Alongside the battle for Bengal, the Trinamool Congress and the BJP are locked in a parallel contest to rule the Bengali film and entertainment industry, pitting a section of the artistes against another.
The contest has become more gripping after an element of suspense was added to it recently by the saffron camp with its overtures to Mithun Chakraborty and Prosenjit Chatterjee, arguably the two most successful actors in the Bengali film industry today.
On Tuesday (February 16), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) supremo Mohan Bhagwat had a breakfast meeting with Mithun at the latter’s Mumbai residence.
On the same day, BJP leader and director of Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (SPMRF), Anirban Ganguly, met Prosenjit in Kolkata.
The two film stars, however, were quick to dismiss any possibility of them joining the BJP. But their saffron rendezvous caused quite a stir as it came amidst attempts by the BJP to diminish the TMC’s influence in the Bengali film and television industry, which has been for long playing the role of opinion shapers in Bengal politics.
“I have a spiritual relationship with Bhagwat ji. He had once told me he would come and meet me when he is in Mumbai. He loves my family and me. Today, he called on me as he was in the city. It has nothing to do with politics,” Mithun told reporters after the meeting that lasted for about 90 minutes.
Similarly, Prosenjit too claimed there was no political agenda in his meeting with Ganguly. “I stay focused on what I know best, that is acting,” he said, ruling out the possibility of him joining politics.
Since the time it set its eyes on Bengal, the BJP has been consciously trying to make inroads into Bengal’s arts and cultural domain.
The search for a credible face from the cultural world made Union Home minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah to call on Padma Bhushan awardee classical vocalist Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty at his Kolkata residence in November last year.
Another Indian classical musician from the state, Ustad Rashid Khan, was flown to Mumbai last month at the launch of an album containing BJP’s four campaign songs.
Incidentally, on February 5, Khan’s daughter Shaona along with three others, including veteran actor Deepankar De, joined the TMC.
To counter the TMC, the BJP roped in seven Bengali film and television actors last Wednesday (February 17), a day after the party’s two ideologues had separate meetings with two Bengali film stars.
This tug of war for the domination of the Bengali film industry is not merely a contest for glamour or star quotient. It has a larger political context.
Since long, film makers, actors and singers such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen, Utpal Dutta, Soumitra Chatterjee, Rabi Ghosh, Anup Kumar, Salil Chowdhury to name a few played a crucial role in shaping people’s opinion on contemporary socio-political issues.
As such more than stars or celebrities, they have always been an integral part of Bengali intelligentsia, at whom the society looks up to for direction.
Earlier, the people from the film fraternity, barring a few, did not directly take up the flag of any political party and did not take part in electoral politics.
That tradition changed after Mamata Banerjee formed the TMC in 1998, breaking away from the Congress.
To offset the absence of a strong organisational base, she not only inducted popular film stars, theatre personalities and players in her party but also made them candidates to contest elections.
One of the early inductees to the party was matinee idol of the late ’80s and ’90s, Tapas Paul, who became a TMC MLA in 2001. Soon after, two leading actresses of the ‘80s and ‘90s – Satabdi Roy and Deboshree Roy – joined the bandwagon, opening a floodgate.
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The clout of the TMC in the industry was such that when it organised a rally to protest withdrawal of Anik Dutta’s film Bhobishyoter Bhoot (Ghost of the Future) from almost all multiplexes and single-screen halls in West Bengal ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only a few turned up.
Soumitra Chatterjee, filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, actor-director Aparna Sen and director Anik Dutta himself were the only few prominent faces in attendance.
The star-studded candidate list of the TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections gives an idea of the party’s penetration in Bengali film industry, nicknamed Tollywood after Tollygunge, the south Kolkata locality where the film industry is based.
Among the candidates were Moon Moon Sen, Satabdi Roy, Deepak Adhikari (Dev), Mimi Chakraborty, and Nusrat Jahan. All but Sen won the elections. She lost to another member of the film fraternity, BJP’s Babul Supriyo in Asansol.
From the outset, the BJP which also lacks organisational base in Bengal has been relying on star power to expand its footprint in the state. Roopa Ganguly, Babul Supriyo and Locket Chatterjee were some of the BJP’s early inductees from Tollywood.
In 2019, the BJP set up Bangiya Chalachchitra Parishad (BCP) and Eastern India Motion Pictures & Cultural Confederation (EIMPCC) for artistes, technicians and producers. The two unions were launched to “free the industry from the clutches of the TMC.”
In the run up to the 2021 assembly elections, the party has only intensified its effort to unseat the TMC from Tollywood. But so far it has not been able to net any big star.
The political rivalry is turning co-actors into enemies so much so that last week a film actor associated with the TMC, Soham Chakraborty, demanded that Rudraneel Ghosh, who recently switched over to the BJP, be banned in Tollywood.
Soon after changing his political colour, actor-turned-politician Ghosh claimed the film industry had turned into a “mafia raj.”
The rift will further increase as the election approaches with both the BJP and the TMC going all out to woo the artistes.
Ironically, the political clout of its members did not find any reflection in the overall condition of the Bengali film industry. It continues to slide in growth parameters.
Bengali films earn less compared to films in other major Indian languages.
According to a pre-Covid time statistics, Bengali films contribute 6 per cent of the total film produced in India with 129 releases in 2019. However, in monetary terms, the contribution was only 0.6 per cent of the Indian film industries’ domestic collection that year.
On an average, Bengali films collect around ₹62 crore in a year whereas average box office collection of a Telugu film industry in a year is over ₹1,200 crore, according to industry sources. This is largely because of lack of infrastructure. There are only 1.7 screens per 10 lakh population in Bengal against the national average of 8 screens.