Friday, February 6, 2015

In conversation with Roopa Ganguly - newly appointed member of the BJP in Bengal

Mahabharata, the magnum opus from B.R. Chopra, had stirred many an Indian’s life back in the day; I included. As a 7-year-old, I remember sitting glued to the TV set every Sunday morning, along with my family, and watching the epic drama unfold its various chapters. There were myriad characters in the series that touched our hearts, but for my mother it was the woman essaying the role of Draupadi who was the most impressive. “Do you know she is a Bengali?” she would tell me excitedly, “And look at her face! It’s so radiant and glowing!” I would generally ignore those comments and continue with the tele-serial.  

The series ended long back and I moved on with my life. Now, politics was never my area of interest but two major factors changed that. First was observing the meteoric rise of the Narendra Modi in Gujarat and watching him subsequently take the chair as the Prime Minister of India. It gave me new hope and belief that something good will at long last happen in my country. Second, being a Kolkatan, while I was growing up, I witnessed the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government take Bengal to very low levels. It was quite disheartening to see the dreary state Bengal had come to. And then came the rise of the Mamata Benrjee led Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the further downfall of Bengal. Over the last three and a half years, as a citizen and a journalist, I have been appalled, frustrated and absolutely dejected to notice the pitiable levels my state has sunk to.

Then, a few weeks back, I read an article in a local newspaper where a leading Bengali actress had vehemently voiced her protest against the shambolic political state of affairs in Bengal. I was pleasantly surprised as celebrities generally refrain from taking any political stance in our country. About two weeks after this I got an even better news. The said actress had formally joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal – the main opposition party in the state presently. With this news, there was some hope in the air that something good might finally happen here. The journalist in me got excited and I began hunting her down for an interview. After about ten days of incessant pestering I finally got her to give me time for an interview at her home - in South Kolkata - last week. As I waited nervously in her study, my mind went back to the days of ‘Mahabharata’ once more. And, as if almost on Mr. B.R. Chopra’s cue, ‘Draupadi’ walked in.

Roopa Ganguly is a known and reputed name in Kolkata. She has close to 25 years of acting experience and is also known to have done some social work at the grassroots level. Presently, clad in a crisp yellow sari, she enquires about the theme of the interview. As I begin explaining her, I notice that the radiance and the glow in her face remain intact; even after 25 long years.

Over the course of the next two hours, I asked her all the questions that I wanted to – more as a citizen of the state than as a journalist. Suffice to say I was left satisfied and hopeful for a better tomorrow at the end of it. I sincerely hope that others from my state feel the same.

Excerpts from the interview

Q. You have been really active in your first few days in politics. You met the governor and you also visited Birbhum to meet the woman who was allegedly tortured by the police. So how have the first few days in the world of politics been like?

Roopa Ganguly:  I was prepared; for this hectic and tough life from a very long time. I always knew that nothing comes easy in life. As for politics, I knew that if I wanted to bring in change in Bengal (through the BJP), it will not be easy. The kind of situation we are in. The administration that we have currently in our state, things will be tough. But I am willing to fight it out. As I said, nothing in life comes easy. Since the time I have come in politics, I have been running around from one place to the other. It has been tough. Not just for me, but for all my party workers. It has been taxing and has caused us a lot of strain. But ultimately, I want to do something good for my state.

Q. How have friends and family reacted to this decision of yours?

Roopa Ganguly: Well, my mother wasn’t very happy. Many years ago, I had got offers from different political parties to join politics. I hadn’t done so and my mother was satisfied with that. She had told me that I am not politician material and would not be able to survive here. She felt that I am too straight a talker to sustain in this field. I had agreed then. But things have changed now and I have taken this decision.

Even today, I know that I am not much aware of our history. I fall short as far as political knowledge is concerned. However, I have a sincere dedication to learn. When I came into the film industry I was a novice. I was given an opportunity and I learned. Here too, I intend to do the same. I have conviction to work at the grassroots level and am confident I will pull it off.

Q. How politically motivated were you before you joined the BJP?

Roopa Ganguly: See, I wasn’t ever keenly interested as such in active politics. But I am a person who is pretty aware of her surroundings. I knew what was happening all these years and I knew where CPM was going wrong. I blame them primarily for not taking care of the education in the state. Education is a key thing for the development of any state and it is where CPM has failed miserably. And that is why our children from the state today are going haywire.

TMC meanwhile, when they were in the opposition, were very good. But now that they have come to power, they have disintegrated. They have made people believe that if you come into politics, you will get easy money. Their motto perhaps is: ‘Since we cannot create enough job opportunities for you, so come and join politics’. TMC is perhaps forgetting that they have to leave even their own children in this state. What will happen to them?

Politics is not about glamour, it is about responsibility. Unfortunately, politics has now become a dirty word in our state among the common citizens. We need to change that. And that is what has motivated me to take this plunge.

Q. You had said that you had got the invitation to join the BJP about a year back. What prompted you to take the decision now?

Roopa Ganguly: It is governance that is most important in today’s Bengal; good governance. And Mr. Narendra Modi talks about good governance. He has been able to convince people to love and respect their work. He has inspired many Indians, including me. Meanwhile, people are losing self-respect in Bengal. And hence, I decided to take this step. Under Mr. Modi’s leadership, I and my party members are confident and hopeful of changing Bengal’s scenario.

Q.  What would be the immediate areas that you would like to focus your efforts on if you get the opportunity?

Roopa Ganguly: If I ever get any chance to do anything for the state, I would like to focus on agriculture, environment, education, health, among others. We have to ensure that prevention of diseases is taken care of very efficiently and effectively. There is so much work to do in our state really.  

Q. People of Bengal are beginning to give up on the state; especially because of its twisted politics. At this time you had said that you want to ‘redefine’ politics in Bengal. Can you please elaborate how?

Roopa Ganguly:  I don’t want to talk big right now. I am not even a month old in politics. But yes, given a chance, I will try and do my kind of work in whatever area I get. The way I have done my work at the grassroots level all these years, I will do the same thing if my party finds me worthy enough. Even if it’s a small little area that I get, I will work for its overall development. 

And development doesn’t mean unnecessary splurging of money for so-called beautification that is being done now. That is a joke. That is fooling people to show them that you are doing something, while you are actually not. What we need is structured planning and spending money on things that will be beneficial to people like better roads, more public toilets, better health facilities and the likes.

Q. BJP’s poll campaign in Bengal has largely focused on the Saradha scam and the Burdawan blasts. But there are plenty more areas that can be highlighted here like the state of roads, transport, education and jobs, among other things. Would you personally like to change that and focus on other agendas as well now?

Roopa Ganguly: See, the Shardha scam and the Burdwan blasts are such major issues that they have taken the full concentration of the opposition party. They cannot be ignored. I hence cannot really blame them. So many people have lost money in massive proportions in the Saradha scam and thus have lost faith. Many families have been torn apart because of this. There was this organization - the Justice Shyamal Sen Commision (set up by the Bengal state government) - which was supposed to enquire into the Shardha scam. But unfortunately, this commission too turned out to be a scam. People were misled grossly by it again.

And as for the BJP, our election process hasn’t really started as of yet. We will most definitely focus our attention on all the areas that the state is suffering in currently. 

Q. You keep visiting different states for your professional work. Can you give us a little glimpse to the way the rest of the country is viewing Bengal these days?

Roopa Ganguly: It’s very sad and embarrassing really. I had gone to Delhi recently for some work. I had to meet this person in his office. The first thing he said to me was, “Bengal! It’s a ‘cholbe na! cholbe na! hobe na! korbo na!’ wala state.” I found it very humiliating.

As far as the film industry is concerned, not too many people want to come and shoot here in Bengal; because of anarchy, because of indiscipline and because people have learnt not to work here. This is the culture that has been created by various political parties over the decades here. And TMC is making matters worse. They, as I mentioned earlier, are making people believe that you can earn money without working and by just joining politics.   

But I am very hopeful that if BJP comes to power in Bengal, under Narendra Modi’s governance, people will get to see a positive side of the state. Bengal wasn’t like this all the time. We will bring it back to its former glory. This anarchy cannot and will not continue forever.

Q. You have done a fair bit of social work at the grassroots level in Bengal; especially in providing basic health care. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Roopa Ganguly: I won’t say I have done a lot of work. It is peanuts as compared to what needs to be done. I need to do more work really. But I will share some of what I have done with you.

I run an NGO named Foundation for Innovation in Health. Our partner is John Hopkins University from USA. We work on the health sector by providing innovative health care equipments and treatments at low costs. We have a special skills training school (in Siuri – a small town in Birbhum, West Bengal) where we train young girls from different rural areas. After about six months of training these girls then return to their respective villages and serve the local people there. We have made kiosks at these places, where the girls do their work from. Moreover, we have doctors sitting in Kolkata, who, through the internet, provide their inputs as well.

The health care facilities in these rural areas are appalling. These poor people have to travel for six hours from their villages to Kolkata to get a simple blood test done! Things need to change drastically. I am, with the help of my team, trying to do that. Hopefully, we will extend these services throughout Bengal very soon.

Q. There have been quite a few actors who have taken to politics in Bengal over the past few years. People’s experience with them hasn’t been too great. You are a reputed actor. Do you fear that turning to politics might tar your image as well? Are you confident that you will be able to carry both of your professions tactfully now?

Roopa Ganguly: See, I am an actor and need to work to sustain my living. I can’t stop doing that. But I am not greedy. I look to work for about 2-3 films in a year and that is enough for me. Even though I get many offers, I decline them. I need more of my personal time as well you know. Be it social work or be it my political work, I need time for that. Plus, I like my free time. I like to be with my birds and trees and be satisfied from inside. That is very essential for me at a personal level.

And as for the second part of the question, I don’t think I need to assure anybody anything. When I had joined the acting profession, nobody knew me. But slowly, over the years, I have won the confidence of people and the industry through my work. I have worked for 25 years now and if I wasn’t good enough, people would have forgotten me isn’t it?  In politics too, I will let my work do the talking. If I am not efficient enough, my party and the people will throw me out.  

Q. The minority card is something that the TMC very shrewdly plays with. It is something that the common man in Bengal is really concerned with. What are your views on it?

Roopa Ganguly:  (Thinks for a moment) I believe in one thing- do not divide your people in the name of religion. If there is one thing that you should feel good about it is the country. We are Indians first and then whatever our religion is. To be honest, I don’t understand all this ‘minority’ business. You should not divide or appease any group of people by saying they should get more benefits or what not. Every Indian will get whatever he/she deserves on the basis of their ability. There should be no ‘isms’ in our country. To play political games in the name of religion is very unfortunate. It’s very sad.  You are actually dividing the country and it is just not fair.

Q. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now; both on a personal and professional level?

Roopa Ganguly: I am a happy and positive person and will always remain so. I am a no-nonsense person and will lead my life that way forever. I have never harmed or cheated anyone till date. And be it 5 years or 10; both in my profession and personal level, I will always remain the same.

Q. The last one. Draupadi was one of your career-defining roles. It will be 25 years this year since Mahabharata completed its run. How do you look back at that journey today?

Roopa Ganguly:  Mahabharata was always a beautiful experience. I look back at it very fondly. It was mainly because of the Chopras. They treated me like their own daughter and never let me feel out of place from day one. I have some beautiful memories of those days and will always cherish them. If somebody calls me a Draupadi today, I feel very proud. I feel happy and good that I have done at least one good work for which people remember me even after 25 years. I was lucky that I got to play that role and be a part of such a wonderful set-up. Those memories and experiences will always stay with me.

(Photos courtesy: Sumanta Chanda - Independent Filmmaker)