight-that it was out to counter the TMC here too and that the Saffronities, having inducted the likes of Babul Surpiyo and Rupa Ganguly successfully, would not stop in its quest to parade more star power to match and field.
The actors who ‘defected’ to Saffron claimed they wanted to join the ‘new and rising political force’ in Bengal as a ‘protest’ against Trinamool’s dominance of Bengali filmdom, which exclusively favoured stars who sympathized with it. Clearly, it is not politics but job futures, which agitate them. It forced them to a pitch and the BJPs need for star power made for a situation of mutual accommodation with benefits on both sides.
BJP leaders in Bengal claim “many TV and movie stars, producers and directors are in touch with the party and they would be politically inducted in a phased manner.” And it showed, when a star who joined the BJP said, “We were not given jobs in the movies produced by a particular monopolistic production house which has been enjoying Trinamool patronage since 2011.’
There are producers too who are unhappy with TMC dominance in Tollywood and their complaint is, “Our movies were not given prime time slots in theatres only because we are not its sympathizers”.
Streaming movie stars into politics was a deft move of Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee. For the first time in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party fielded five movie stars. All of them—Deepak Adhikary alias Dev, Sandhya Roy, Moon Moon Sen, Shatabdi Roy and Tapas Paul, won easily. Moon Moon, in fact, defeated CPM’s redoubtable eight-time parliamentarian Basudeb Acharya in Bankura by one lakh votes.
The concept of using the glamour of the stars’ to secure votes proved so successful in her first essay that Mamata again fielded five movie stars, including two new faces- Mimi Chakrabarty and Nusrat Jahan- in the just-concluded Lok Sabha polls. Four of her candidates won the electoral battle.It was not that Bengal films did not influence lay politics, or it was not influenced by politics of the day.
Right from mid-1960s onwards, stand out directors like Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and later Rituparno Ghosh and Tapan Sinha etc had woven stories built nimbly around common people, their travails, aspirations and the systemic injustices. It unconsciously aided, in fact, abetted Left politics. These films captured an intellectualism that fermented the political minds. The counter-narratives of a cruel world and commoner’s hopes on celluloid aligned with popular minds, ever shaping the political bent-Left.
The break came with Nandigram protests against Left government violence-the established Left minded artists coming on to the streets around 2007. Unwittingly and unconsciously they partnered Mamata’s politics-which in popular consciousness and imagery was embedded as a ‘poor man’s cause’ and created the popular revulsion over police firings that ended in an epoch making Didi victory-the 34 year old Left reign coming to an apocalyptic end in 2011.
The ‘filmi’ lesson has not been lost on the BJP on how to use star power to bolster its public mandate. This has made it pick Didi’s formula to cash Tollywood using two supposedly apolitical organizations endorsed by state BJP leaders-Bangiya Chalachitra Parishad (BCP) and Eastern India Motion Pictures and Cultural confederation (EIMPCC)- with veteran actor-turned-BJP member Biswajit Chatterjee and fashion designer Agnimitra Paul helming them.
Roopa Ganguly (Draupadi, Mahabharata) was the first face from silver screen to join BJP ahead of 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal. The saffron camp had brought another Bengali actor Locket Chatterjee to its fold to make a successful debut from Hooghly LS constituency. But the new inductions mark the BJP’s ‘culturally aggressive’ face.
After joining the BJP in Delhi in the presence of Bengal state president Dilip Ghosh and senior leader Mukul Roy, Parno Mittra said she struggled with her experience of lack of jobs and new avenues and industry or infrastructure in the state. “I want to be a part of the new millennials who will be part of the change, not only in the digital world but also on the streets of Kolkata and Bengal.’ Two days after Parno and others joined the BJP, some faces from Tollywood were seen missing among the other actors who assembled on stage from where Mamata delivered a fiery speech targeting the BJP on the occasion of July 21 Martyrs’ Day rally, an annual event that has turned into the ruling party’s show of strength.
“This might be because a section of actors want to maintain distance from the Trinamool as they realise a new emergent political force that could challenge the ruling party’s monopoly in the Bengali cine-world,’’ said a BJP leader. That’s more than true. A self confessedly ‘politically neutral’ actor on the plea of anonymity said, “These are rats trying to flee a sinking ship (Trinamool).” But the irony lay in what he added: “Ten months from now, I could be among the rats.”
His words spoke of hopelessness-an uncontrollable that represents the confusion among individuals caught up in Bengal politics today. Rudranil Ghosh, who is close to the Trinamool hierarchy but opted to skip the party’s Martyr’s Day stage on July 21, criticised Mamata over the cut money controversy citing it as a reason for actors’ drift. In an interview, Ghosh said, ‘’Mamata introduced cut money into Bengal’s lexicon. This has created the popular perception that what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said about corruption in TMC is perhaps true and that it may indeed be running on cut money. This has led to hopelessness among cadres and leaders.’’
Many actors on condition of anonymity alleged the Bengali film industry is dominated by SVF Entertainment Private Ltd and the production house does not allow any actor to be cast in its films if he or she is not a ruling party sympathiser. SVF is known for its proximity to the Trinamool. Its co-founder Shrikant Mohta was arrested by the CBI last January for his alleged involvement in the Rose Valley chit fund scam.
CBI sources in Kolkata said Mohta’s arrest pertained to a Rs 24 crore deal signed between SVF and a Rose Valley group-owned TV channel in 2010. It gave broadcasting rights of 70 movies to the new television channel. However, SVF officials were tight-lipped. Repeat calls to Mahendra Soni, another co-founder of SVF, went unanswered. A message on Whatsapp sent to Soni’s number never fetched an answer on whether the charges of artists were true.
Arijit Dutta, owner of Priya- a movie theatre and film producer, said the problems the actors are citing to join the BJP would have to be sorted out by themselves. “I can suggest that the actors will have to strengthen themselves to sort out their issues,’’ said Dutta.
Trinamool leader and agricultural marketing minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet Arup Biswas described the allegations raised by the actors who joined the BJP as ‘baseless’ and a ‘cultivated bias.’ “It is the discretion of directors and producers to decide who will be the actors to cast in their films. There is a market factor involved. Trinamool does not have any role to play here,’’ said Biswas, who is believed to control the Bengali cine-world on behalf of the ruling party.
Actors in Trinamool’s fold
Deepak Adhikary alias Dev
Well-built figure, most sought after hero and lead roles in super-hit commercial films, second term MP from Ghatal constituency.
In a survey in 2016, the most desirable woman in Bengal, recently elected from Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency.
Highest paid Tollywood actress, bagged five Kalakar awards.
Glamour face in commercial movies, equally at ease in parallel movies, acted in popular Goynar Baksho movie.
Jitendra Madnani alias Jeet
Starred in 54 movies, first hero with dance-skills.
Moon Moon Sen
Daughter of Suchitra Sen, a legend in every Bengali household, famous for glamour than her acting skill.
Daughter of Moon Moon Sen, one-time representative in Parliament, famous for family legacy in Bengali movie world.
Started acting in 1957, one-time parliamentarian and acted with super hero Uttam Kumar.
Came to spotlight in Khoka-420 film, newly elected representative from Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency.
Actors in BJP’s fold
Came to fame for the role of Ranjana in Ranjana Ami Aar Ashbo Na movie which won three national awards.
A vocalist popular in Bengal and Mumbai as well, star attraction secured his second-time victory in Parliament from Asansol constituency.
Starred in 27 movies and TV serials, first time MP from Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency.
Became famous for acting in Bye Bye Bangkok film and earned more popularity by casting in Accident, a socially relevant movie.
A popular face in TV serials acted in hit movies which include Paglu-2, Mallick Bari and Ebar Shabor.
Though acted in some movies, but popular for acting in TV serials Ishti Kutum and Kutum Dola.
Popular face in TV serials which are aired in evening slots to attract middle-class Bengali homemakers.
Director of TV series, popular among actors for his direction skills.
Came to spotlight after acting in a horror film, Raat Baarota Panch, in 2005, acted in several hit films and stepped into TV serials.