Celebrity Math: Casting a Divided Tollywood in the Battle for Bengal 2021 

When West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced the Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate list on March 5 for the eight-phase state assembly elections that began on March 27, she stuck to playing the Tollywood card that the party has resorted to several times in the past.

For instance, in 2019 for the Lok Sabha elections, TMC fielded actors Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan in the coveted constituencies of Jadavpur and Basirhat respectively. The then 30-year-old Chakraborty won by a margin of 2,95,239 votes and 29-year-old Jahan by 3,50,369 votes. Their wins continued the 2014 trend of the ruling party’s celebrity candidates Deepak Adhikari alias Dev, a reigning star, yesteryear artists Sandhya Roy and Moon Moon Sen, leading ’80s stars Satabdi Roy and the late Tapas Paul, winning in the Lok Sabha elections.

Cut to the challenging 2021 Bengal elections. Several new celebrity faces have joined both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the TMC – with the former taking a page out of the TMC’s handbook on populism.

Battles line drawn

Koushani Mukherjee (28) who made her debut in 2015 in the Bengali film industry – referred to as Tollywood – has been fielded from the Krishnanagar North seat where the BJP had a lead of 53,551 votes over TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. She is up against BJP national vice president Mukul Roy, a former TMC veteran. Bonny Sengupta, with whom Mukherjee is admittedly in a relationship, has joined the BJP. And Bonny’s mother Piya Sengupta is the president of the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EIMPA).

On the other hand, popular actor and TV show host Srabanti Chatterjee (33), who has been a part of the industry for more than two decades, has been pitted by the BJP against TMC veteran Partha Chatterjee in the Behala West constituency in Kolkata. Chatterjee is a four-time MLA from the Behala West constituency and currently the state Minister for Education and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in West Bengal.

There are other new entrants. In the ring for the TMC are actors Sayantika Banerjee (34) in Bankura and Saayoni Ghosh (28) in Asansol South. Batting for the BJP are Tonushree Chakraborty (36) in Shyampur and Paayel Sarkar (37) in Behala East.

The campaigning for the first phase of the elections came to a close on March 25 with Banerjee’s “soldiers” – as she calls Sayantika and Saayoni – slogging it out in the districts. Meanwhile, the BJP brought in the big guns with superstar Mithun Chakraborty canvassing for it at a roadshow across Bankura and Purulia.

Rising polarisation

Where do these political developments leave the Bengali film industry, which is becoming increasingly polarised with each passing day?

Ahead of an election where the TMC is fighting hard to remind its people of Bengal’s own daughter (‘Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay‘) even as the BJP gains popularity, it is worth asking this question – especially in light of the BJP’s desperation to conquer this bastion of Eastern India that has never seen a right-wing government.

Often targeted by BJP and its supporters, Jahan, a Muslim, is married to prominent Kolkata businessman Nikhil Jain. Jahan, who visits temples and wears visible markers of a Hindu married woman, is the face of Banerjee’s secular brand of politics. She told LiveWire, “It’s a democracy, everyone in the artist community is entitled to his/her opinions and political views. We are happy about each other’s new political innings.”

In fact, using celebrity contestants or campaign runners to draw in crowds is hardly new in politics. The Narendra-Modi led Central government enjoys support from Bollywood celebrities who often act as mouthpieces for his government’s controversial policies. Banerjee, surrounded by her cinema soldiers – often fielded to rise above party factionalism – on political podiums and cultural forums, might remind one of Modi’s selfies with Bollywood celebrities.

The widening rift

Take TMC candidate for Barrackpore constituency in North 24 Parganas, Raj Chakraborty, who is one of Bengal’s most successful commercial film directors in contemporary times. Chakraborty is seen as someone who rose through the ranks by putting in the work. With films like Challenge (2009), Le Chakka (2010), Bojhena She Bojhena (2012), Parbona Ami Chartey Tokey (2015) and Chaamp (2017) under his belt, Chakraborty has painted the landscape of Bengali commercial cinema with a fresh, suburban glamour and rustic nostalgia. So, imagine songs and dialogues in a catchy mishmash of colloquial Bangla peppered with Mumbai Hindi and youth-centric balmy stories of young suburban couples navigating love and social mobility.

Hailing from Halisahar, a municipality in North 24 Parganas, Chakrabarty is no stranger to TMC. He attended some 76 campaign meetings in 2016. “I have been a blind fan of Didi and want her to do a hattrick as chief minister of Bengal. I knew I would someday join politics but the process got expedited because of the turncoats. Now is the time to show my solidarity actively and join the party,” Chakraborty told a national daily.

One must note the word “blind” here driving brand Mamata, as Sumana Roy writes in her article titled ‘We are All Mamata Now‘ in The Caravan where she studies Banerjee’s “cultural wasteland” predicated on “pastiche, pop-nostalgia, blind faith, and two broken languages”. Banerjee is known to write poetry, recite from Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, paint and watch Bengali TV serials. It is said that Tollywood stars have had to cancel overnight shoots to show solidarity for their leader.

On the other side of the spectrum is Chakraborty’s close friend – who also happens to be a former close aide of Banerjee – Tollywood’s remarkable character artist Rudranil Ghosh (48) as the BJP candidate in Kolkata’s “mini-India” Bhawanipur.

A former student leader and an ideological admirer of the Left rule, he was inspired by Banerjee’s struggle and pro-poor ideology when she came to power in the state in 2011. The actor, who gave some of his best performances in Chaplin (2011) and Vinci Da (2019), was described by The Telegraph as a member of Banerjee’s “culture clan”. He was a TMC star campaigner in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 assembly elections – but not in 2019. In 2016, he resigned from the state Right to Public Service Commission Council.

The Kantatar (2005) actor, who has criticised the TMC government for its “cut money” culture, told LiveWire: “The ruling TMC indulges people with its ‘mishti mishti (goody-goody)’ behaviour, but is a government supposed to be sweet or get the work done? Everyone loves the honourable CM; Didi is good. But if she is good why does she let rampant corruption go unpunished in her party? Why is she protecting the ‘thief’ [referring to party members accused in the Saradha-Narada scams]? The Mamata Banerjee I knew in 2011 has been a different person 2014 onwards. A section of the film industry and artists who believed in her a decade ago started to feel demoralised with this attitude. This section needed a platform who shared their views and could put them out powerfully, and I have chosen this platform [BJP] to work for the people.”

The loyalty question

Ghosh said that since the CM has asked the people of Bengal to vote for her in all the 294 constituencies (one of Banerjee’s ongoing poll pleas), one could conclude that the 293 candidates lack credibility. When asked about the “monopoly” of SVF (Shree Venkatesh Films), wherein a section of the film industry have (often anonymously) alleged in news reports about its partial treatment to sympathisers of the ruling party, Ghosh, whose political satires in the forms of stories and poems often go viral on social media, disagreed.

Had it been true, he said, actor-filmmaker Kaushik Sen, who has been critical of the state apparatus, and playback singer and Union Minister Babul Supriyo – now the BJP candidate in Tollygunge – would have never worked under the banner.

This was a stand shared by actor Parno Mittra (34). Mittra, who joined the BJP in 2019 and is the party’s candidate from Baranagar, which is her maternal home, told LiveWire: “It’s not really about SVF as they are where they are given the ’quality’; it’s about a new wave in Bengal. The next generation, the millennials are perceived to be as a non-thinking lot only interested in taking pictures on Instagram. But it’s time to change that. Why not let young politicians work for change? I’m a good friend of Mimi Chakraborty; I know Mimi works very hard, but so does Locket Chatterjee and Babul Supriyo.”

When Mittra was asked about the ruling party’s overt influence on the Bengali film industry, the actor who debuted in the National Award-winning film Ranjana Ami ar Ashbona (2011) and has portrayed strong women characters in niche films since said, “I have only been invited to the Kolkata International Film Festival (KIIF) twice for Apur Panchali and Urojahaj. I call it the Trinamool Congress Film Festival.”

She was referring to certain actors being invited more frequently, representing the face of the industry and by extension the party. Pointing out a recent example of a theatre outfit firing an actor for joining BJP in the state, she asked, “Isn’t that fascist”?

Incidentally, Raj Chakraborty helmed the successful physical edition of the 26th KIIFF held in the city in early January. Chakraborty’s wife Subhashree Ganguly, who is the recipient of five Kalakar Awards, is said to be the highest paid actress in Tollywood. Ganguly took home the GSM ‘Maa Durga Samman Award’ this year.

Senior journalist Deep Halder, whose book Bengal 2021: An Election Diary, has a chapter dedicated to Tollywood, told LiveWire, “One must recall how the late Soumitra Chatterjee was known to be close to the Left regime but that never stopped him from acting in Atonko (1984), a film on political murders in the state under the Left rule. But in 2018, Bengali daily Sangbad Pratidin’s entertainment journalist Indranil Roy was arrested for tweeting about one of TMC MP Dev Adhikari’s films (Hoichoi Unlimited) being a copy of a Pakistani film. This kind of lobbying and viciousness was not known earlier. Also, it’s an overkill of celebrities this time in the polls. Celebrities also run the risk of losing their loyal fan base by choosing a political colour.”

A Tollywood tradition

In 2011, when Mamata Banerjee overthrew the 34-year Left regime in Bengal, she faced the daunting task of rewriting its cultural legacy. A Lenin-coated legacy that had Nandan, the hotspot of theatre and intellectual adda at its centre under the aegis of the then culture minister and later CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. It was a legacy that jeered and jibed at a leader like Banerjee, with formidable street-fighter credentials, in condescension, laced with a classist and sexist bias. The same legacy had shunned the commercial machinery of Tollywood as befitting a more mofussil audience.

As a departure, one of Banerjee’s definitive moves has been to co-opt Tollywood’s commercial capital and leverage its mass appeal across towns and rural Bengal. It was not only about co-opting Tollywood’s rural-mass appeal but about mainstreaming it in neo-liberal, pseudo-global, catchy-local mishmash packaging.

Today, the rise of the millennial politician, woman and artist, is of note, as Mittra pointed out. Halder, who cited Locket Chatterjee of BJP as a good example of celebrity-turned politician who left her stardom behind, added that Jahan – whom he interviewed for his book – enjoys popularity.

Jahan told LiveWire, “I feel working under the able leadership of someone like Mamata Banerjee is an added advantage. I try to mix with people from all walks of life and remove barriers. And I have surely grown as a politician since 2019. My speeches are more aligned and I try to include all pointers, fulfilling my duties as a party spokesperson as well. I am Basirhat’s ‘Ghorer Meye (daughter of Basirhat)’.”

On March 28 at around 9 pm, the official Twitter handle of BJP’s Bengal chapter shared an undated video where Jahan is heard saying in Bangla that she has been campaigning for more than an hour and couldn’t do it even for the chief minister. A day earlier, Jahan cited “reports” predicting big wins for Banerjee in the first phase of the polls and had attacked the BJP by saying “time for tourist gang to book tickets for home”. Jahan has yet to respond to the video clip.

As Bengal voted for the first phase on March 27 in 30 seats, it will be worth seeing how Tollywood functions in the near future; whether it continues to be co-opted as machinery of populism, or if the younger generation of artist politicians are able to “change” the status quo. At a time when even Bengali film industry luminaries like Aparna Sen who were part of the intellectual-cultural force behind Banerjee in 2011 are disillusioned with her reign, how will this polarisation play out for Tollywood in the coming days?

Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based independent journalist.