SINCE ITS FORMATION in 1998, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been changing its composition so quickly that a veteran Congress leader, who had joined and left the party in a huff, had described it as West Bengal’s fourth football club. Having traversed the entire political spectrum, Mithun Chakraborty could well form a fifth football club entirely on his own. Beginning as a Naxalite in his youth, he briefly joined TMC in 2011, and became a Rajya Sabha member in 2014 and brand ambassador of the Saradha Group till he quit in 2016, citing ill-health. After being interrogated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) during the investigation into a chit fund scam in which Saradha was implicated, Mithun had to hand over Rs 1.19 crore (after tax) to ED from the Rs 2 crore he had received in fees from the company. Having joined BJP recently, his star is rising again. In his first campaign, he registered his return to politics with a dialogue from his film M.L.A. Fatakeshto (2006) about being a genuine cobra that can kill in one bite.
His appearance, complete with a beard and a beanie, might not indicate the extent of his real draw. The 70-year-old became a star when he won a National Award for Mrinal Sen’s Mrigayaa (1976). Bollywood didn’t necessarily welcome him with open arms. That he arrived on the scene at the peak of Amitabh Bachchan’s career didn’t help either. Steering clear of the race to compete with Bachchan, Mithunda, as he is known popularly, made himself the centre of an alternative to the Mumbai film industry. Eventually, he moved to Ooty to set up The Monarch under the aegis of Mithun Group of Hotels. Directors from Mumbai saved on costs of their low-budget movies by staying at his hotels, usually with a heroine from south India, and completing the shoot.
Throughout the cinematic wasteland of the 1980s and the transformative 1990s, Mithun was known as the king of B-grade movies. A magazine once quoted him as saying: ‘‘‘Other stars give the starting date of a film,” he says proudly. “I give the completion date. Distributors are 101 per cent sure that the film will be completed, producers make a profit even before release. In the film industry, everybody is gambling. But if you do business, you don’t gamble.”’
But even that business wisdom doesn’t capture his appeal. He was the icon of working-class India—auto drivers, factory workers, store keepers—before they discovered Salman Khan. He might have been called the poor man’s Bachchan but he resisted playing second fiddle to the Hindi film superstar, except famously in Agneepath (1990). Those in the Mumbai film industry who grew up in the small forgotten towns of India have made him a cult hero—and rightly so. He finds himself referenced in movies ever so often, whether it is the Mithun impersonator accompanying Manoj Bajpayee in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) breaking into crazy dance moves, or more recently Rajkummar Rao going the whole hog—with hairstyle and bell-bottoms—to play his luckless character in Anurag Basu’s Ludo (2020).
He’s also the subject of writer and comedian Anuvab Pal’s Disco Dancer: A Comedy in Five Acts, in praise of the 1982 film from which the book gets its title and which has become a cult classic. The film’s USP was that its hero, played by Mithunda, had guitarphobia. Its music, by another king of the B-list who is undergoing his own revival, Bappi Lahiri, is still entirely hummable in a campy way.
A magazine once quoted Mithun Chakraborty as saying: ‘Other stars give the starting date of a film,’ he says proudly. ‘I give the completion date. Distributors are 101 per cent sure that the film will be completed, producers make a profit even before release’
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Another favourite among fans is Gunmaster-G9: Surakksha (1979) in which he played Officer Gopi, a James Bond clone. Admirers include director Sriram Raghavan whose Agent Vinod (2012) was a homage to it. Its pop-up guns and toy boats have inspired much online chatter as younger viewers rediscover its unusual charms. Yet it isn’t as if Mithun is a joke, though Pal tells Open that the way both BJP and TMC are hiring actors, there will be no actors left. “Politicians will have to become actors,” he says. Mithun has won three National Awards, two for Best Actor in Mrigayaa and Tahader Katha (1992) and one for Best Supporting Actor in Swami Vivekananda (1995). He has a huge following abroad, especially for his dancing, and his latest reincarnation as character actor has won him even more admirers in Hindi and Bengali cinema, both serious and mainstream. Younger directors, who grew up on his movies, are writing movies especially for him, much as they do for Bachchan. Younger actors pay homage to him.
Like Govinda, once the hero of the street, Mithun has also become cool, enacting powerful roles such as that of a newspaper tycoon, modelled on the Express group’s Ramnath Goenka, in Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007) and a retired disco dancer in Golmaal 3 (2010). He is even a judge on the reality show Dance India Dance. Political anayst Rasheed Kidwai says the inclusion of artists, writers and actors in West Bengal is a Left legacy. Mamata Banerjee sensed its advanges early and picked it up. She enjoys being in the company of cerebral personalities and at one time told Shah Rukh Khan to consider Kolkata his home. Says Kidwai: “Lacking cultural roots in West Bengal, BJP sensed the Mamata advantage and have been competing since then. They view singer Babul Supriyo a prize catch. The imagery of powerful and emancipated women like Rupa Ganguly has given them the hope to do better on the gender quotient but the competition is tough as Mamata has a better following among female voters. Can she hold on till May 2nd is the question.”
Whether or not he was beloved by the critics or the upper class, Mithun was always a tabloid staple. A quick read of the film magazines from his younger days paints him as a playboy. A magazine of that era, Film Mirror, tries to analyse his lack of success, attributing it to his entry into the industry through an ‘art’ film, his thick Bengali accent, his flirtations with B and C-grade actresses such as Sarika and Ranjita, and his impoverished beginnings which saw his being satisfied with less rather than more.
It is ironic now that his career has lasted 45 years with over 300 Bengali and Hindi films in a sector known to be unrelenting to age. Amal Mukhopadhyay, former principal of erstwhile Presidency College, says if Mithun is given a nomination and made the chief ministerial candidate, it will create havoc, even though he is very popular because of his movies. In the New India of merit over inheritance, Mithun’s triumph is seen as even sweeter and appropriate. As he said in a 1982 inteview to Stardust: “I am a self-made man. I’ve struggled to achieve something. And I have got it. And I am still aspiring and striving for more. I will not be satisfied until I have made enough money. To do roles one cannot afford to be lazy, so I’m not. The three-shift system just shows what great human beings we actors are. I work for 17 hours a day. So you can imagine the working capacity I have.”
Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, who has worked with Mithun on two films, says few in the Mumbai film industry can match his knowledge of Indian politics and history. What’s more important, he says, Mithun believes in India. His heart bleeds for the poor and exploited—and this isn’t mere rhetoric, he says, but something Mithun actually practises. For two decades Mithun was chairperson of the Film Studios Setting and Allied Mazdoor Union. He also helped create the Cine & T.V. Artistes Association. “If he has decided to be in politics,” Agnihotri says, “he will play a long innings.”
Mithun’s journey from a tiny house in Jorabagan in north Kolkata to a 46-acre farmhouse on Madh Island is the stuff dreams are made of. Will ‘Banglar chele’ (Bengal’s son) transfer that magic to the party he has just joined? BJP certainly believes so.