Mithun, The Cobra Who Could Sting Mamata Hard

I moved to a new school when I was 10. My neighbour, who knew me already, introduced me to others in the school bus as Mithun Chakraborty's cousin. This spread like, as I am told, wildfires do, and caused me much shame. Mithun, for all his popularity, was a Disco Dancer. I was a junior bhadralok. But the memory of our fictitious kinship came to my aid 25 years later.

That was at a London hotel where I was holidaying with wife and 9-month-old. The hotel had an annoying practice of levying an extra five-pound 'tray charge' every time one ordered room service. On our third day, the Polish gent who was taking my order noticed my surname. "Any relation of Mithun Chakraborty?" he asked. "He is my cousin," I replied without batting an eyelid. "I am a big fan, Sir," the man said. "From now, there'll be no tray charge for you."

This was 2007. Mithun was well past the peak he achieved in 1989, when he entered the record books by shooting 19 movies in a single year. By the mid-2000s, Mithun was doing more low-budget films that were released in single-screen theatres in working-class localities. In fact, even in Bengal, Mithun's fan following was mostly amongst the working classes and the urban poor. Even though he made his debut in Mrinal Sen's arthouse movie Mrigaya, and won the National Award for Best Actor, the Bengali middle class found him too declasse.

This would periodically show up in the culture wars within the ruling Left Front. The big flare-up over Mithun happened first in 1986, when then Sports Minister Subhash Chakraborty got a number of 'Bombay cinema' stars for a fund-raiser called "Hope-86". Mithun was his main contact in Mumbai, and many identified the show with the actor. Subhash had his boss Jyoti Basu's implicit blessings, but many in the CPIM, including Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, made their displeasure public. Bollywood was considered to be apasanskriti, a word that can best be translated as bad or low culture.

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Mithun Chakraborty with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

But much to the chagrin of the Left-leaning bhadralok, the people on the street loved it. When Mithun took Rajesh Khanna and Asha Bhosale with him to meet Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, "he created traffic snarls, made the crowds go hysterical and forced the state secretariat security to line up special armed guards." If the late Soumitra Chatterjee was the darling of Kolkata's genteel folk, Mithun represented the hoi polloi, who might have voted for the CPIM, but shared little of the party leadership's cultural elitism. He spoke the argot of Kolkata's tenement quarters and slums, which was ubiquitous on the street but rendered invisible in the self-image of the Bengali.

Interestingly, the slang used by young middle class Bengalis was liberally peppered with tropes from this street-lingo. I learnt two phrases that my Kolkata cousins taught me, amidst much laughter and incredulity. The first was "mere dewaale chhobi baniye debo" - "I will thrash you so badly that you will turn into a photograph on the wall". The other was "lash phele debo" - "I will drop your dead body."

Imagine my great excitement when on joining the BJP yesterday, Mithun referred to his movie dialogues that contained these very phrases. "Ami joldhorao noi, bele borao noi... ami ekta cobra, ek chobol-ei chhobi (Don't mistake me for a harmless snake, I am a pure cobra, one strike and you become a photograph)" and "Marbo ekhaney...lash porbay shoshaney (I will thrash you here. Your body will be found at the crematorium)."

This language from someone who could well be the BJP's chief ministerial candidate in West Bengal's elections this summer is a culmination of a long political process. When the Left Front came to power 44 years ago, it supposedly ruled in the name of peasants and workers. Its popular faces, however, were overwhelmingly upper-caste, Western-educated, bhadralok; whether it was Jyoti Basu who attended University College of London & London School of Economics, Finance Minister Ashok Mitra who studied under Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbergen, his successor Asim Dasgupta who got his PhD from MIT, Somnath Chatterjee & Indrajit Gupta who studied in Cambridge. Even the backbone of the party in rural areas was mostly made of school and college teachers.

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West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

Ironically, the CPIM's vote-base in and around Kolkata was made up mostly of the urban poor. Yet, its leaders maintained a distance from popular culture. In fact, it tried to set up an alternate Left-oriented cultural space through institutions like Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), Calcutta Youth Choir, and fellow travellers like Utpal Dutt. There were very few at the top of the Left Front who could culturally identify with the people they represented.

One amongst them was Subhash Chakraborty who was close to Mithun. The Bollywood star often participated in Subhash's public projects, giving his time and money. As I mentioned earlier, "Hope-86" was one of them. Mithun's early proximity to a section of the state CPIM gave him a Leftist tag, but he did not join active politics. In any case, there was significant resistance within the CPIM to using film stars for elections; only those who had dedicated their lives to the party could get tickets. Some even thought the state's voters would not take actors seriously.

This has proved to be entirely wrong over the past few elections. If anything, Bengalis love to vote for film stars. The TMC has had numerous MPs and MLAs from Bengali cinema - Moon Moon Sen, Tapas Pal, Shatabdi Roy, Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jehan. The BJP, too, has several leaders who are associated with commercial cinema - Babul Supriyo, Locket Chatterjee, Roopa Ganguly. Some would even call this the democratisation of the political culture of Bengal.

But Mithun Chakraborty is somewhat different from the rest. His long association with ground-level political work on behalf of the CPIM has left a significant public memory, especially in and around Kolkata. He is remembered as a social worker and a man of the people. He is not just yet another actor who is cashing in on his popularity to enter public life. This makes him a serious headache for both Mamata and the Left-Congress combine. He is a Cobra with a serious political bite.

(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.