Ironically, the BJP, which seeks to unseat the TMC from power, has taken a leaf out of Mamata Banerjee's strategy of soliciting tinsel town's support towards causes and fielding actors in elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s ambition to form its first government in West Bengal and the Trinamool Congress’ bid to seek a third term in power in the state has politically polarised the Bengali film industry and turned it into the parties' new battleground.
The TMC's influence over the Tollygunge-based film industry, known by its portmanteau Tollywood, since even before Mamata Banerjee's ascendance to power in 2011, seems to have been waning with several celebrities shifting their allegiance to the saffron party.
Ironically, the BJP, which seeks to unseat the TMC from power, has taken a leaf out of Banerjee's strategy of soliciting tinsel town's support towards causes and fielding actors in elections.
The BJP, which is attempting to shed the "outsider" tag and make a place in the Bengali psyche, has left no stone unturned to attract big names of the film industry into its fold.
The TMC, which always had an affinity for celebrities and has several actors as its MLAs and MPs, has been inducting more film personalities to retain its ground.
Both the parties believe that while film personalities may not be "vote-catchers" among the politically conscious electorate of the state, they can influence voters, especially in rural and semi-urban areas.
"We want our party to have people from all walks of life. People from the film industry have fan following. The TMC government has let loose anarchy in Tollywood just like the entire state and actors seek freedom from it," BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh said.
Dismissing Ghosh's claims, the TMC said that "time-servers" are switching camps as those who relate to Bengali culture would never join an "outsider party" like the BJP.
"The BJP and Bengali culture are anti-thesis of each other. Both can never go together. Those joining the BJP will soon realise this and regret their decision," senior TMC leader and state minister Aroop Biswas said.
Elections to the 294-member assembly will be held in eight phases from March 27 to April 29. Votes will be counted on May 2.
Filmmaker-turned-BJP Mahila Morcha leader Sanghamitra Choudhury alleged that an air of fear prevails in Tollywood due to the tight control of Aroop Biswas and his brother Swarup.
"Frustrated with the state of affairs, many Bengali film actors are joining the BJP for fresh air and to be free from intimidation. We promise them that we will change the situation," she said.
Denying the allegation, Biswas claimed that the TMC government has worked for the benefit of artistes and technicians without seeing their political colour.
"The BJP seeks to divide the film industry, which was known to be progressive and united all along," he said.
Echoing him, actor Soham Chakraborty, also a TMC candidate in the upcoming elections, said only "self-seekers and opportunists" are joining the BJP after enjoying the fruits of power in the TMC.
A quick look at West Bengal's socio-political history and the correlation with Tollywood shows how film personalities have been actively involved in politics.
Since its inception post the silent era in the 1930s, the Bengali film industry was mostly in favour of the Congress till the late 1950s. Many actors and film personalities were actively involved in the freedom struggle.
Tollywood's evergreen matinee idol Uttam Kumar was also considered as a staunch supporter of the Congress.
However, after the arrival of legendary filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray and actors Utpal Dutta and Soumitra Chattopadhyay into the scene, Tollywood turned towards the Left.
During the tumultuous Naxalite period of the late ’60s and early ’70s, several films depicted the socio-political situation of that era.
Cinema became a popular mode of communication to spread the political message. Ray, Chatterjee, Sen and Dutt were members of the Indian People's Theatre Association, a Leftist cultural organisation.
During its 34-year-long rule since 1977, the Left Front further cemented its support base among the intellectuals and the film personalities of the state, with former chief minister and information and cultural Buddhadeb Bhattacharya acting as the bridge.
However, the situation started changing during the anti-land acquisition movements in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-07.
Many actors deserted the Left camp and openly criticised its policies. The TMC had fielded several film personalities in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2011 assembly elections, with many of them emerging victorious.
Tollywood and the state's intellectuals were divided along political lines in 2010-11. After coming to power, the TMC completely took control of the film industry and the presence of a host of actors at the party's annual Martyrs' Day rally on July 21 was a common sight in the last 10 years.
However, with the BJP's rise in the state after its spectacular results in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, history seems to be repeating itself, as the film industry has again become divided along political lines.
While celebrities like Babul Supriyo, Rupa Ganguly and Locket Chatterjee have been associated with the BJP for long, others like Rimjhim Mitra, Anjana Basu and Kanchana Moitra joined the party after the 2019 elections.
The exodus gained momentum with the joining of actor Rudranil Ghosh a month ago, and Yash Dasgupta, Paayel Sarkar, Hiren Chatterjee, Papiya Adhikari and Srabanti Chatterjee followed suit.
The BJP has been desperately trying to rope in Mithun Chakraborty, also a former TMC MP, and superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee. Although Chatterjee has refused to be associated with any political party, Chakraborty is yet to clear his stand.
The TMC too has recently inducted at least 10 film personalities, giving tickets to actors Sayoni Ghosh and Koushani Mukherjee and director Raj Chakraborty in the assembly elections.
Apart from these two camps, Tollywood also has the third section of Left-leaning film personalities including Kamaleswar Mukherjee, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Tarun Majumder, Anik Dutta, Srilekha Mitra and Badsha Moitra.
"You can have a political belief but to work for the masses, you don't always need to be associated with a political party," Mukherjee said.
Political analyst Suman Bhattacharya feels the joining spree of actors in political parties is an attempt to take "short cuts to success".
"Film personalities like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Utpal Dutta were Leftists. But the Left did not help them in getting success. All of them were icons and never needed a short cut," he said.