Bengali film withdrawn from theatres: Absence of industry biggies at protest proves Mamata's clout is undiminished in Tollywood

On Tuesday, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee unveiled her list of Trinamool Congress candidates for the Lok Sabha polls with much fanfare. As usual, it was studded with some of Tollywood’s biggest and brightest stars.

Sitting MPs Moon Moon Sen, Satabdi Roy and Dev are back in the fray. This time, they will be joined by some younger stars. Mimi Chakravarty, who shot to fame with the teleserial Gaaner Oparey and then superhits like Bojhey Na Shey Bojhey Na will run in Harvard professor Sugata Bose’s seat. Nusrat Jahan, winner of Fair One Miss Kolkata 2010 and star of movies like Shatru, Zulfikar and Crisscross, will run in Basirhat.

Asked if Tollywood can survive with its stars being roped into politics, Mamata Banerjee said, “Je raandhe, shey chulo baandhe (She who cooks, can also do hairdressing — meaning people are multi-talented)."

If nothing else, this shows Mamata’s clout in Tollywood remains undiminished. But what about Tollywood’s clout with Mamata?

Bengali film withdrawn from theatres: Absence of industry biggies at protest proves Mamatas clout is undiminished in Tollywood

Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen at the protest. Image courtesy: Sandip Roy

Two days before the Trinamool list was unveiled, supporters for Anik Dutta’s film Bhabishyater Bhoot, which disappeared from Kolkata theatres a day after its release, marched down the streets of the city. But the best and brightest of Tollywood, the many MPs and MLAs who have come from its ranks, the ones hailed by the politicians as crowd pullers, stayed discreetly away.

Soumitra Chatterjee, the most legendary actor in Bengali films today, is 84 years old. He said he felt compelled to come out to support Bhabishyater Bhoot.

“But I can see a big chunk of our industry seems unmoved,” said Chatterjee. “I don’t see their protest, I don’t hear it, and I have not read it anywhere either. I came because I felt if we don’t protest together, in the future, this blow could land on the necks of any of us.”

Five-time National Award-winning director Buddhadeb Dasgupta also showed up, although he was ailing. “I have been with this industry for forty years, I had hoped more people would come,” he said.

It’s not that there was a low turnout. A few hundred showed up on a warm Sunday afternoon. But one would have thought this was an issue close enough to Tollywood’s heart to draw out more stars — big and small — who would want to stand up and be counted and not leave the fight for freedom of expression to their most senior colleagues.

“I believe the film industry, the entertainment industry should have been here in full force,” said performing artist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee. “Where are the directors, where are the producers? Only a few legendary ones are here. Where is the young breed? It could have happened to any one of us.”

Bhabishyater Bhoot’s filmmaker Anik Dutta said some have sent their regrets. Some were out of town. But he also added caustically, “The film industry is apparently so close to this government and the government is so close to the industry. There was obviously a quid pro quo. Now the gloves have come off and masks unmasked.”

The reasons why Anik Dutta’s film was yanked are still shrouded in mystery. Some say Dutta’s barbed comments about the ubiquitous image of the chief minister irked the powers that be who decided he needed to be taught a lesson. The shoot of the film faced many hurdles, and he said he spent much of it dealing with lawyers. Others say a political satire didn’t sit well with politicians, especially in an election year.

Whatever the reason, a film cleared by the censors had “disappeared” without any explanation other than that some unspecified higher authority thought it would cause trouble. A group at the protest sang a song lampooning “higher authority”. A dozen protesters in ghost masks and black capes pranced down the street shrieking in nasal voices: “We are the ghosts of the future. We’ve come down to drive out the ghosts of today.”

An artist created a protest painting on the spot. And as always in such rallies, someone led the marchers in a rousing rendition of “we shall overcome”.

But is that going to be enough to cause the government to blink?

Unlike Padmavaat, the government has not even claimed it is the one that pulled the trigger. There is no Karni Sena to point fingers at. No Rajput sentiments were hurt. An “invisible hand” had booted the film from theatres.

The silence of the government and the “higher authority” is especially unnerving, said writer Kalyan Ray. “It’s the whole idea of not taking responsibility for the enforcing of silence,” he said. “Nobody knows who is silencing us, which is far more dangerous than the silence itself.”

Actor Barun Chanda remembers the Kafka story where someone is picked up by the authorities. He just sits there waiting for something to happen, his anxiety level spiking. “He goes to someone and says, 'Will you explain why I have been brought here?' The person says ‘See, you are becoming impatient. It will go against you.' This is very Kafkaesque.”

Supporters for Anik Dutta’s film Bhabishyater Bhoot marched down the streets of Kolkata. Image courtesy: Sandip Roy

Supporters for Anik Dutta’s film Bhabishyater Bhoot marched down the streets of Kolkata. Image courtesy: Sandip Roy

Chanda has a role in the film. “If you see the film, it’s political satire. And it targets left, right and centre,” said Chanda. “Have we become this thin-skinned? None of the incidents shown in the film are untrue. It’s because they are true that they are giving people blisters.”

Ultimately, this is a film cleared by the censors. If nothing else, the industry could rally behind Dutta on that point alone, irrespective of their own political leanings. “Nobody has the right to stop its release,” said director and actor Aparna Sen. “This is a fundamental right. This is a direct assault on freedom of expression.”

There is a legal fight on to bring Bhabishyater Bhoot back to theatres. “Whether the uporer mohol, the upper echelon, is scared or it’s vendetta, we don’t know,” said theatre actor and casting director Sohag Sen. “They won’t have a leg to stand on in any court. But if they want to create problems, they can. If they want to delay a case, they can. Their reach is everywhere.”

Anik Dutta said he has had feelers from some in the industry trying to broker a peace agreement of sorts. But it would require him to “go down on my knees and appeal”. He is clear that will not happen. “We will not appeal. We will demand a legal explanation.”

Even if that comes, the damage has been done. Dutta said pirated DVDs of his film are being sold openly in Kolkata right now. People have been recording the film on their mobile phones in suburban theaters. And as every day passes, the losses pile up, setting a precedent for films to come.

But he is grateful for those who came to show their support. Like actor Jayant Kripalani who insisted on marching despite his cane. Kripalani pulled out a small leather-bound book from his pocket. It’s the Constitution of India. “I always walk around with this Constitution,” he said.  “It protects my rights as a human being, as an Indian, it’s the best damn document I’ve read in a long, long time, and no one can spit on my freedom of speech, freedom of expression.”

But what does of freedom of expression mean in Kolkata unless its shiniest stars stand up for a film in their own backyard?

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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 08:20:01 IST

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