‘Red to Saffron’: Mithun’s Jump to BJP Explained Through His Films

Mithun’s deliberately constructed on-screen image and off-screen life were more pro-poor populist than Leftist. 

4 min read
Images of Mithun Chakraborty from his popular films.

Mithun Chakraborty's jump to the Bharatiya Janata Party on 7 March after a five-year hiatus from politics was perplexing to those who had always imagined the film star as sympathetic to the Left.

This isn’t surprising given Chakraborty’s Naxal roots, closeness to former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, and his legacy of starring as a blue-collar hero raging against a corrupt nexus of politicians, gangsters, and gangster-politicians, in low-budget action-oriented potboilers.

Chakraborty’s switch from red to saffron is easy to understand if one studies his deliberately constructed screen image, and cannily held together off-screen life, as a pro-poor populist rather than a Leftist.

After all, the pitch Chakraborty made at the brigade grounds for his re-entry to politics was “I was only 18 when I dreamt of helping the poor stand tall and get their due, and I feel I can see that dream once again today.”


Mithun Chakraborty: From Tribal Archer to Traumatised Freedom Fighter

Chakraborty’s choice of films, with art house classics by Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta on one hand, and lurid cash-grabs by Babbar Subhash and TLV Prasad on the other, might appear schizophrenic, but they share the same DNA of featuring the star as a marginalised crusader engaged in a quasi-revolution to get himself and his people their share of rights.

Chakraborty’s debut film Mrigayaa (1976), directed by Sen, which won him his first National Film Award as an actor, starred him as a tribal archer in British India.

Ghinua (Chakraborty) kills the oppressive moneylender but is then taken to task by the British police.

Mithun in Mrigayaa (1976)
Mithun in Mrigayaa (1976)

In Tahader Katha (1992), Chakraborty is a traumatised Indian freedom fighter unable to come to terms with the eroding ethics and values of independent India that he discovers after getting out of prison.

Mithun Fighting the Good Fight

In between came few of Chakraborty’s sober mainstream releases like JP Dutta’s Ghulami (1985) which stars him as an army man rebelling against the upper-caste strongmen in his village.

‘Ghulami’ film poster.
‘Ghulami’ film poster.

Years later, in Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), Chakraborty has the key supporting role of a conscientious news publisher locking horns with the brute capitalistic hero played by Abhishek Bachchan.

And, then, of course, Chakraborty played a Naxal twice: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Hindi film The Naxalites (1980) and the 2015 Bengali release Naxal.

Meanwhile, Chakraborty’s dance releases, Disco Dancer, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki, and Dance Dance, starred him as, once again, some sort of a chap from the streets fighting the powerful rich who have wronged him.


Mithun Chakraborty’s ‘Communist Connection’

The action flicks he shot in lightning pace in Ooty, where he moved to in the 1990s, were no different. From Chandaal to Ravan Raaj to Shera, and countless other films with interchangeable volcanic titles, Chakraborty played the man of the masses who would avenge the deaths/rapes of his mother, sister, or both.

Considering the importance of pro-poor policies in Indian politics, Chakraborty’s real and reel life dovetailed to create an ultimate political figure which could swing any way on the political map. And Chakraborty is nothing if not resourceful.

From creating a B-movie hit factory for small producers in the 1980s and 1990s to developing a lucrative hotel business across several states, Chakraborty has discoed his way to the bank. Meanwhile, Chakraborty held top posts in film bodies and trade unions in Mumbai.

He was best buds with the popular Bengali Communist leader, late Subhash Chakraborty. One of his landmark achievements in Bengal’s cultural space was convincing the Communist government to organise the all-Bollywood extravaganza ‘Hope 86’ in 1986, in Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium.

How Mithun’s Film Career Foretold His Political Journey

Hints of his political future lay in his filmography itself. In the Bengali superhit MLA Fatakeshto (2006), and its sequel Minister Fatakeshto, Chakraborty played a street thug turned politician who puts all crooked ministers in line with his hoi polloi ways.

Ironically enough, Chakraborty’s 2011 Bengali film Ami Subhash Bolchi underlines the Trinamool Congress’s election pitch of ‘Bengalis-versus-outsiders’ boldly.

Chakraborty starts off by playing a meek Bengali man, seemingly terrorised by North Indians in the city. The spirit of Subhash Chandra Bose comes to the rescue by haunting him. The people’s hero emerges.

(The author is an independent film, music, and culture journalist and can be reached at @devarsighosh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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