In the star-studded candidates’ list for the Bengal Assembly elections, one person stands out.
Birbaha Hansda, 37, the Trinamul nominee from Jhargram, is not only known for her stardom in the Santhali film industry, she also inherits a political legacy.
“I come from a tribal family and have seen my parents contest elections. Although I grew up to become an actor and have acted in Santhali films, I have inherited the spirit of serving the people from my parents. I am a daughter of Jungle Mahal and can mix with the people here easily,” Birbaha says while campaigning near Jhargram Palace last week.
Birbaha, which means flower in Santhali, has been fielded from an unreserved seat.
“The choice of Birbaha has been strategic as Trinamul had trailed the BJP in the Jhargram Assembly segment by 1,600 votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The constituency has nearly 30 per cent tribal votes and we want to use her popularity to woo back voters,” says a Trinamul leader who has been campaigning with the party candidate since six in the morning.
The English teacher of a local high school, Lalit Hansda, echoes the leader: “Birbaha will help Trinamul get both tribal and non-tribal votes.”
Birbaha, who began her film career as an 18-year-old, is pitted against the BJP’s former district president, Sukhamay Satpathi, and the CPM’s Madhuja Sen Roy, who was Birbaha’s classmate in primary school in Jhargram.
Although the CPM had trailed the BJP and Trinamul in the Lok Sabha polls, Madhuja feels her “school friend” is not “much in the fight”.
“Both the BJP and Trinamul are our rivals but in Jhargram the battle will be between the CPM and the saffron camp,” Madhuja says.
Sathpati agrees. “Anyone can contest polls but people have no trust in Trinamul.”
Birbaha’s popularity is evident on campaign trail — fans line the roads and speak enthusiastically about Bardu, the film that made her a star.
“The film was a superhit and I liked my role. The film was based on Maoist activities in Jungle Mahal,” says Birbaha, a history graduate and mother of two.
She has acted in 19 movies, but Bardu is considered to be her best. It was selected for screening at the Goa Film Festival in 2014.
“She is very popular in the Santhali film industry, which enjoys viewership in the Jungle Mahal districts and neighbouring Jharkhand. To us she is the equivalent of Suchitra Sen and Hema Malini,” said Opel Mandi, state convener of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal and a resident of Burdwan.
Pointing out how Birbaha stood out among other celebrities contesting the elections, Mandi said: “She is not just a star but a girl who has imbibed the tradition of struggling for a better Jungle Mahal.”
Birbaha’s father and founder of the Jharkhand Party, Naren Hansda, was a two-term MLA from Binpur. Her mother Chunibala Hansda also represented the seat for two terms. Birbaha has unsuccessfully contested elections thrice. Her first plunge was in the municipal polls, then the Assembly elections in 2011 and the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 in which she had been a candidate of the Jharkhand Party (Naren) in Jhargram.
“I have joined Trinamul to strengthen the hands of Mamata Banerjee. Acting in films is my passion but I have joined politics as I want to do something for the people,” Birbaha says.