Dev stands tall on the open mini-truck moving, just after noon on Wednesday, at a steady 25kmph. That’s cool for the armies of women and girls gathered in the swelter since morning to see their hero. A few husbands, sons and brothers are there too.
Boys and girls run barefoot on the cow dung-smeared road to take up vantage positions in advance. Their elders jostle for space to get a clearer view. A group of dhakis drums up a beat.
Tollywood’s biggest heartthrob and the Trinamul candidate from Ghatal, West Midnapore, may not be getting off the truck too often but oozes charm from just beyond touching distance.
As the truck slows, a girl walks up to hand Dev a red rose. But no, he is perched too high. She tosses the rose and he catches it, flashing a warm smile. The girl blushes to the roots of her hair. Her day is made.
Mobile cameras go click-click. “Dev aashchhe, Deepak Adhikari aashchhe,” the microphone blares. Crowds keep gathering.
Dev woke up at his South City home around 6am and drove to Ghatal’s Kushpata, where he is camping in a rented house. His campaign will go on till late evening. It’s been like this the past 50-odd days, since his candidature was announced.
In between, he has been squeezing in lots of shooting — mostly for Raj Chakraborty’s Joddha, and Rajib Biswas’s Bindass.
Fortunately, most of the shooting for Joddha is taking place at Prayag Film City in Chandrakona, just a few kilometres from Ghatal. When he shoots, he does so “from nine in the morning to two the next morning, then leaves for Ghatal at five”.
On March 18, Dev’s two lives came together when he began shooting for Joddha and then attended his first karmi sabha meeting in Midnapore town in the evening, delivering his maiden political speech. “Maiden” is right — the meeting resembled a rock concert, full of screaming women of all ages.
Unlike most celeb contestants, Dev is not strutting his stuff. There’s no tinsel touch to his clothes — a simple, long-sleeved light blue tee and dark blue jeans — no “filmy” dialogue, no mention of his many super-hit roles, no breaking into song or dance. He doesn’t need to, he’s that big a star.
But it’s clear that he means business. He says his life has changed in these 50 days, during which he has travelled “to Purulia, Jhargram and Jungle Mahal, to Burdwan district, Bolpur, Kharagpur, Midnapore, Arambagh, seen so much and done around 250 sabhas”.
Dev is slightly tanned, of course. But more significantly, he says, he has become “more responsible, mature, sensible”. His first-hand experience of rural poverty has left him shaken.
“My life revolved around the calls of ‘action’ and ‘cut’, but now my world has grown so much. I can’t wait to work for the people. An MP is like Santa Claus, his bags packed with all the gifts. I just want to start working so the people get to know the real Dev,” he says, his voice betraying a sense of both restlessness and urgency.
“I’ve been to so many villages with so many problems. The people lead such difficult lives. They see me as a messiah. All these years I’ve been a reel-life hero; for the first time I have the chance to be a real-life hero.”
But he says he remains “grounded” and is “learning every day”. When he speaks to the people, he doesn’t ask for votes. “Think before you vote,” is what he says again and again.
The motorcade nears Birsingha village, where Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was born. Everyone there has been agog since Dev’s visit was announced two days ago.
Dilip Bandopadhyay, 50, the caretaker of Vidyasagar Smriti Mandir, has been at his post since 9am, tidying the garden and putting everything in order. “People began gathering in front of the mandir from 10am to see Dev,” he says.
Dev arrives at 12.40pm. The crowd erupts as he steps off the truck. They try to get close but he slips through the mandir’s gates. Inside, he garlands a Vidyasagar bust, surveys the ground floor of the library and takes a quick look at the Vidyasagar books on the shelves.
The tour is over in a couple of minutes. Dev shakes the caretaker’s hands and leaves, heading to his spare two-storey lodgings in Kushpata around 1.30pm for lunch.
His rivals are dismissive of Dev, as the more “serious, political” candidates tend to be of celebs everywhere.
“The crowds come to see the star but will vote for the politician. That’s the culture of Bengal,” CPI candidate Santosh Rana says.
Congress nominee Manas Bhuniya says: “Eighty per cent of the people at his events are below 18; they have no vote. All these years he has lived in Mumbai and Calcutta; I believe the villages won’t vote for him.”
Dev is focusing primarily on education, health and infrastructure. “Every village has some problem. Ghatal’s is flooding,” he says.
“I’d like to see the poor go to college. If they can’t, I’m noting down why they can’t. I want the villagers to be able to speak and write English. The half-finished bridges too need to be completed. Ghatal needs more schools and hospitals.”
Asked what the most challenging part has been, he says: “It’ll happen if I win. I’ll then have to make plans regarding work and family, films and political career. Balancing all this at 30 isn’t a joke,” he says.
“My film career is at its peak. My family wants me to marry and settle down.”
Whatever he decides, he promises not to disappoint his film fans. On the big screen, he says, the next six months “will be all about Dev”.
“Bindass will be an Id release, Joddha releases during the Puja; Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Bunohaans comes out in September and a film with Mithun Chakraborty in December. Everything is on schedule. Anyway, I do only two or three films a year.”
Geeta, who has a tea stall a few yards from Dev’s lodgings in Kushpata, is busy serving tea to visitors as Dev steps out around 3.30pm for the day’s second round of campaign.
Geeta’s son is 27 and jobless. She has faith in Dev. “One should give him a chance, right?” she says.