Poll-bound West Bengal is now witnessing veritable star wars with the BJP targeting the celluloid world to swell its ranks with film and cultural personalities likely to be fielded as party candidates in the April-May Assembly elections. A new theatre of conflict between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress has been opened. It was the Trinamool that successfully introduced in Bengal since 2011 the culture of giving party tickets to film stars and theatre personalities to contest elections. In the process, the BJP’s aggressive recruitment of film and television stars has caused turmoil in Tollywood (Kolkata film industry).
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s meeting with Mithun Chakraborty at the latter’s residence in Mumbai and BJP leader Anirban Ganguly’s visit to Tollywood star Prosenjit Chatterjee’s house in Kolkata have given a new twist to the poll strategy. The two meetings have triggered buzz in political circles whether the BJP is scouting for its Chief Ministerial candidate.
As part of the Sangh’s outreach, Bhagwat has interacted with several intellectuals in Kolkata as well. Even Amit Shah recently met classical musician and Padma Bhushan awardee Ajoy Chakraborty at his Kolkata residence.
Among the biggest names in Tollywood joining the BJP are the 35-year-old star of Bengali films and TV serials, Yash Dasgupta and Hiran Chatterjee. Other well-known actors are Hiran Papia Adhikari and Soumili Biswas. Dasgupta, recipient of a Filmfare award, was close to Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee and a friend of Trinamool MP and actor Nusrat Jahan, who was launched into politics by Mamata Banerjee in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The joining of Hiran Chatterjee is, indeed, a great setback for the Trinamool. He was the vice-president of Trinamool’s youth wing, headed by Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and MP Abhishek Banerjee. It was such a blow that State Minister Aroop Biswas, known to be controlling Tollywood, said: “The State government has always stood by the members of Bengali film and television industry. It does not matter who stays or leaves. But Mamata Banerjee will remain in the heart of the Bengali artistes. Everyone knows why some people are leaving.”
The involvement of film, theatre and other cultural personalities in political causes is nothing new in the country. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) is the oldest association of theatre-artistes in India, formed in 1943 with the goal of promoting themes related to the Indian freedom struggle. Its aim was to bring cultural awakening among the people of India.
The Left made extensive use of film and theatre icons and other performing artistes to help their cause. But they worked as part of the Left’s frontal, mass organisations. Only at the later stage did the Left field two film actors — Anil Chatterjee and Biplab Chatterjee – in two Assembly elections.
It was the Trinamool that completely changed the political discourse when it succeeded in mobilising artistes on the streets of Kolkata to protest against police firing on March 14, 2007, in Nandigram killing 14 people. Film, television serial actors, directors, musicians, painters and authors rallied behind the then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee.
Popular Tollywood faces such as Aparna Sen, Moon Moon Sen, Mithun Chakraborty, Tapas Pal, Chiranjeet Chakraborty, Debashree Roy and Kaushik Sen called for change. It was then that Mamata decided to cash in on the film industry’s mass appeal for electoral gain.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and 2011 Assembly polls, Mamata gave tickets to a number of Tollywood actors and reaped rich dividends. Buoyed by the success of the move, she fielded younger actors such as Dev, Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan in the 2019 general elections and all of them became MPs.
There were two reasons for Mamata banking on the glamour quotient of film actors. First, the Trinamool had a huge dearth of winnable candidates. The response that the Singur-Nandigram agitation evoked among the civil society encouraged Mamata to get her election candidates from the cultural field.
Secondly, the selection of candidates from Tollywood helped Mamata paper over factional bickering within the Trinamool. She denied tickets to either of the warring factions and fielded film stars or renowned singers who were acceptable to both the factions.
BJP in Same Ship
The BJP is also faced with similar problems. It too has a dearth of winnable candidates and there is an intra-party conflict between old party leaders and new entrants from the Trinamool.
Moreover, the BJP is trying to send the message across that the Trinamool has become a sinking ship. Just as its leaders are deserting Mamata, so are film actors, who were all these years veering to the ruling party, now joining the BJP in droves. The writing should be on the wall that the Trinamool is fading away and the lotus — BJP’s poll symbol — is blooming.
In the meanwhile, Tollywood is in turmoil on the question of whether film and television actors should join politics at all. Those who are in favour say they want to contribute to society with their political convictions. The opponents prefer distancing cultural pursuits from political affiliations.
A third view is that the actors have found that political interference in Tollywood during the Trinamool regime, much more than the previous Left rule, has made or marred their career. Hence, there is a rush for switching sides as the BJP is being perceived to be the likely winner this time around.
(The author is political analyst, associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation)
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