SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 9 MARCH, 2020
Tapas Pal: The Actor, the Politician, the Man
Remembering Tapas Pal (1958 – 2020)
Tapas Pal the Actor
Tapas Pal was an actor who could have sustaining his ranking among the top five commercially successful heroes in Bengali cinema for all time. But he could not sustain that position because of the metaphorical “suicide” he committed the day he joined active politics and contested the general elections twice to win and become an MP. This radical shift from a thunderously successful career as the matinee idol of hundreds of his fans to a career in active politics marked the complete destruction of all that he had carefully built before as hero. In this sense, his career and life can be defined as a roller coaster ride that saw him rise to the top only to bring him down no thanks to the terrible negative image he had created for himself. This effectively distanced him from films except for directors who felt compelled to cast him in character roles due to some political pressure or another. His performance in character roles can never be compared with his earlier roles as hero and this was spoilt by his desperate anxiety to project an image lesser than his years always sporting a terrible wig to hide his age. It did not work and he was almost forced to pull out of his once-thriving career in films.
Tapas Pal was born in the noted small town of Chandannagar in West Bengal in 1958 which was once a French Colony and is famous across the world for the imaginative and aesthetic lighting the artists create during the famous Jagadhhatri Pooja. He was discovered by filmmaker Tarun Majumdar who cast him in the title role in the film Dadar Keerti which not only turned out to be a thumping box office hit but also launched the career of a wonderfully talented actor named Tapas Pal. He consolidated his fame through films like Saheb (1981), Parabat Priya (1984), Bhalobasa Bhalobasa(1985), Anurager Choyan (1986), Amar Bandhan (1986) to name few. He was awarded the Filmfare Award for his role in Saheb (1981) Bhalobasa Bhalobasa was directed by Tarun Majumdar and in this film, his pairing with Debasree Roy became such a big hit that producers began to cast the pair in one film after another.
Other hit films were Arpan (1987), Surer Sathi (1988), Surer Akashe (1988), Nayanmani (1989) Chokher Aloye(1989), Shubha Kamana (1991), Mayabini (1992), and Tobu Mone Rekho (1994). The grapevine says that he did around 400 films over his career which was badly hit by his political foray he never should have got into in the first place.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta, who directed Tapas Pal in three of his films – Uttara, Mondo Meyer Upakhyan and Janala in each of which he played very off-beat characters he never had the chance to explore in his mainstream films. Dasgupta speaks very highly of Pal’s acting skills. He portrayed Ganesh, a driver in Mondo Meyer Upakhyan who works fulltime for a wealthy. Bengali businessman who owns a cinema theatre in the small town of Gosaipara has Ganesh use his vehicle as a private taxi. It was a brief role but Pal did a wonderful job.
In Uttara, he plays a signal who is passionate about wrestling and his attraction towards a young beauty leads to a serios duel between him and his close friend. In Janala, he portrays a petty thief touched both with sarcasm and humour and Dasgupta says he was amazed with his excellence as an actor. The character of the crazy thief, portrayed well by Tapas Pal, is a metaphor on the randomness of life, even when one is a thief who impulsively gives away most of the things he steals and tries to pawn off the rest.
Dasgupta reminisces, “Tapas Paul was one of the best of actors in his time. His versatility as an actor remains unmatched. He had worked in three of my films. Each of these characters is brilliantly performed. He went to Venice when Uttara was at the Venice International Film Festival, and he started dancing on the street after Uttara won the Best Director Award there. He was a simple, well-mannered and loving person — an actor who was very dear to me.” He trained from a professional wrestler for three long months to prepare for his role in Uttara. He agreed to wear a very close crop and a red loin cloth for almost the entire film which no star in his position would have agreed to.
Once, in a one-to-one, when this critic asked him to pick his favourite roles, he promptly said, “Dadar Keerti, my debut film directed by the great Tarun Majumdar, Anurager Chhoan directed by Jahar Biswas, Saheb, directed by Bijoy Bose, Bhalobasha Bhalobasha directed by Tarun Majundar, Guru Dakshina directed by Anjan Choudhury, Neelimay Neel directed by Biresh Chakravarty, Uttara directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Aagaman directed by Tarun Majumdar, Jeeban directed by Ardhendu Chatterjee and Samapti directed by Bijoy Bose. Some of my current and forthcoming films are – Haathiyar, Prem Pratigya, Lal Mohan, Antaranga and Amar Bandhan.” He won the Filmfare award for his performance in Saheb. He also did a Hindi film Abodh with Madhuri Dixit in her debut performance and the actress remembers her co-actor fondly till this day.
Tapas Pal the MLA and MP
The script of his life and career changed completely and drastically in 2014. From a celluloid symbol of all that is innocent, naïve, simple and good that Tapas Pal represented in his earliest films Dadar Keerti, Bhalobasha Bhalobasha, Guru Dakshina and so on, as an elected representative of his party (TMC) he became just one among many who loyally followed the party agenda of unprovoked hate and violence across the state.
He was a two-term MP from Krishnanagar and MLA from Alipore. Pal was one of the first actors to add gloss, glamour and chutzpah to the TMC with his star power in the 2009 assembly elections in West Bengal that decimated the Left Front and elected Mamata Banerjee as the Chief Minister of the state. But that marked the beginning of his end, as star, as actor, as politician and as a human being.
Before the 2014 elections there were rumours he would not get a ticket. The BJP had been hopeful about picking up his Krishnanagar seat. He didn’t just talk about rape. He bragged about carrying a revolver to finish off Trinamool’s enemies. “Rape was just part of a larger threat of violence for Pal.
He is “not an MP” he boasted in his hate speech at Chowmaha village in Tehatta in Nadia district which falls in the Pal’s parliamentary constituency of Krishnanagar on June 14, 2014, after he had won the seat in the elections. He said he was a goonda of Chandannagar who had done a lot of rangbazi (rough-and-tough games) in his time. He added, among other unprintable invectives, that he would show his opponents his shoe and bent down to take off his shoe. “Show me the dismembered head of just one CPM baccha. I will severe his/her head in front of everyone with an axe, I am warning you,” he added. The crowd around him clapped loudly because understandably, the people gathered were supporters of the “ruling” party. The clapping and cheering crowd translated into greater danger for the common man and woman because they were internalizing and imbibing this culture of violence into their bloodstreams and their mindsets.
On the one hand, MP Pal openly threatened to send his ‘boys’ into homes of the opposition to rape their women. On the other, he incited women (supporting his own party) to take their bontis (a device for chopping vegetables culture-specific to the Bengali) to slit the throats of members of the opposition. That was Tapas Pal as the politician, a symbol of the ‘poriborton’ (change) the CM of West Bengal used as her Party slogan. She and her party successfully translated this into a reality scarier but more convincing than a horror film unfolding in real time and place. Pal was not talking under the influence of alcohol. He was perfectly sane. He was playing to the fear psychosis sustaining in earlier CPM-dominated electorates in the footsteps of his predecessors. He was a good follower of bad ways and therefore, would and could never qualify for leadership under the guise of being an elected MP.
He certainly expanded the vocabulary of invectives and weapons among Bengali-speaking people across the world. He also offered alternative uses for the bonti. His speech included every indigenous and sophisticated weapon of attack that exists – axe, bonti, rifle, sickle, etc except bombs because that was already covered by other party colleagues. He gave a similar speech at Gopinathpur and this too was posted across all news channels.
The pumpkin-turned-carriage reduced into a pumpkin once again when he was put under the scanner for his involvement in the Rose Valley Chit Fund Scam in which thousands of small investors were allegedly cheated. Pal was arrested in 2016 by the CBI for his alleged involvement in the scam for thirteen months. Pal was reported to be a former director with the Rose Valley group. He wanted desperately to get back to films but it was a bit too late. His health began to break down rapidly and he was in and out of hospitals quite often, his heart taking the brunt of his ailments. Directors did not want to touch him with a ten-foot-long pole. He was eager to clean up the bad image he had created as a politician and wanted to become an actor again. He did a short film called Du Taka which was designed as an image-cleaning exercise. and to every filmmaker, he said that his entry into politics was a big mistake and he wanted to get back in films again. He got a good role in a new film called Banshi and also shot most of his part in it but passed away of a cardiac arrest before the film was complete in Mumbai in the early hours of February 18.
Tapas Pal the Man
When he was counted among the top stars in Bengali cinema, Pal was soft-spoken, gentle, ever-smiling and very accessible, minus the starry halo some stars always wear. He was easy to approach for interviews. He did not wear any intellectual airs either and that is why the common man could identify with his screen image of an ordinary, innocent small town or village boy who was not aware of his hidden talents. None of his professional rivals and co-stars has one negative word about the man as a grounded man who loved his work. His wife Nandini, an excellent cook who hosted a cookery show on a Bengali television channel, turned into his mouthpiece for apologies once he became a politician. He loved food to a fault and as Dasgupta says, he would ask for two lunches at every shoot. His only daughter Sohini tried her hand in films but has not been very successful. Most of the actors he worked with are still grieving over his untimely death at the relatively young age of 62. So long as he was the star-actor Tapas Pal, everything was okay with the world. Once he became a politician, his death warrant came along as a bonus.
Talking about his political career, Buddhadeb Dasgupta said, “I don't want to say much about his political career today, but I believe he should have stayed an actor, which was his place. That would have gained him more respect and love. A couple of months back, he had suddenly come to visit me. He wanted to get back to acting, but was very sick. I feel very sad and pained that Tapas had to go this way. He had a lot more to do.”