How the Bengali Film Industry Is Playing A Role In The West Bengal Elections , Film Companion
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Most of you would’ve seen the song video. A group of well-known Bengali film and theatre artists and musicians come together to send out a strong message to their fans: do not vote for the BJP (without saying it in so many words, but making it apparent through newspaper clips, references to the rhetoric used by the party, and so on). For the uninitiated, it would seem as if the Bengali film fraternity and other artists are united in their fight against fascism, and is in stark contrast with, for instance, the Hindi film industry, which would never take such a stand. Part of it is true—one can’t imagine a Bollywood equivalent of a “We are the World” style video such as this one (or a new age “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara”). The rest is complicated. Far from being united, the film industry is more politically divided than ever–the video a kind of last minute pushback from a fraternity that has failed the moral test on most accounts.

With its lineup of celebrity candidates campaigning for both the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the run up to the elections, which began its first phase on March 27, can be described as farcical, at best. Most of them have been seduced by the power and money, and the promise of an alternative to their waning film careers…

With its lineup of celebrity candidates campaigning for both the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the run up to the elections, which began its first phase on March 27, can be described as farcical, at best. Most of them have been seduced by the power and money, and the promise of an alternative to their waning film careers, including those with communist roots taking embarrassing ideological U-turns like Mithun Chakraborty and Rudranil Ghosh. There have been instances where two actors rumoured to be together have joined different parties (Yash Dasgupta, BJP and Nusrat Jahan, TMC), as well as actors who are couples, like Bonny Sengupta and Koushani Mukherjee going to BJP and TMC respectively. The twist is that Bonny’s mother, Piyali Sengupta was already with TMC when her son decided to join BJP, and one Times of India article quotes her that “he didn’t consult her when he decided to join BJP”. But you get the drift: it’s been nothing short of a circus. 

While celebrated filmmakers, actors, writers, musicians and intellectuals (including the late Soumitra Chatterjee) were known for their proximity to the Left during the CPI(M) rule, not many ran as candidates—unlike the Tamil film industry, where demigods of popular cinema, like MGR, generated seismic shifts in the state’s political landscape. The so-called celebrities being fielded by major political parties is a relatively new phenomenon in West Bengal, that many see as a trend ushered in by the Mamata Banerjee government when it came to power in 2011. “Not everyone gets it, but in this digital age, the kind of connect the film fraternity has with people is incredible, and the parties want to use that. This was not there in the analogue era,” said a filmmaker who wished to remain anonymous.

“Not everyone gets it, but in this digital age, the kind of connect the film fraternity has with people is incredible, and the parties want to use that. This was not there in the analogue era,” said a filmmaker

One of Banerjee’s most high-profile campaigners ever since she came to power has been Dev, a big star whose mass appeal goes with the subaltern politics of the TMC. The BJP’s anti-elite brand of politics has meant that they are using the same weapon as TMC’s to one-up them, their biggest coup being getting Mithun Chakraborty—arguably the most famous Bengali actor, along with Uttam Kumar—to campaign for them. The political arc of actors like Chakraborty, and Ghosh, who started out as CPIM supporters, then moved to TMC, before joining BJP, mirror that of other ministers and low-level party workers, who have had a tour of the whole political spectrum of West Bengal. 

There has been individual voices of resistance, of course, who are not part of the race to win an election ticket. Actor Kaushik Sen has spoken about the dangers of letting a Far Right party like BJP win in Bengal. Parambrata Chatterjee spoke about resisting Hindi imposition as well as wrote an oped on the election for a leading Bengali daily. Sabyasachi Chakraborty, a lifelong supporter of the CPIM, is one of the actors who protested against the implementation of CAA/NRC last year—so did actor Anirban Bhattacharya.

Sen, Chatterjee, Chakraborty and Bhattacharya appear in “Nijeder Mawte, Nijeder Gaan”, the above mentioned video which has been ideated and executed by such young generation of actors as Riddhi Sen, Rwitobroto Mukherjee and Surangana Bandyopadhyay. The  video succeeds in communicating that voting against the BJP is a call that transcends party politics: it’s about saving Bengal, it’s a cultural war. I would still not quite draw the comparison with Bollywood, though. Unlike Bollywood, which is a pan-Indian industry, the Bengali film industry—also dubbed Tollywood—is operating from a region that’s still not answerable to the central government. Even then, the silence on the part of bigger names among actors and filmmakers, has been deafening, if not unsurprising. 

An anonymous group of filmmakers—whose works have won National awards and have been feted at international film festivals—is at work, quietly driving the “No Vote to BJP” campaign, that aims to keep the communal forces of BJP out of Bengal. Apart from the recognisable red and white posters which have filled the city, the campaign’s social media account regularly features short, crisply edited videos of a representative from different communities—from the matuas, to the Bengalis from Assam—speaking about why they won’t vote for the BJP. Unlike the impression it might create, it’s a people’s campaign that doesn’t accept funds from any political party. Their aim is simple, blunt and direct: BJP ke ektio vote noy (Not a single vote to BJP). 

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