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Fighting trolls, social norms & hostile farmers, Mahie Gill plays role of a lifetime in Punjab

Gill, the award-winning star of films like ‘Dev.D’ & ‘Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster’, is campaigning for the BJP in Punjab, braving protests and appealing to women voters.

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Ferozepur: In her hotel, Mahie Gill tightens the shoelaces on her sneakers, as she readies herself to kick-start a day’s work. A black overcoat thrown over a dark-green salwar-kameez, she’s dressed to play everywoman — although her makeup might, to some eyes, seem a little too perfect for the role. This winter morning, though, she’s a long way from her homes in Mumbai and Goa, and the nearest Bollywood set: A long, gruelling day’s campaigning lies ahead.

Gill — the award-winning star of acclaimed films like Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D, and Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster — has played reel-life politician, but she’s now giving the performance of a lifetime, as a real-life politician campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Punjab assembly elections

It isn’t an easy role. At one point on the campaign trail, angry protestors from a local farm organisation accost her car, and scuffles break out. The actress, though, seems unfazed, standing tall in the middle of Ferozepur’s bazaar, promising local women that the BJP will end the rule of “gangsters” and the menace of drug addiction.

Ikk mauka toh do”, she says, ‘give me one chance’.

Women line up for selfies with her — and the crowd grows, as some come to realise who the campaigner is. Then, she walks into the bazaar, stopping at shops and street corners to talk to local residents. At one point, realising that she is surrounded by only male party workers, she stops and gathers women to walk with her. Gill clearly understands the power of optics.

A scuffle with protestors from a farmers' group on the campaign trail | Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint
A scuffle with protestors from a farmers’ group on the campaign trail | Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint

Also read: In Punjab’s Moga, Sonu Sood campaigns for sister Malvika. Critics call her ‘dummy candidate’

An unconventional journey

Forty-six-year-old Gill comes from a conventional Jatt Sikh farming family from Chandigarh. Little about her journey, though, can be called conventional. A gold-medallist from Panjab University, she sat the civil services exam. Then, she trained to become a soldier at the Army’s training centre in Tambaram. A parachute jump accident, though, left her in hospital for a long time. Following this, Gill told her parents that she’d come to a crossroads in her life, and signed up for a master’s degree in theatre.

Gill was 30 years old when she left for Mumbai to become an actor in 2004.  With absolutely no connections in the world of movies, she persisted for four years. She recalls how in 2004, she had to blow-dry her hair for Rs. 600 ahead of a meeting with a film director. “I didn’t have enough money for food that day,” she says.

Then came her big break — Dev.D, for which she won the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress and the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) debutant star award, both in 2010. Gill says she is a big believer in  destiny — but it’s clear hard work and perseverance had not a little to do with her success.

Despite having struggled for four years, Gill takes great pride in the fact that she hasn’t taken a single penny from her parents and is self-made. She credits a great deal of this to her education. Even if she didn’t make it as an actor, she had her education to fall back on, and could have become a teacher or taken up another profession, she says. 

Mahie Gill meets a woman vendor in Ferozepur's bazaar. | Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint
Mahie Gill meets a woman vendor in Ferozepur’s bazaar. | Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint

“I want more women to study and work,” Gill says. “It’s because of my education that I didn’t get into drugs or depression in Mumbai.”

With her brothers both based in the United States, one in California and the other in New York, Gill is the only one in the family who still holds on to her Indian passport. Her parents also live in the US and have American passports. 

“I can’t live anywhere but India”, she says. “This is my home and therefore this is the only passport I want”, she says. She asserts that her family is very happy with her choice of party and decision to enter politics

The actor now shuttles between Mumbai and Goa for her work commitments, with her five-year-old daughter Veronica, who she talks about at great length. However, Gill remains tight-lipped about her partner, saying that he prefers to be away from the limelight and doesn’t want to be spoken about. 

‘I want to work for women’

With just over a week to go for the Punjab election, Gill joined the BJP earlier this week. She has one main purpose, she says, to “work for women”. A source close to the actor says she had also approached the Congress a few years ago, hoping to find a platform. However, nothing materialised.

“I was offered a ticket three-four years back, but I won’t say from which party”, Gill says. “I don’t have the greed to be an MLA, so I said no. I thought now was the correct time, especially with the BJP at the Centre, and therefore I have taken this step. If they win, then I will definitely shift base and move to Punjab”.

Gill argues that the BJP has done a great deal for women, pointing in particular to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ scheme, and the party’s campaigns against female infanticide. 

“Punjab still has that mindset of wanting a boy, and I want to change that.”

However, Gill is less at ease when asked about controversies involving women’s rights in BJP-governed states. She declines to discuss the Hathras case, where the Uttar Pradesh police were accused of forcibly cremating the victim of a rape-murder. Gill won’t talk about the abuse directed at another actor, Archana Gautam, who is contesting elections on a Congress ticket from Uttar Pradesh.

Local women in Ferozepur line up to click pictures with Gill. | Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint
Local women in Ferozepur line up to click pictures with Gill. | Revathi Krishnan | ThePrint

“I really don’t know about any of this”, she insists. “I have just come here. But I will say that earlier, Punjab was at number one amongst all the states, and is now at 23. If voted into power, the BJP will bring Punjab to number one again”, she says, swiftly changing the tack of the conversation. 

Gill says she was drawn to the BJP when she was shooting for Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster in Gujarat and saw how good the roads were there. “Even in the villages, the roads were great in Gujarat. There is so much development in Uttar Pradesh and Goa, too. The roads in Punjab are terrible.  We need to get development here as well”. 

The decision to be politically active has come with some costs. “I’m being trolled a lot”, she admits. “Many farmers are saying I have betrayed them. I just want to tell people I am here for a reason and to put some faith in me. If countries can resolve huge issues through differences, then why can’t we? I want to be that bridge between people and the Centre”.

Ikk mauka toh do,” she pleads. 

As the election campaign ends, Gill plans to head to Himachal Pradesh for a day to visit a temple to pray for her daughter, before heading to Uttar Pradesh to campaign for the party there.

Then, she’ll head back to Goa to promote her new project, Raktanchal 2, in which she plays a politician.

With inputs from Sukriti Vats

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: In Jalandhar Cantt’s ‘election Olympics’, Congress’ Pargat battles fellow hockey titan from AAP


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