'The power of love is the greatest power in the world.'
'Add a smile and you can conquer the world,' Bengali actor June Maliah, the Trinamool Congress's candidate for the Medinipur constituency, tells Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com.
June Maliah has done more films than she can count and has several successful television soaps to her credit.
She has seen 50 summers go by and, this year, a few months short of her birthday, Maliah took baby steps into politics.
The Trinamool Congress in March chose her as its candidate from the crucial Medinipur seat, after overlooking several senior leaders in the party.
For Maliah, the move from glamour to the heat and dust and often murkiness of Bengal politics has been surprisingly easy.
"Even the hours I work are the same. I am up at 7 am and in bed by midnight. Except that instead of a studio I am in my constituency. It has been a rewarding experience and I am grateful to the party for the candidature," she says.
Now that the election in Medinipur has ended, Maliah has been attending rallies for other TMC candidates across Bengal.
Walking inside a fish market, holding up the pleats of her sari, she shares banter with the vendor.
A woman takes a selfie with her at another place in Medinipur. Maliah holds the woman close and smiles for the camera.
At another person's house, she picks up a child and draws him on to her lap and chats with the matriarch of the family.
There is consummate ease in every move, the smile natural, the body language stress-free.
"No, I've never played the part of a politician," she laughs.
"It was easy because I enjoyed meeting people. I just went with the flow."
Speaking to Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com, Maliah says she does not get flustered by hecklers or bad press.
And therein lies an important lesson for Mamata Banerjee in an election where the Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi, her party colleagues say, has catcalled her.
"Ignore it. Let them be. You can't control what people say," Maliah says wisely.
A few days before Medinipur went to the polls, June Maliah was walking around her constituency in an area believed to be a Bharatiya Janata Party stronghold, when someone greeted her with, "Jai Shri Ram."
At various times, and each time, when Mamata was confronted with the BJP's war cry, she reacted just as the BJP expected her to.
In 2019, she got off her car and asked her party workers to 'note down their names'.
On January 23, on the occasion of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's birth anniversary, the Bengal chief minister who sharing the dais with Prime Minister Modi at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, declined to speak, the moment the audience began baiting her, chanting 'Jai Shri Ram.'
June Maliah, a debutante in politics, turned around, folded her hands in a namaskar and asked the hecklers, 'Kamon aachhen? Bhalo aaachen toh? (How are you? Hope you are well?)'
"Immediately, they smiled back. The power of love is the greatest power in the world. Add a smile and you can conquer the world," says Maliah.
Maliah joined the Trinamool Congress in early March.
The TMC announced its list of candidates for the 2021 Vidhan Sabha polls, the first party to do so, on March 6.
"Medinipur went to the polls in the first phase of the polls, March 27, which means I actually had just two weeks to campaign. It was very hectic and my constituency is vast. I think that is my only regret, I wish I had more time to understand my constituency and my people, but in hindsight I think, we still did a very good job," she says.
Named after her birth month, Maliah was parachuted to Medinipur. The BJP promptly called her bohiragato (outsider).
Her ancestral home in is in Purba Mednipur. "We are a zamindar family from Mahishagot. Ami Medinipur-er meye, I am a Medinipur girl. Which is probably why my electorate had no issues whatsoever with my candidature. I had no problems connecting with the place."
Several TMC leaders who defected to the BJP have maintained that one of the reasons they shifted allegiance was because of insidious infighting among grassroot workers at the constituency. Which means during elections, the candidate gets no help and in fact her or his campaign is often scuppered.
Maliah says she was blessed with a robust cadre and in a fortnight of campaigning went door to door highlighting the TMC's social welfare schemes, looking for those who had fallen through the gaps and ensuring that the government's commitments to the people could be delivered.
"It is a large constituency with nine anchals and the sadar (headquarters). I held rallies, I walked, I had roadshows, jan sabhas, I spoke at street corners, I did everything I possibly could to reach out to my people," she says.
Despite the familiarity, Medinipur was a tough constituency because it comprises parts of Jungle Mahal, a former Maoist and Left stronghold, but the key to Mamata Banerjee's 2011 win.
The BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has slowly been making inroads in these tribal belts filling in the vacuum by the Left's departure. However, the TMC holds all the three Lok Sabha seats in the Jungle Mahal region.
Maliah replaced sitting MLA Mrigendra Nath Maiti to take on the BJP's Samit Kumar Das. Maiti, a two-term MLA, had unseated the Communist Party of India-Marxist's 30-year-old reign in Medinipur, but passed away from a COVID-19 infection in December 2020. But the lotus is blooming as well in Medinipur with state BJP President Dilip Ghosh, the incumbent MP.
For a debutante in politics, Maliah exudes confidence, which probably comes from her experience of 24 years in the public eye as an actress in Tollywood, the Bengali entertainment industry.
In this do-or-die election for the TMC, the party has in fact fielded several celebrities from tough seats.
Actors Saayoni Ghosh have been fielded from Asansol South and Sayantika Banerjee from Bankura, where like Medinipur, saw BJP leads in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
"I cannot say I will win, for that we have to wait for on May 2. But I can tell you that Medinipur is very happy with Didi's work. If things go well and if there is fair play we should come back.
"How can they say whether the khela is shesh? Let them say what they want. It doesn't matter to me. Why do we react to everything?"
On polling day she went to every single booth to ensure there was no malfeasance.
"At some of the booths, I would bump into BJP workers. I asked them to take care of their health given the searing heat. Let me tell you, everyone has been civil to me. There was no heckling at any place, at any rally, anywhere."
But Maliah has been vocal about her distaste for the tone Modi uses to address Mamata Banerjee. At a recently held press conference with two other women leaders of the party, Maliah told reporters, 'This is not just an insult to Mamata Banerjee but to all the women of Bengal. This is an insult to the concept of womanhood. For 25 years, Mamata Banerjee was an MP and also a minister several times. To date, no prime minister has insulted her the way the current prime minister has. This shows the level to which the BJP has sunk.'
Despite raising your voice against heckling, she said you cannot shut people up. 'If you are a woman, you are easy bait. My advice is to get off social media, let them say what they want to, don't react. I have zero social media presence. If you are civil, you will only get civility in return.'
It is also a learning from the film industry.
"I never had a godfather, but I learnt that if you are patient, work hard, and persevere, you will succeed. And ensure fair play in whatever you do."
In politics these virtues helped her.
"I have always maintained cordial relationships with my colleagues and technicians. And I never differentiate between the two. I don't bring home-cooked lunches and dinners to the sets, I eat what everyone eats," she says, illustrating why she found it easy to connect with her cadre in Medinipur.
"Celebrities always wear their signature dark glasses and make-up at campaign trails. I did just the opposite. I didn't even bother with sunscreen. I rode pillion on a bike because it was simply easier to traverse the narrow roads. Yes, people had heard of me, seen me as an actress, but when they met me they embraced me like the girl next door," she says.
The ground-level workers are very confident of a win in her constituency. She says there are leaders who were Mamata's old warriors from 1998 and also the younger chhatra parishad (the TMC students wing) members. "There is no discontentment like the BJP is making it out to be," she says.
"I have only been greeted with warmth, affection, positivity. Everywhere I went, women said they want Mamatadi as the next CM."
"Of course, there were minor issues, which I will look into if I win. There is water scarcity in a few wards, a concrete road is needed in another, but really, that's about it."
Maliah says Mamata Banerjee has been an inspirational figure and lauds her achievements.
"She did it alone without any political godfather. I feel sad that so-called intellectuals and the upper middle class have always abused her and accused her of wrongdoings. She has never had their backing. Despite that she became CM and I believe she will win this time too. I salute her spirit."
Maliah says she joined politics to work for the people and chose the TMC because she has known Mamata Banerjee for a long time. In fact, she claims she was going to be given a ticket in 2011. "But I wanted focus on my industry (films). I still work 14 hours a day doing soaps but I felt the time was right to take the leap of faith and join active politics."
She rubbishes the BJP claim of West Bengal being unsafe for women and the accusation that the cycle of violence is only increasing under the TMC. "I drive home late at night alone. I have never faced anything. I'm not saying there isn't any violence, but it's not to the extent that the BJP is making it out to be. Let them look at their own states, first.
"They have nothing else to say, so they will pick up stray incidents and tom-tom about it. Not a single person complained of violence and crime in my constituency and I can only speak for my constituency. If there indeed was a problem they would have told me."
In the soap Sanjher Baati (Evening Light) that is playing on Star Jalsa channel, she plays the mother of the protagonist.
"We are handed the script but even there I modulate the dialogue as I see fit. During my rallies, I didn't have a script or a speech writer, I just went with the flow and it worked. You are playing yourself. If you parrot someone else's words it will sounds fake. I have always been able to create a rapport with the audience be it on a soap or a on a rally dais. My speeches come from my heart. See Mamatadi -- simple words -- but see how she reaches out to people!"
For now, she is waiting for May 2.