“From the late 80s, when I joined the industry till 2011, I never felt any interference from the Govt. Though the Left government facilitated making good films through West Bengal Film Development Corporation, the government did not make its presence felt,” says filmmaker Anik Dutta. “Jyoti Basu had no interest in cinema though it was in 1995 with Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as Information Minister that the LF government launched the Kolkata Film Festival,” recalls Mazumder. Three years before that the state government had set up Nandan theatre, designed by Ray, just about the only cinematic things you associated with the Left Front Government.
“Politics and cinema remained autonomous of each other between 1977 and 2011. The Left considered cinema too much of a bourgeoisie obsession,” says film scholar and critic Rwita Dutta. In fact, she believes the utter disrespect towards popular culture is what dealt a blow to the Left.
Actor Parambrata Chatterjee considers himself too political to become part of partisan politics. “Politics is not about VIP culture. It is about serving the people. I take it as a very serious pursuit, which demands full concentration and time. I would embrace it only if I could commit to it wholeheartedly,” he says, pointing out Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who commutes to his office in a bike and a politician he finds inspiring. While expressing a lack of interest in politics at this juncture in life, Chatterjee suggests we view Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto and Taking Sides for getting a higher and more complex perspective on the appropriation of artistes in the State machinery and propaganda.
Unlike him, a fair bunch of Chatterjee’s colleagues in the industry seem to have given in to the charm of politics and allowed themselves to be woo-ed by the TMC and BJP. Recently yesteryear’s star Mithun Chakraborty came a full ideological circle—from a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) during his student days to being a Rajya Sabha MP for TMC to joining BJP last week. Earlier, in February, BJP’s Bengal chapter inducted seven popular film and TV actors including Yash Dasgupta, Srabanti Chatterjee, Rudranil Ghosh, Paayel Sarkar, Hiren Chatterjee and Papiya Adhikari.
Not to be left behind, TMC has injected fresh blood by fielding actors Kanchan Mullick and Saayoni Ghosh and director Raj Chakraborty among the six TV and film stars nominated for this poll. The party already has veteran Bengali actor Dipankar Dey, Nusrat Jahan and Mimi Chakraborty, among others, in its fold.
The alliance of political parties with Bengali film industry has not been a time-honoured convention though. Unlike their counterparts in South India and Bollywood, here they have largely desisted from becoming card-carrying members of political parties or contesting elections on party ticket. They even resisted being star campaigners of parties and stayed miles away from political rallies. They avoided singing and dancing to attract or entertain the crowds.
But things started changing with the emergence of TMC in 1998 as a populist political force which reached out to the subaltern, suburban, rural people and places.
“TMC loves movie stars… I think it all starts from Didi’s love for SRK,” laughs Banerjee. Dutta talks of the policy as “accommodation of diverse voices”. “First thing she [Mamata Banerjee] captured was cinema, the unfailing instrument of mass politics… She has consistently patronised popular culture,” Dutta says.
The historic 2011 elections that saw the Left take a beating after 34 years of continuous rule was a turning point. “The Singur-Nandigram issue so incensed popular sentiment that even a raw and inexperienced candidate fielded by TMC, actor Debasree Roy, could defeat the veteran CPI (M) contender Kanti Ganguly in South 24-Parganas’ Raidighi constituency,” Mazumdar recalls. Incidentally, Roy quit TMC this week on being denied a ticket in the upcoming election.
In 2014 TMC fielded five actors—Moon Moon Sen, Dipak Adhikari, Sandhya Roy, Shatabdi Roy and Tapas Pal in the general election and all of whom won. In the 2019 general elections, actor Nusrat Jahan won from Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency on TMC ticket as did Mimi Chakrabarty from Jadavpur.
So how does it reflect on the star politicians and how would it affect the election and the polity? Parambrata Chatterjee thinks that over the years politics has become all about “power, privileges, money and machismo”. But what Chatterjee doesn’t recall having encountered on a big scale till this year is the “tryst with the Far Right”. “It has been beyond our syllabus,” he says.
“Earlier if the work was credible, there was no rigidity about the ideology of a person,” says Gaurang Jalan, producer of the recent Bengali film Avijatrik, “Now it’s difficult to get out of the straight-jacket. You are branded and marked for posterity.”
Most people believe the actors are joining the political race without much of an awareness of political history. Perhaps because they are being made to feel important and coveted. There are even unproven accusations of coercion and hefty monetary compensations doing the rounds. “Favour and fear” are being spoken of as the twin forces driving the “farce”, says an industry insider.
TMC member and minister and renowned film and theatre actor, director and writer, Bratya Basu, thinks that attraction for politics might have to do with sheer survival. “From an actor’s point of view it’s [politics] about [negotiating] the next step in the career,” he says. An investment for the future, in a way. Dutta calls it their “retirement policy”. She looks at these stars as either opportunists or “helpless puppets”. Jalan is more positive. “It’s about a second innings. For those who have not had a flying career as well as for those who have achieved a lot and want to proactively give back to the society,” he says.
Basu, however, is quick to point out, “Mamata Banerjee honours film stars. BJP doesn’t have the sensitivity and actually doesn’t like the film industry,” he says. But they do it to be one-up on Mamata Banerjee, for the glamour quotient and other extraneous reasons.
But top-most stars have still not crossed over to politics. Besides Parambrata, Prosenjit “Bumba” Chatterjee, despite his father Biswajit’s affiliations, too has not yet dipped his feet in the river of politics. Neither have Jishu Sengupta and Abir Chatterjee, Swastika Mukherjee, Rituparna Sengupta or Paoli Dam.
Film stars inducted into politics have not fared too well. “Popular faces were sent to Parliament. But they never spoke. They could never connect with people. Mitti ke saath sambandh nahin hai (they don’t have a connect at the grassroots),” says Sanyal. She quotes a popular Bengali saying—“Ghola jole, maach dhore’ (When the water is muddy, it’s easier to catch fish).”
“Many of these candidates don’t know about history, culture, people or the economy… they only know their own interest. Parties also seem to be inducting people who have no stakes in politics,” says Sanyal. Jalan still has hopes: “Actors can make wonderful politicians provided they are not enticed by petty gains but are driven by social service.”
Amen to that.
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