'Debasree has not run away with votes, Debasree has worked - ei hok amar parichay'

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By Film star and debutante Trinamul Congress MLA Debasree Roy tells Shuma Raha that she is determined to work for the people and not be yet another political bird of passage
  • Published 29.05.11

She is being called a giant killer — one who felled formidable CPI(M) leader Kanti Ganguly in his stronghold, Raidighi, near the Sunderbans. Yet two weeks after that delirious Friday the 13th when the Trinamul Congress swept to power in Bengal and catapulted many a newbie into political superstardom, Debasree Roy appears calm and matter of fact about her stunning victory. “Ami jantam ami jitbo (I knew I would win),” she says serenely. One of Bengal’s most glamorous and popular actresses, the debutante MLA says she is determined to prove she is not one more showbiz person who jumped on to the political whirligig for a flamboyant — and fleeting — twirl. “I want to keep my promises,” she says. “I want to show them that I can do good work.”

We meet at her house in Calcutta’s Deshapriya Park. Her older brother Mrigen and cocker spaniel Glossy keep me company while I wait for her in the tiny sitting room downstairs. A large picture of Sathya Sai Baba rests on one wall. I marvel at the austere room — with its low wooden chairs and a diminutive dining table in one corner, it’s not quite what one expects from the habitat of a movie star who has straddled Bengali cinema for 30 years.

When Roy appears, she is no less simple and unassuming. Dressed in an everyday black and gold kaftan, her face devoid of make-up and feet clad in rubber sandals, she looks friendly and relaxed. If she ever had a distant, standoffish image as an actress, that’s been pushed firmly into the background. And presumably, those sexy blouses and diaphanous chiffons have also been packed away. Debasree Roy, people’s representative and woman next door, is on view now — and one has to say even that is a fetching picture.

The trim, 46-year-old actress insists, however, that politics is still a bit of a mystery to her. “I have never really been interested in politics in that sense. I don’t understand it very well.” But once Mamata Banerjee invited her to lend her presence to the Trinamul ranks, she did not think twice and plunged right in. “It’s all because of Didi,” Roy says. “I have known her for many years, ever since she was the Union sports minister in the 1990s. She has always been very affectionate towards me. And I have looked up to her and admired her for the way she has battled all odds and won her space in the world.”

But did she expect to contest the elections from a place like Raidighi — an area verging on the Sunderbans, deep into the deepest hinterland of Calcutta and a world away from her cosseted urban life?

Roy admits that she was somewhat apprehensive about it at first. “When Didi called to tell me that she had chosen Raidighi for me, I said I was fine with whatever she had decided. But the next day, I did go to her and expressed my apprehension. But Didi said, ‘Don’t worry, you will win.’ She was very confident,” Debasree says and smiles.

Well, she did pull it off — and won by a not-to-be-scoffed-at margin of 5,549 votes. Like Bratya Basu, Manish Gupta, Amit Mitra and Rabiranjan Chattopadhyay, Roy had managed to dispatch a mighty CPI(M) leader under “Didi’s” clarion call. The congratulations poured in, including a message from niece Rani Mukherji, saying, “Phataphati jitechhish (You’ve won a fantastic victory)!”

Roy says that once she began campaigning in Raidighi — she pitched tent in the area for 45 days — all her doubts and trepidations vanished. The sheer effusion with which she was received by the people convinced her that she would come out a winner. “Wherever I went, people turned up in droves; they showered me with flowers, women blew conch shells, broke out in ecstatic ululation, elderly ladies blessed me, they all wanted to touch me! It was an amazing experience.”

And it wasn’t just because they were thrilled to have a beloved movie star in their midst, she believes. They probably saw her as a shining alternative, a deliverance from the wretchedness of their lives. “The condition there is appalling,” Roy says, looking distressed. “There are no roads, no electricity, the few tubewells that are there throw up yellow water, there are ponds thick with moss where they wash themselves and then drink that same water. People are so angry and disillusioned — some of them would tell me, ‘agey bidyut eney din, tarpor vote debo, agey rasta baniye din, tarpor vote debo (first get us electricity and roads, then we will vote for you)’. And I told them, ‘give me a chance, I will not run away. I will work for you’.”

Was it tough, though, to criss-cross her vast constituency, trundling through kachcha pathways in autos and van-rickshaws? The heat was killing, she admits. “But I have shot umpteen films in rural areas. I have shot in Purulia in summer where it’s so hot that you have to pack up by 8 in the morning. So rural Bengal is not exactly new to me. But yes, this time it was different. I have never reached out to people in this way, nor had them reach out to me so intimately.”

Now that the people of Raidighi have sent her out as their representative, Roy says that she plans to do her best to develop the region. “I will go there at least once a week. Water, health, electricity and roads — these are the key issues that have to be addressed first. You know, nobody has got BPL (below poverty line) cards there? I have to find out the rules and see to that as well,” she says, charting out the roadmap for her fledgling public life.

Of course, she has lived a public life of another sort almost ever since she can remember. Starting out as a child artiste — she did her first role as a two-and-a-half year old in the film Balak Gadadhar — Roy, along with one of her older sisters, became famous as the dancing duo Rumki-Jhumki in the 1970s. “We featured in almost all the big shows in those days. From Lata Mangeshkar Nite to Mohammad Rafi Nite to Kishore Kumar Nite — no show was complete without us,” she says, smiling a little.

The youngest of six siblings, Roy comes from an artistic family. Her mother was an accomplished singer — so was another older sister Krishna (Rani Mukherji’s mother.) Her mother has really been the prime mover in her life, she says. It was because of her enthusiasm and drive that Roy managed to break into films as an adult. The name “Debasree” was given by director Tarun Majumdar, by the way, she tells me laughing. “I never had a bhalo naam (a formal name), so to speak!”

After she burst on to Bengali cinema with Dadar Kirti in 1980, followed by Aparna Sen’s award winning film 36 Chowringhee Lane soon after, Roy didn’t have to look back. She has acted in nearly 300 films since then, and on the way picked up a national award for best actress in Rituparno Ghosh’s Unishe April in 1995. Even this year, when her film career is in obvious diminuendo, and while she was readying to campaign in the heat and dust of Raidighi, two of her movies hit the theatres.

Still, you can’t fail to discern her ennui with films. “It’s not that I am tired of films,” she explains. “I am tired of the kind of films that are being made today.” She does have one project in hand, but she has become extremely selective about the roles she accepts.

So is it going to be full-on politics from now on? “I have been through one phase in life. Now let’s see how this new phase turns out,” she replies. “I don’t plan too many things. That way, there’s less tension.”

Doing good is not going to be such a novel experience for Roy. Though this is her first serious brush with human misery, for the past five years she has been ministering to other souls in distress. Her NGO, Debasree Roy Foundation, takes care of sick and homeless dogs. In fact, if you ask her how she relaxes, you are most likely to hear that it’s when she cares for dogs. Over and above her regular work at the foundation, she feeds the strays near her house and also feeds the 35-odd dogs that skulk around in the grounds of Tollygunge Club. Ironically, a Barasat court issued an arrest warrant against Roy and her brother earlier this month in a case where they had rescued six dogs who were being tortured, and later, did not produce them as demanded by the court. The arrest order has since been stayed.

Married briefly to actor Prosenjit Chatterjee many years ago, Roy lives with her mother, “who still treats me like a child at times”. Regular yoga and a careful diet and fitness regimen keep her looking slim and youthful. But all that went for a toss during those days of hectic campaigning, she says with a laugh.

Well, evidently, it was worth it. The force was with Didi and Debasree Roy was held aloft by it. What was the leader’s reaction to Roy’s victory, though? “Oh, she was very pleased, naturally. She has told all of us to go and work in our constituencies. If we get stuck, we can always go to her for help. Meanwhile, I just want to do good work. Debasree has not run away with votes, Debasree has worked — ei hok amar parichay (let me be known thus).”

Amen to that, we say.