Film stars campaigning for politicians is not news. Every election, be it at state or national level, witnesses its fair share of film stars and celebrities take to the streets for various parties and candidates, sometimes even for themselves.
However, the appearance of Ferdous Ahmed, a popular Bangladeshi actor who has done various films in Bengal, at an election rally for Trinamool Congress, has sparked controversy.
Reports and images of the National Award winning actor campaigning for TMC candidate Kanhaia Lal Agarwal at a roadshow in Raiganj constituency of Bihar went viral on Sunday. Ahmed was accompanied by two other Bengali actors Payel and Ankush Hazra and according to reports, the 45-year-old actor campaigned in various areas in the North Bengal constituency, close to the Indo-Bangladesh border.
Since then, the Centre has accused TMC of violating the poll code by using a foreign national to campaign in the election, leaving the party red-faced. According to sources, Ahmed was shooting in North Bengal for an upcoming project when he was approached by some members of the party to campaign. His visa has since been revoked and the actor, who had a work-permit visa in India valid till 2022, has been blacklisted and sent back to Bangladesh.
But considering the actor's popularity in Bengal, it may not be so unusual for TMC to decide to use him for campaigning. Ferdous has been acting in Indian Bengali films since 1998, and has even won the National Award for his role in the Indo-Bangladeshi film "Hotat Brishti" directed by Indian director Basu Chatterjee.
"Hotat Brishti" is not the only Indo-Bangladeshi film that the 200-films old actor has appeared in. His Bangladeshi film Gangajatra (which also won the National Award) was screened at the Kolkata International Film Festival in 2010. The decision to use him as a campaign face could have roots in the fact that among Bengali-Muslims, Bangladeshi films remain popular.
Not just Ferdous, other Bangladeshi superstars like Shakib Khan have in the past acted in several Bengali and Indo-Bangladeshi ventures. They appear with leading actresses and directors in Bollywood and are even hired by popular production houses like SVF. Apart from Ferdous, Bangladeshi actor Gazi Abdun Noor was also seen campaigning for TMC's Dum Dum candidate Sougata Roy.
(Poster of Shakib Khan's hit Bengali film Nakab co-starring Shayantika Banerjee and Nusrat Jahan, produced by SVF. The latter is a TMC candidate in LS 2019)
"We have worked on several Indo-Bangladeshi projects in the past and some are still in the pipeline," Ahana Kanjilal of SVF Entertainment told News18. "We are even working with Bangladeshi actors for our web-series in Hoichoi". Not just actors, many Bangladeshi filmmakers turn to India for the post-production work on their films.
According to Bangladeshi film director Raihan Rafi, it was easier to find digital and creative agencies in Tollywood which provided better, higher quality work than their counterparts in Bangladesh. For his recent 2018 Bangladeshi film "Dahan', he chose the Kolkata-based Anonymous Digital to work on the film's posters and post-production.
"There is a fair amount of cooperation between the Bengal and Bangladeshi film industries, owing to the physical proximity of the two and the shared language. With more and more Indo-Bangladeshi projects achieving commercial success in both countries, makers are looking to increase synergies between the two," Rafi said.
However, he agreed that a Bangladeshi actor campaigning for elections in Bengal may be crossing the line. "Ferdous is close to Dev and other actors who support TMC, which is probably the reason why he agreed to campaign," he said. "But we have to ask, would the people of Bangladesh accept if Dev decides to come and campaign during Bangladeshi elections?"
Similar sentiments were echoes by Krishna Daga, President of Eastern India Motion Pictures Association, which was established in undivided Bengal in 1938. "It was not correct of Ferdous to campaign for TMC. It is one thing to have personal opinions, everyone is entitled to that. He can support TMC from the outside," Daga told News18 in a telephonic conversation. "But to come out in public and seek votes for the party is not what an international actor working in the country should be doing," he asserted.
Daga also said that though there was a market for Indo-Bangladeshi films, stand-alone Bangladeshi films seldom did well in Bengal. "Look at all the major Bangladeshi hits in the past five years. None of them have done good business inBengal. In fact, even Ferdous was doing well here some years ago. But his popularity seems to have fizzled among local audiences. I don't know why," Daga said, adding that there were no legitimate or even populist reasons to prop the actor for campaigning.
Following the controversy, Ferdous, who has currently been blacklisted by the Home Ministry, spoke to Times of India and profusely apologized to the Indian government for his "emotional" mistake. He has requested the government to lift the restrictions on his visa so that he can come back to India and continue his work.
Speaking on the matter, Bangladeshi photojournalist and artist Jibon Ahmad said that though it may not have been politically correct to campaign for TMC, Ferdous's act truly appeared to be an "innocent mistake".
"Ferdous has been working with Bengal actors for some time now. From how I see it, he got carried away and started campaigning with them", Ahmed said. However, he added that blacklisting him for the mistake could be a bit too harsh."There are many like Ferdous who work in India and others from Bangladesh who have made their livelihoods there, especially in Bengal. They should not be sent back."
Interestingly, esponding to the controversy, the Election Commission of India said that there wasn o mentina bout any clause pertaining to foreign nationals campaigning for elections in India, India Today reported on Tuesday. It promised to look into the matter of Ferdous's campaigning in case it received a complaint.
Worrying about the ongoing NRC debate in Bengal, the photographer also hoped that the "minor" issue would not once again create tensions regarding Bangladeshi immigrants in Bengal, an issue that the BJP has used as a strong poll plank to polarise voters in Bengal ahead of Lok Sabha 2019 elections.
Currently, Raiganj with all its assembly segments in North Dinajpur, is under Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Mohammad Selim. Raigunj is one of the three LS constituencies in Bengal, besides Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, that are going to poll in the second phase of elections on Thursday.