The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the eastern bureau of Parliamentarian
A few years ago, people waited in large numbers at the gates of movie theatres running premiere shows to catch a glimpse of a string of stars of the Calcutta Tinsel Town or Tollywood. Come assembly or Lok Sabha elections; they can just head straight to a Trinamool Congress poll campaign or a road show, where a galaxy of stars are often seen descending to seek votes for the TMC. And since the country is India where the innocent people can easily be coaxed into forgetting the failed promises of the politicians through an organised parade of the stars of the reel, the Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee has strategically invested in Tollywood. And her gamble has so far been paying off, with some costs though. Never mind the contribution of these stars at the grassroots (meaning of Trinamool in English), Banerjee wanted to pitchfork the glamour quotient in the polls as she had little choice.
But why? Like the BJP, which opted for a few celebrities to compensate for organisational weakness and lack of suitable political candidates in Bengal, the TMC also needed some star power in a few pockets of uncertainty where the party has been ridden with factionalism and a consensus candidate kept eluding her. Having known the power of rabble-rousers in the party who could throw a spanner in her scheme of things, the TMC supremo used her tact in such a way that it killed two birds with a one fell stroke. The faction-ridden supporters have perforce to stand solidly behind the reel-life nominee of the party! Hence, the beeline of Tollywood stars in Trinamool.
Film star-driven politics, as is common knowledge, has largely been the preserve of the southern states and it hardly made its presence in the electoral politics in Bengal. There were also several film personalities in the state with a proven bent of mind towards the Left though. It was the CPI(M)-led Left Front which had first drawn the blood; the maiden actor from Tollywood to join the electoral fray in Bengal was Anil Chatterjee, remembered for his understated, free-flowing performances in several Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak films. In 1991, he won from Kolkata’s Chowringhee assembly constituency as a Left-supported independent candidate. But then, Anil Chatterjee, though a pro-Left person was not fielded under the direct banner of the CPI(M) or Left Front to avoid controversy. However thereafter, the LF had successfully resisted attempts to hire out `heads’ from Tollywood.
The beeline of Tollywood stars in Trinamool, according to observers, is simply the outcome of Didi’s call to them to join the bandwagon which they had found difficult to reject. The first major electoral success of film celebrities from Bengal was in 2009 when Tapas Pal (Krishnanagar) and Shatabdi Roy (Birbhum) rode the Pariborton (the ‘great change’) wave to the Lok Sabha as TMC politicians.
However, not everyone among the stars is lucky to have been as blessed by the `mother’ of Ma, Maati Manush (Mamata’s party slogan, Mother, Land, People) as Dev alias Deepak Adhikari, Moon Moon Sen, Sandhya Roy, Satabi Roy and Tapas Pal. The ascension to stardom and something more in these five contributed to their getting nominated to contest the Lok Sabha polls on a Trinamool ticket. They were simply Didi’s choice.
And now, if one is tempted to peek into the Kolkata’s filmistan, it’s a virtual roll call of Trinamool in Tollywood. The five apart, TMC has other stars as public representatives theatre and film personality Bratya Basu, actors Chiranjit, Naina Bandyopadhyay and Debashree Roy as MLAs. Mithun Chakraborty was the party’s Rajya Sabha MP till a few months ago, before he tendered his resignation from the RS and the party. Initially, Sandhya Roy, Moon Moon Sen and Satabi Roy went on record saying that politics had never ever been their cup of tea; it was because of their `love and gratitude’ to Mamata Banerjee that they could not bring themselves up to delivering a solid` no’ when Didi finally came up with the proposal.
In fact, Didi did not feel secure at all in Bankura till Moon Moon Sen campaigned against the constant backdrop of her legendary mother, Suchitra Sen. The appeal of the Suchitra-Moon Moon-Mamata combination drew large crowds and inspired local party workers. The charm offensive worked and Sen defeated eight time CPI (M) MP Basudeb Acharia by nearly one lakh votes. Later, Mamata started picking a star wherever she had to field an outsider in the absence of a consensual political candidate.
According to yesteryears actress Moon Moon Sen, she had already established a connect with the people of Bankura f while shooting for films. Plus, she was not really a stranger to villages; she had performed in numerous ‘jatras’ — the popular folk theatre form of Bengal — and knew how to move the audience to tears and ecstasy.”My homework is already done, as I have an acceptance from the people of Bankura; for I have done a lot of outdoor shooting there, as also ‘jatra’ performances,” Sen had said after throwing her hat in the ring.
Sandhya Roy, winner from the Midnapore seat, said it was a dream come true for her as she would be able to connect with the people directly once again. “People have seen me in the films; but this time, I’d love to have a direct association with them.” An ailing Roy, however, was not a regular visitor to her constituency at all.
But Dev, the young sensation in commercial Bengali films, had no choice. He was an import from Mumbai by Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF), the biggest production house in Tollywood. For SVF, whose massive political clout and successful forays in real estate are believed to have links with the Mamata Banerjee government, it was probably payback time. On the evening before she announced the candidature of Dev, SVF director Shrikant Mohta brought the star along to a private function hosted by television producer Shibaji Panja at Kolkata’s St Paul’s Cathedral ground.
Among the guests were Didi and her key ministers. It was here, sources reveal, that Didi disclosed her plans and that Dev was chosen for the Ghatal constituency. The one comfort factor that tilted Dev’s consent was that his acting career would be taken care of.
A tentative schedule was chalked out and Mohta agreed to release his top biller Dev, who was then busy filming a few SVF projects, for a few days of campaigning. After all, a megamall built by SVF in south Kolkata was expecting some concessions from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation run by the TMC and from the Mayor Sovan Chatterjee, a staunch Mamata loyalist.
Though reluctant, the actor was reported to have messaged a city journo that he was still “coming to terms” with the development hours after Mamata announced his candidature. He was not allowed to speak to the media till a “tutoring session” was conducted by Didi’s the then right hand man, Mukul Roy!
That Mamata Banerjee’s chosen stars were guilty of spectacular indiscretion had been proved, compelling Didi to see red. The first major setback to have hit Didi below the belt was when the names of Mithun Chakraborty, Tapas Pal and Satabdi Roy surfaced in the multi-crore Saradha chit-fund scam. As the Enforcement Directorate summoned the trio one by one regarding their alleged connection in the scam, the party’s reputation hit the nadir.
The scam has left several thousand gullible people paupers and many an investor and agent have since committed suicide after the chit fund company went bust in 2013. Unable to bear the insult of ED summons, Mithun Chakraborty resigned from both the party and his Rajya Sabha seat and unconfirmed reports say he had returned the amount he had reportedly drawn from the chit fund, to the ED. And much to the chagrin of his fan club, `Mahaguru’ (Mithun’s moniker in Tollywood) has since been consistently avoiding visit to West Bengal, let alone speak to any TMC top leader, except Didi, in the party hierarchy.
Satabdi Roy clarified that she was merely the ambassador of Saradha, but was not aware of any goof-ups in it. However, as for Tapas Pal, the Lok Sabha MP from Krishnanagar, who is a veteran actor and a former hero, things have shaped up differently.
He first decided to write his own script and stunned the country with his candour and bravado, apparently in a bid to get back into the CM’s good books. Apart from a hate speech delivered in mid 2014, his reported association in the Saradha and Rose Valley scams has shown him in a poor light, as a result of which Pal has currently been languishing in a CBI jail in Bhubaneswar. Since the scam trails have caught up with him, Didi was quick to shake him off.
But more woes were in store for Didi for roping in stars who haven’t dabbled in politics at the grassroot. Satabdi Roy, during the campaign in the last LS poll, demanded to be elected in return for letting voters watch her films for free in her constituency for the next five years; she threatened to stop all development work in areas that would not vote for Trinamool. Roy was reportedly cautioned and let off after she realised the gaffe.
Then came the turn of Dev who compared the experience of joining politics and being overwhelmed with crowd affection to being raped; and then elaborated it further, saying that one must enjoy what one cannot resist. The faux pas was enough to force Dev tender an unqualified apology to people, especially to women.
However, the one that really left the TMC supremo shell-shocked was an `out-of-the-blue’ praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi by Moon Moon Sen. She declared she drew inspiration from Julius Caesar and wanted to bring nobility back to politics and use glamour to serve the people. And then came the bombshell: “I think we should give him (Narendra Modi) a chance. He has done a very good job winning all those votes and we have to give him a chance as a Prime Minister,” Sen told a channel, shortly after BJP’s thumping victory in the LS polls. Her words triggered massive embarrassment in the labyrinths of the party. TMC spokesman Derek O’Brien had to come to the rescue and disown the remark.
Maybe it’s time for Mamata Banerjee to ponder if her more than embarrassing gallery of stars is worth the damage. Having said that, one would have to concede that barring the lone occasion, Dev hasn’t failed the party. There was a time when many believed that Didi had done a disservice to the state by nominating Dev. Being a man of the soil ( Dev incidentally hails from Midnapore district), he was well aware of the prolonged and bloody clashes between the TMC and CPM activists which must have left deep scars on the psyche of the locals.
Thus, every time he visits the district, he gives the message of peace. Even his staunchest foe in either the BJP or CPI(M) (Congress is non-existent here) will speak of the good gesture and a precedent that Dev had shown as a first-timer in politics. He had hopped over to the home of his main rival CPI’s Santosh Rana and shared tea with him as a symbolic gesture. In a state where chasm between political parties has
grown deep, Dev has at least, endeavoured to alter the discourse in his own little way.
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