‘Bengal’s Son’, the Disco Dancer: Mithun Turns BJP Campaigner

Mithun Chakraborty is mass appeal personified. A rare combination of whistle-whipping dialogues and National Award-winning performances. Of B-grade histrionics and art house acclaim. Of bling tracksuits and nondescript panjabi/dhoti.

Brand Mithun was on view on March 7, 2021, as he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a star campaigner in Kolkata at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Brigade Ground rally.

In the Bengal of ’80s-’90s, a Mithun dialogue would make the crowd clap and hoot – breaking the barrier between star and fan. For the Bengali/Calcutta intelligentsia with an obvious classist bias, this “crowd” would typically mean the working-class men, who would take a paisa-vasool (worth for every penny) break after a hard day.

And true to his brand value, 70-year-old Mithunda didn’t fail to thrill the crowd. Recalling the popular namesake character of Minister Fatakeshto (2007), a sequel to MLA Fatakeshto (2006), Chakraborty said as part of his Brigade speech: “I know you love my dialogues and you are waiting for this one – marbo ekhane, lash porbe shoshaney (I will strike you here and your body will be found at the crematorium)”.

The actor-politician added:

“Today, I will be giving you another new dialogue. The dialogue is: Ami joldhora o noi, belebora o noi… Ami ekta cobra, ami Jaat Gokhro… ek chhobol-ei chhobi (I am not one of those harmless water snakes, I am a pure cobra, one bite and you will be a photograph”.

Cheeky and tacky? Yes. And not to mention the political toxicity. He, however, delivered what he had to: populism. With both Trinamool Congress party (TMC) and BJP leveraging the pull of star campaigners, populism is the flavour of Bengal politics. No wonder for their Brigade Ground alliance rally on February 28, the Left-Front resorted to ‘Tumpa, Brigade Cholo’, a parody version of the recent indie hit song ‘Tumpa Sona’.

If the incumbent TMC’s slogan this election campaign season is “Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chay (Bengal Wants Her Own Daughter) referring to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Chakraborty presented himself as “Banglar Chele” or “Bengal’s Son”. He cut through the jibe levelled against the BJP, led by Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah as “outsiders”, as Chakraborty reminded the gathering, “I am a Bengali, anyone born and raised in Bengal is not an outsider”. BJP has long struggled in the state to legitimise its campaign by associating with ‘insiders’, and it seems to have found an answer to a great degree in Chakraborty’s Bengali credo.

Who is this ‘Bengal’s Son’?

Stalwart Bengali film director Mrinal Sen once sent a note to cinematographer K.K. Mahajan:

“Looking for a FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) of 1973 batch, tall, dark, well-built, Bengali, name starts probably with ‘M’.”

It is said that Sen was on the lookout for a sort of a Bengali “He-man” for his new film Mrigaya (1976) when he had spotted this young man at the FTII 1973 annual convocation in Pune.  Chakraborty was eventually cast as Ghinua, a young tribal, a sharp shooter who befriends a British administrator in 1930s Bengal.

The striking physicality of Mithun Chakraborty in his proverbial tall, dark, handsome frame with the added advantages of a pair of evocative eyes and a baritone makes him unique among Bengal’s biggest male actors.

A still from Mrinal Sen’s ‘Mrigaya’

With and through Jimmy, the lead protagonist of Disco Dancer (1982), the 1980s cult classic Chakraborty was established as the macho man who could disco dance.

If Amitabh Bachchan was the original ‘angry young man’ of the 1970s, Chakraborty’s alternative action hero cult was a departure. Here was Jimmy, the subaltern, who fights but is an artist, tough but not shy to cry, and who breaks into disco dance, the iconic Elvis Presley-inspired pelvic thrust. The rags-to-riches story of Jimmy mirrored the journey of Chakraborty, the outsider, in then Bombay who rose to Bollywood’s shiny vaultsfrom the north Kolkata slum colony for blind people in Jorabagan. That he slept inside Matunga’s Five Gardens in then Bombay and took a membership at the suburban gymkhana to have access to a washroom is part of a story that forever sealed his image as a  “common man”.

It is this story of the grassroots hero that suits the BJP’s overarching narrative of non-dynastic leadership. One of BJP’s strongest attacks on Banerjee has been that she as pishi (aunt) – their slogan being “Pishi Jao” (Aunt, leave) – has allowed the alleged corruption of her nephew TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee.

Brand Bengal’s biggest male hero/star export to the Hindi film industry who ironically shone in what is referred to as the dark ages of B-grade Bollywood knows the art of populism well. In his article Poor Man’s Pop Star written on the cult of the “downmarket” star for Open magazine, Shaikh Ayaz writes:

“In Gangs of Wasseypur, Manoj Bajpayee publicly baits his rival by jumping into a jeep and shouting obscene threats into a microphone. He is accompanied by a Mithun Chakraborty-impersonator who mimics the actor’s deranged dance moves to the beats of Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984) as they parade down a dusty street.”

Ayaz writes how the scene reflects director Anurag Kashyap and writer Zeishan Quadri’s love for Mithunda:

“Quadri’s articulation of rural India offers proof of its ‘Mithunisation’: ‘His posters are at every barber shop. Young boys emulate his hairstyle. People try to walk, talk, dress and dance like him’.”

But garishness is not all that is there to Chakraborty, the king of Bollywood kitsch. Take his career in Bangla films. If there is a mass-market Fatakeshto brigade, there’s also his portrayal of the junior artist/extra ridiculed as the village bumpkin in Gaurav Pandey’s Shukno Lonka (2010), a year later as the rustic peasant Bhanu in Suman Ghosh’s Nobel Chor, and earlier as the disillusioned freedom fighter Shibnath Mukherjee in the 1992 Buddhadeb Dasgupta classic Tahader Kotha. All these films were rooted in rural Bengal.

Far-Left extremism, TMC

Once known for being sympathetic to the cause of the far-Left extremist Naxal movement of Bengal while still a college student in the then renowned Scottish Church College, a tragic personal incident left him disillusioned and he then went off to FTII. While the Left-Front government ruled in Bengal under the leadership of then chief minister Jyoti Basu, he was known to be personally close to the former CM and transport minister Subhash Chakraborty. In fact, Basu who was not much of a film industry person, agreed to host Hope ’86 upon the insistence of Chakraborty who brought Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in the star-studded fun-raiser in Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium. Till the time Basu was in power (1977-2000), Mithun continued to give live performances at fund-raising events.

But years later in 2014, he also danced at a TMC poll campaign. In 2014, the party nominated him to the Rajya Sabha but reportedly the Saradha scam wherein he was the brand ambassador of the group that ran a Ponzi scam in Bengal was the reason why he stepped down two years later. While he was hardly present at any parliament session, in the run-up to the scam investigation, Chakraborty reportedly returned Rs 1.19 crore to the Enforcement Directorate after tax deduction from the Rs 2 crore that he had got from the group for being their brand ambassador.

So, Chakraborty is no outsider much less a political outsider in Bengal; he is that son of Bengal who has a carefully mined image of a charitable do-gooder in place with his mass appeal intact. Only he has trapezed from one end of the pole to the other without showing any regard for the dignity of office or ideology. Currently seen as ‘Mahaguru’ on the Bengali dance reality show Dance Dance Junior Season 2 on Star Jalsha, Chakraborty seems to have pulled off another trick of his political jugglery act.

TMC MP Saugata Roy has dubbed Chakraborty as lacking “credibility” and of being threatened by BJP. But much of such flip-flop reflects the larger state of celebrity opportunism in the state on one hand, and the need for parties to rise above political shortcomings by cashing in on celeb power on the other hand. The May 7 Brigade gathering only seemed to attest to his popularity.

With elections around the corner, it now remains to be seen how BJP leverages this image of ‘Bengal’s son’.

Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based independent journalist.

Featured image credit: PTI