Raising spectres

Print edition :

Anik Datta (left) on the sets of “Bhobishyoter Bhoot”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A scene from “Bhobishyoter Bhoot”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A scene from “Bhobishyoter Bhoot”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A scene from “Bhobishyoter Bhoot”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A scene from “Bhobishyoter Bhoot”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with the Bengali film-maker Anik Datta, whose film has run into trouble with the authorities.

ON February 16, the acclaimed Bengali film-maker Anik Datta’s new political satire, Bhobishyoter Bhoot (Future Ghost), was pulled from multiplexes and theatres across West Bengal just a day after the film’s release, apparently on the instruction of the police. As of March 5, though there has been no official order to ban the film, it is still not being screened except in a few obscure theatres in the suburbs. The incident once again brings to the fore the ruling Trinamool Congress’ intolerance of any criticism, even satire, and highlights how the government machinery is being used to stifle the freedom of expression.

In an exclusive interview to Frontline, Anik Datta talks of the problems he has faced with the film right from the first day of its shooting. “What is saddening is that this champion of democracy, who said that she would ensure the screening of Padmavat in West Bengal, who sat in dharna to save the country and the Constitution, says that she will not comment on the matter.” Excerpts.

When you were making the film did you think something like this might happen?

I was not really expecting this to happen. But from the very first day of shooting, there were a lot of roadblocks, such as harassments, threats, using of the police and political influence, and getting injunctions from some lower court to scuttle the project. They have penetrated the federation, the film fraternity; in fact, they are pretty much everywhere. All methods were attempted by a production house, the head of which is currently a guest of the government in a neighbouring State, to stop the film from being made.

When I was writing the film, I was writing a sociopolitical satire which would not be very mild. I have very deliberately made this film reflect the times we live in, using allegory and different kinds of entertaining means, including song and dance, fight sequences, absurdity, nonsense verse.

We did not use any specific name of any real individual or organisation or political party. But the indications were very clear, and the references were not so oblique [that people would not] be able to make the connections, and that cut across the entire political spectrum from Left to Right. It is also obvious that when I am making a film sitting in Kolkata, the ruling dispensation will get a fair share of the criticism or the jokes, whatever you choose to call it. But my satire was not directed at just one political party or individual; I did not spare the media either, the film industry or even myself.

Interestingly, there was no problem with the censors, and there was not a single cut. When I was writing the script, I made sure that it would be very difficult to [come up with] a reason for cutting anything.

So we were all very happy and were looking forward to the screening of the film.

Did you receive any prior indication that the police would be pulling the film from the theatres?

Three days before the release of the film, one of the producers received first a call and then a letter from the police saying that there were “inputs” that there were certain things in the film that might hurt “public sentiments”. Now, this line, hurting of sentiments, is a very standard line that is used. The police said that some of the senior officials wanted to see the film first, to which one of our producers, who happens to be a very senior lawyer and legal activist, said nothing doing because the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification] was the final authority, and it had given the clearance. After that no one can want to see the film [prior to its release] in anticipation of something or the other happening. If such a situation does take place, then it is the duty of the police to protect the hall owners, the viewers, the makers, the distributors and others.

Once the film was released, and the houses started filling up, the exhibitors started cancelling the shows and refunding the tickets that had been bought online. They said they were acting on the orders of the “higher authorities”. This concept of “higher authorities” itself has become a joke as they cannot even name the “higher authorities”. They said there was no written circular; it was all verbal. In some cases, the exhibitors said that they were told by the local thana [police station] to not show the film.

Then we found out something strange: that only three cinema halls in the suburbs of Kolkata were being allowed to show the film. We do not know why, but perhaps technically if one can show that a few halls were showing the film, then it cannot be said that the film is banned. Can you imagine people from the city travelling all the way to the suburbs to see a film? But they are doing that.

You spoke of the problems you faced from the first day. Can you elaborate?

Here I want to state something that a lot of people know but do not talk about openly: there is an unholy nexus between a section of the producers, exhibitors and distributors. They decide which film will be released, when and where, and even whether a film will be allowed to run at all. One of these people got after me at the beginning. This producer had bought the rights to my earlier film Bhooter Bhobishyot (Future of the Past) and claimed he had the rights over the sequel as well.He had even filed an injunction, which was subsequently quashed by the court.

The point is, I did not want to make a sequel in the first place, and Bhobishyoter Bhoot is not a sequel to Bhooter Bhobishyot. There is no bar on my making a film about ghosts. Living here in this State, I felt suffocated and so I wanted to say something very strongly. It had to be a satire, and it had to be done fast. So I thought why not another ghost story. At this point, I got a communication that if I make a sequel, I will be sued. I told them I was not making a sequel. In the meanwhile, I was told that SVF [Shree Venkatesh Films, co-founded by Shrikant Mohta, one of the most powerful entertainment barons in Bengal and known to be very close to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and who is presently in jail in Odisha in connection with the Rose Valley Group’s multicrore deposit collection scam] bought the rights to Bhooter Bhobishyot for further exploitation, including sequel rights, for Rs.30 lakh.

A lot of acrimony ensued. I met Shrikant Mohta and explained to him why Bhobishyoter Bhoot, which is different in every way except for the similarity in name, is not a sequel. But in spite of a lot of torment, we completed the film, even at the cost of my health. We knew that the film would suffer in terms of treatment, etc., but I knew I had to be flexible in this case as the content was more important. We had to keep improvising in the face of relentless opposition and threats to complete the film.

At one point, the technicians working on the film were ordered by one of the federations, which is controlled by the brother of a Minister, to stop working. They are trying to set the rules and create a support base in the film industry as well. There is a fear factor that also runs in the industry. Incidentally, the technicians did not budge.

What is saddening is that this champion of democracy, who said that she would ensure the screening of Padmavat inWest Bengal, who had sat in dharna to save the country and the Constitution, said she would not comment on the matter when the screening was not being allowed even after getting a valid CBFC certificate.

Please comment on the support you received both from the film fraternity and from the general public.

I started getting phone calls from all quarters. I did not approach anyone. Soumitra da [the screen legend Soumitra Chatterjee], Tarun Majumdar [the acclaimed Bengali director], Madhabi di [the veteran actress Madhabi Mukherjee], Barun da [the actor Barun Chandra] and a lot of other artistes and people from all walks of life extended their support. Then there was a flood of messages from social media and all over, from a large section of the fraternity and outside, voicing solidarity with us. They were there with us when we had assembled at the traditional congregation point, under the tree, at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Even during our peaceful protests, they put up hindrances. This government thrives on fear and favours, and because they went largely unchallenged, they became bolder. But many have now begun to speak out. In Bhobishyoter Bhoot, I have shown how artistes in the field of cinema have stopped being afraid of the bullying ways of the ruling party. This government is scared of people who are not scared of them.

Moreover, it is not just about the support that we are getting. People all over have been affected in various ways, and suddenly this incident has given them a voice. Almost every hour I get phone calls saying we are organising something or the other. Students of Presidency and Jadavpur Universities have already staged huge demonstrations. On March 10, there will be a protest walk of people coming from all walks of life.

Why do you think what happened to you has not yet become a political point with the opposition parties?

The moment a political party gets involved in our problem, we fall into another trap. We were also very careful that no one appropriated the movement. In fact, certain political people who are close to me acted very responsibly and told me that they were supporting me but were not joining the demonstrations as it might be misinterpreted. One political personality who is also an actor called me up and told me that she was intentionally not coming for the demonstrations as it would then be given a political colour, but as an artiste she is still supporting me even though she knows very well that I do not support her party’s political ideology.

Where does the situation stand right now (as of March 5)?

As of now, the legal wheel has been set rolling. We have moved the courts. Lawyers from all over the country have come forward to put in their suggestions. At the moment, there is complete silence from the exhibitors and the establishment. Perhaps they believe that slowly the matter will die down as will the enthusiasm of those who are protesting. But that is not likely to happen any time soon.

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