Forty years ago, Tapas Paul gave Bengali cinema a prototype – the bumbling, good-natured bhalo chele (good boy). It was his breakthrough role in Tarun Mazumdar’s Dadar Kirti, where he played the perpetual bechara with a blend of integrity and naiveté. It was an image that endeared him to the audience, and stuck because of his subsequent films. In Tobu Mone Rekho (1994), for instance, he played a meek young man who is exploited by his stepmother and can’t gather the courage to defy her until his wife stands up in defence. In Kori Diye Kinlam, he played the good-natured loser, who is treated like a doormat by most people in his life. For a generation of Bengalis, Paul, who passed away late Monday night, was almost always the wronged man.
But this benign image changed in 2014. A controversial video, where he threatens murder and rape of people who mess with Trinamool workers, emerged. A video that made Paul fall into the mould of the stock-in-trade corrupt politician of Bengali potboilers. By then, he was a seasoned leader of Trinamool, having joined the party in 2001. His political persona, Bengal was soon to realise, would end up being the exact opposite of his onscreen one.
Tapas Paul, who referred to himself as Chandanagore-r maal (a specimen from Chandanagore) in a number of rallies, drew flak for his aggressive rhetoric. His 2014 speech was followed by an apology by his wife Nandini Paul. In December 2016, he was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation in connection with the multi-crore Rose Valley Chit fund scam and got bail only after being incarcerated for 13 months. For the Bengali film audience, this was a bit too much to digest.
“Tapas Paul was the quintessential bhalo chele of Bengali cinema,” says film historian Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, who was associated with Jadavpur University’s film studies department. “In films such as Bhalobasa Bhalobasa (1985) and Kori Diye Kinlam (1989), he consolidated that image. Tapas Paul was the guy next door that Bengali men can easily identify with. This is why it was difficult to make peace with his political image,” says Mukhopadhyay.
In a career spanning forty years, Tapas Paul gave Bengal different versions of his breakthrough role. His Bollywood debut, 1984’s Abodh, which was also the debut film of Madhuri Dixit, had him playing a perennially-confused husband to a naive, young woman. The film was a resounding flop. And that was the end of the road for him in the Hindi film industry.
At times, he played second fiddle to the reigning superstar of Bengali film industry, Prosenjit. Through the 1990s, in Anjan Chaudhury family dramas, Paul played the ever-suffering elder brother to Prosenjit’s avenging younger brother. In these films, Paul, more often than not, fell prey to scheming politicians and duplicitous scammers.
It was not until art-house filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta cast him in his homoerotic film, Uttara (2001), that Bengali film audience realised that there is still a sensitive actor residing in Bengal’s favourite bhalo chele. As the obsessive wrestler whose world is torn apart when his wrestling partner gets married, Paul is bristling with envy and indignation. Dasgupta cast him again in 2002 film, Mondo Meyer Upakhyan, where he played a driver with a heart of gold.
By the time he was arrested in connection with the Rose Valley scam in 2016, Tapas Paul was a pale shadow of his former self. His film career was all but over. As a politician too, he could not really rise above the 2014 controversy. But Aparna Sen, who worked with him in 1989’s Kori Diye Kinlam, remembers him as the bhalo chele who endeared a generation of Bengalis. “It’s sad how he changed after joining politics. He was such a sweet boy,” says Sen.
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