The BJP must have heaved a sigh of relief when Mithun Chakraborty strode onto the stage next to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his recent rally in Kolkata. For weeks rumours had been swirling that Bengal’s reigning superstar Prasenjit Chatterjee might attend or Sourav Ganguly. Neither obliged, but Mithun-da, a bona fide “son of Bengal” saved the day though a meme quipped the BJP had ordered the latest hottest Dada and Amazon delivered a much older model instead. But celebrity, whatever the vintage, matters in Bengal.
Stars and politicians are no strangers in Bengal. Before he became a Trinamool-nominated Rajya Sabha MP Mithun Chakraborty was so close to Left Front minister Subhas Chakraborty that he organised a star-studded flood relief extravaganza and got Amitabh Bachchan to come for it. But the starchy dhoti-clad babus of the Left generally looked down on Bollywood and its Kolkata cousin Tollywood as lowbrow.
Mamata Banerjee has no such pretensions. She understands the pulse of mainstream Bengali culture and has always packed her MP/MLA line-up with film stars, sportspersons, singers. Some were long past their heyday like the star of numerous weepies Sandhya Roy but others were hot commodities like action-hero Dev. Cynics dismissed it as a ploy to pack in audiences, dubbing it the tamasha-fication of politics but Ranabir Samaddar, the director of the Calcutta Research Group, has said that, unlike the Left, Trinamool required no ideological commitment from these celebrities. It treated them as “guest politicians” who could treat politics as a sabbatical. Their political foray was like a “recognition of their work” as actors and sportspeople.
Parachuting in a celebrity also helped defuse local intra-party fights because he/she was an outsider belonging to no particular faction. A 2019 IndiaSpend study of celebrity MPs showed their attendance in Parliament was generally below average and they asked few questions, but it also revealed they made good use of their MP funds. In 2019, Dev clocked 11% attendance but used 96.7% of his allocated funds. Sandhya Roy had 53% attendance and used 98.8% of her funds. That made the local constituency leaders, the ones in charge of disbursing the funds, happy.
Didi genuinely enjoyed the company of stars of film and television and that made it easier for her to bend them to her cause. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections Didi hit the campaign trail with actor-candidate Nusrat Jahan. She ad libbed about their commonality. “She has two eyes. I have two eyes. She has two ears. I have two ears. She has one liver. I have one liver. Only she is beautiful. I am not.” The crowd lapped it up. And if the stars occasionally put their foot in their mouths, they smiled and begged forgiveness as political novices.
A little late to the party, BJP roped in a few stars like Locket Chatterjee and Roopa Ganguly. But this year that trickle has become a stream. Papiya Adhikari, an actress from the 80s, elocuted her love for the party and the Prime Minister with such gushing melodramatic verve on camera it screamed for its own soap opera soundtrack. And we know the BJP-Trinamool celebrity tug-o-war is getting serious when actor Bonny Sengupta joins the BJP while his love interest actor Koushani Mukherjee joins Trinamool as does his mother, giving the old saas-bahu plot a dramatic twist.
Admittedly many of the new celebrity entrants are eliciting yawns. The names ring the faintest of bells. Not everyone can deliver a frisson of excitement like a Moon Moon Sen. However, the celebrity brigade now serves a different political purpose. It’s about quantity rather than quality. The BJP wants the headline that says: “A host of Bengali actors join BJP”. Ultimately elections are a matter of perception and by filling up its celeb dance card the BJP wants to send out the message that the wind is changing in Bengal.
That’s why Trinamool has redoubled its efforts. Mamata persuaded sitting MLAs like actor Chiranjeet to run again though he had wanted to retire. Acting legend Dipankar De just joined the party. The new faces in the party’s Assembly poll list include a writer, a footballer, a cricketer, a singer of Sa Re Ga Ma fame, a director and a slew of television and film stars. Whether it can win the battle of perceptions is anyone’s guess. But while political parties and celebrities hope for a win-win relationship with each other, it’s debatable whether art and culture itself will emerge a winner. When some artiste gets ensnared in the next freedom of expression fight, and a political party goes after them hammer and tongs, will these celeb-turned netas, no matter which party they belong to, speak up? Or will they turn into silent film stars?
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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