‘I am used to this sexism’
Election season calls for separate rules. Politicians eat out of plates of the common man; they shake hands with voters or hug them with abandon. So, an image of Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate for Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency in south Kolkata, Mimi Chakraborty, granting a handshake to a possible bystander while wearing gloves was the last thing she needed. “I had blisters on my hands and applied ointment. I was returning after a long day of canvassing when the car stopped somewhere and some people came to shake hands with me,” says Chakraborty, a Tollywood actor, who burst into the public imagination playing a no-nonsense Rituparno Ghosh heroine in a widely popular Bengali serial, Gaaner Opare (2010), exactly a decade ago.
Today, Chakraborty, 30, is out for another round of canvassing in her constituency. Her hands are ungloved as she signs an autograph for a young fan, who has been waiting for hours for a glimpse of her, at the Baruipur Municipal building — her “shelter” for the afternoon.
The actor, who has been fighting to shed a snooty image, started her day at 7 am. Now, the afternoon sun is throbbing against the tinted windows of the reception area. Just a few kilometres from the building are pristine paddy fields and lush guava orchards. A sharp contrast to other areas of her constituency, which houses some of the most urban settlements of eastern India. Once a Left bastion, it elected Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran Somnath Chatterjee to the Lok Sabha, where he later became the Speaker. It has been a Trinamool stronghold for the past decade and a half. Mamata Banerjee stood (and won) from this very constituency in 1984. This year, Chakraborty has been fielded against CPM veteran Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, a former mayor of Kolkata (2005-2010) and the face of the party in West Bengal now. Bhattacharya says, he is quite confident about his chances this year. “Initially, I was a little sceptical. But now, when I am out canvassing, I can see that people are with me,” he says.
Mahadeb Ghosh, 34, who runs a sanitary fittings store bang opposite the Baruipur Municipal building in south Kolkata, shows us the many Mimi memes his phone has been flooded with. One self-reflexive meme christens the actor “Meme” Chakraborty. Another video, by a popular Bengali YouTuber, Sandy Saha, has him parodying her wearing a wig and surgical gloves. “I know her as an actor. I don’t know if she will be a capable politician. People who vote for her will actually be voting for Didi (Mamata Banerjee),” says Ghosh.
“I am aware of the weight of this responsibility,” says Chakraborty of her debut in politics. The “weight” of this responsibility was impressed upon the 30-year-old from the moment her candidature was announced. Within minutes of the declaration of the first list of TMC candidates in March, the internet was flooded with memes mocking her and Nusrat Jahan, another Tollywood actor. “I am used to this sort of sexism,” says Chakraborty. “As film actors, we are exposed to public scrutiny all the time. Not all of them are about adulation. Also, women politicians are always targeted more than men,” she says.
In a career spanning almost a decade, Chakraborty, who started off playing independent, headstrong characters in shows like Gaaner Oparey and Bojhena Se Bojhena (2012), steadily moulded herself as the Tollywood glam-heroine prototype. In Bojhena Se Bojhena, she played a girl from Malda, a small town of Bengal, who rehabilitates a wastrel and in Proloy (2013), she essayed the role of a rape-victim from a suburban town, who helps bring down a corrupt government. “I am essentially a small-town girl. I was raised in Jalpaiguri in north Bengal. I came to Kolkata to make a career for myself. So, I know what it means to struggle. I know what kind of problems the common man faces,” she says.
Chakraborty, who has been a regular at most state government events for the past few years, including the star-studded Kolkata Film Festival, doesn’t see herself as an “accidental politician”. Neither is she worried about the heartburn caused to veteran party leaders by her nomination. “People will be voting for Didi in all the 42 constituencies. We are all her representatives,” she says.
‘Didi sees me as a bridge between Hindus and Muslims’
How does one break ice with a crowd of weary, sweat-drenched villagers, who have been waiting for hours under the scorching April sun to catch a glimpse of you? You sing, of course!
“Tomay hridh majahare rakhibo, jete dibo na! (I will keep you in my heart, not let you go)”
Nusrat Jahan, 29, the TMC candidate from the Basirhat constituency in North 24 Parganas, breaks into a song for the crowd gathered at Bamanchowk village. For the first time in 20 minutes, they roar in approval.
The news of her candidature may have launched a thousand sniggers, but Jahan, who has starred in many Bengali remakes of Telugu blockbusters such as Shotru (2011) and Khoka 420 (2013), doesn’t believe in taking things lying down. Last month, two youths were detained in Kolkata suburbs for posting obscene remarks on her. “While a lot of trolling is politically-motivated, I also believe that some of them are just my admirers screaming for attention,” she says.
Nevertheless, questions about her and Chakraborty’s ability — both part of a new generation of Tollywood actors that has a cosy relationship with the Mamata Banerjee government — persist. In Jahan’s case, there is also the shadow of her alleged involvement with the 2012 Park Street rape case prime accused, Kadir Khan. She has claimed to have broken off contact with him.
On campaign trail, Jahan is the perfect ghorer meye (daughter of the house). “I know all the women have forsaken their kitchen duties to be here, don’t worry, I won’t take much of your time,” she tells the crowd. Zoya Bibi, 34, smiles. “I think she is a good singer,” she says. Will she vote for Jahan? She nods her head, “Aar kaake vote debo? (Who else will I vote for?)”
Jahan grew up in Kolkata’s Park Circus, predominantly a Muslim area. “My father worked in an insurance firm, my mother was a schoolteacher. Though my sister and I had a fairly sheltered life, I was acutely aware of my Muslim identity,” she says.
Basirhat was in the eye of the storm in 2017 after an alleged communally sensitive social media post by a 17-year-old sparked riots. With 77 per cent Hindus and 22 per cent Muslims, it also shares it borders with Bangladesh. “I guess Didi sees me as a bridge between the Hindu and the Muslim communities here. I am a devout Muslim who has also played Hindu characters in films. I can assure people that I will not let religion divide them,” says Jahan.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Memes, Music and the Masses’