Bhobishyoter Bhoot would have died natural death at box office if West Bengal govt had just ignored it

Sandip Roy

Apr 07, 2019 12:59:41 IST

This was definitely a first. When I walked into my local multiplex to see a film, I found two cops standing inside the theatre in full uniform. Over a month ago, police had unceremoniously booted Bhobishyoter Bhoot out of theatres. Now, they were ceremoniously ushering it back in under court order.

Bhobishyoter Bhoot would have died natural death at box office if West Bengal govt had just ignored it

Chandrayee Ghosh in Bhobishyoter Bhoot. Image via Twitter

Bhobishyoter Bhoot enjoys the dubious distinction of being possibly the first film in India that got the axe even before anyone had protested it. It was the possibility of protest by persons unknown that apparently caused its removal. To date, no one has owned up to being the one that signed the fateful order. It has been blamed on unnamed “uparwalas”.

Given that the censors had already cleared it, and no one was willing to stand up and publicly defend its ouster, it was only to be expected that the courts would ultimately rule in its favour. The courts did and even directed the Bengal police to send a note to distributors clarifying that there was no injunction on the film.

Now the film has finally been re-released.

And it’s clear that whoever did it ended up creating a mountain out of a fairly modest molehill.

Anik Dutta aimed to make a political satire and this is a film that takes pot shots at everybody. That’s everybody. There are Trinamool-type politicians who get caught in Narada-style stings and syndicate wars. There are a pair of khaki shorts belonging to the Gau Satkar Samiti which have been orphaned because the owners have moved on to full pants. There are aging Communists who cling on to addas at the party office long after the party has been rerouted. But it’s not just politicians. Kolkata’s Macaulayputra elite get a drubbing through Harisadhan Roy aka Harry S Ray, more pucca British than the Brits. Even hidebound Rabindrasangeet singers who sing through clenched teeth get smacked. Paid media gets a special stinging rebuke.

But while the barbs are pointed, the film itself is rather an overloaded vehicle that stumbles under the weight of too many jokes. Some jokes land with a zing. Some misfire. Some are bilingual puns that are lost in translation. For example, Left Front is Baam Dol in Bangla which leads to a joke about how a Bum Front can ever be in front anyway.  Some jokes are hyperlocal as when someone opines there’s more to JU (Jadavpur University) than meets SFI. Some elicit groans as when Tagore’s inspirational song “Aamaar dehokhani tuley dharo” (Lift up my body) goes from metaphorical to literal as a real dead body is hoisted aloft. And there are real chuckles when a ghost remarks that in a brightly lit world, the only safe haven for ghosts is on the voter list.

The plot is really just an excuse to string these jokes and barbs together in rapid fire. An artsy film director is under pressure to deliver a hit, maybe something with ghosts but a little sentimental and contemporary since ghosts are hot these days ever since Dutta’s own 2012 film Bhooter Bhobishyot. Ghosts themselves are wondering how to become contemporary and get on anti-social media like Ghostbook. Some tour companies are trying to add spice to their ghost walk city tours while video game makers are attempting to create a game with pop-up ghosts and monsters. Meanwhile, villagers fight a Film City that’s trying to acquire their farmland and an inconvenient crusading journalist is bumped off. A fading jatra theatre star remembers lost glory and a cabaret actress tries to get her groove back. In the midst of it, three ghosts are judging a ghost reality show which itself becomes an excuse to tell a parade of cameo stories within the main story. What is a story and what is real becomes evident at the end of the film but that’s irrelevant. The fun is in the journey, the puns and pjs and spotting the sly digs at contemporary Bengali history.

A still from Bhobishyoter Bhoot. Image via Twitter

A still from Bhobishyoter Bhoot. Image via Twitter

And that’s where the film raised hackles. The digs are based on events that actually happened, events the powers-that-be would rather they stay buried. At one point, the ghosts try to raise an army of militant ghosts. One of them is a tribal leader named Dahar. A friend reminded me of the inside joke behind that name. When the state’s CM was at a tribal festival at Sidhu Kanu Dahar street, she kept honouring the legacy of Dahar-babu not realising that the leaders were actually Sidhu and Kanu. Dahar just meant street. Now this is a story that many have forgotten in Bengal and those outside Bengal don’t even know. By creating a hullabaloo about the film, the powers-that-be have actually shot themselves in the foot by drawing more attention to it.

The nose-digging uncouth producer in the beginning of the film is correct. Films that are sentimental and tug at the heart do well at the box office. Dutta’s earlier hit Bhooter Bhobishyot was funny and sharp but it also tapped into the Bengali nostalgia for an older city of graceful homes instead of boxy apartments. The recent super-duper hit, Belasheshe, was all about joint families and children who have no time for their parents. Bhobishyoter Bhoot, with its rather two-dimensional characters drawn for quick laughs, would probably have not caused any great buzz at the box office. Too many punchlines and too little story add up to too little punch. Now thanks to some hamfisted attempts at censorship, it has become a cause célèbre for the freedom of expression.

The Mamata Banerjee government could have smartly killed two birds with one stone by doing nothing. At a time when she is trying to position herself as a national leader, she could have shown herself as a champion of freedom of expression by not getting in the way of Bhobishyoter Bhoot. It would have burnished her image built up from Padmaavat days when she offered that beleaguered film safe harbour in Kolkata. Even if she hadn't personally ordered its removal she could have gained liberal brownie points by saying she stood for its right to screen anywhere. Her supporters have supported her despite the stings and arrows of Narada and Saradha. One Bhobishyoter Bhoot would hardly have shaken that. But it would have shown her as a Didi of principles and bolstered her stance among the more fickle liberal intelligentsia who marched both for Bhooter Bhobishyot and against fascism. As one of them said at that march: “Why is she making it harder for me to vote for her?” At the same time by just ignoring the film, the government could have drawn less attention to it and it would have died its natural death at the box office.

Instead the ghost of Bhobishyoter Bhoot has come back to haunt the party that did not want it to see the light of day.

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 14:23:19 IST

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