A film that was mysteriously pulled out of Bengal theatres after release had become a flashpoint for debate over artistic freedom in West Bengal. Bhobishyoter Bhoot, directed by Anik Dutta, pegged as a political satire, was unofficially ‘banned’ from the screens on 15 February, as buzz swirled about orders received from ‘higher ups’ about a possible ‘law and order’ threat that the film presented.
At one point it seemed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government, that had been officially ‘silent’ on the issue, was about to lose a share of the prestige support she had once commanded among the artistic community.
Dadasaheb Phalke award recipient, veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee – who had famously turned down public overtures by the BJP –was part of the protest that erupted in Kolkata against the ‘shadow ban’ on Bhobishyoter Bhoot.
For the film to return to the theatres, it took persistent efforts from senior icons of the Bengali film industry, including Chatterjee, Aparna Sen, and actor Sabyasachi, some serious campaigning by the filmmaker, and spirited social media support from the entertainment industry. The Supreme Court finally stepped in to ensure the film could be screened without obstruction.
Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.
‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’: A Ham-Handed Attempt at Political Satire
It is not difficult to understand why shows have been running to packed auditoriums ever since. There is curiosity — why was ‘Didi’ so ‘upset’ about this film? And what is the film, a ‘sequel' to Anik Dutta’s first and supremely successful film, Bhooter Bhobishyot, all about? Over two hours of screen time past, the predominantly geriatric audiences at a popular multiplex (at forty three, this correspondent was possibly the youngest out there) hobbled out of the theatre looking exhausted. Some had even dozed off during the interval, waking up only to discuss how the filmmaker had “not spared anyone”. That’s exactly as far as the controversy would take the film.
The filmmaker’s skirmishes with the ruling dispensation in Bengal are well known. And when you take on Mamata Banerjee on her home turf, there is no dearth of material. Dutta launches a blistering attack on everything and everyone – institutions, organisations, events, scandals – associated with Didi, but without an ounce of the intellectual flourish and zany wit that marked his signature in his debut film.
Bhobishyoter Bhoot is a ham-handed attempt at political satire that feels like a Twitter rant stretched over two hours. Sans the wit. The premise — of having a bunch of ghosts as conscience keepers of society as well as providers of comic relief — feels tired. What seemed inspired in his debut film, feels terribly contrived in the ‘sequel’.
‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’ Brings to Life Mamata’s ‘Syndicate Raj’
Banerjee, who has refused to comment on the film being pulled out of the screens, is not famous for taking criticism well. Despite her public and nationalised stance about freedom of expression, she and her party have come down heavily on those who question her intent and style.
However, a significant chunk of the attacks she has faced in her long and eventful political career, is also personal. Mostly sexist and elitist jibes at her numerous public gaffes, her rustic style, her accent, and her ability to keep those memes coming in.
Anik Dutta, unfortunately, does no better.
He does take up real issues. For example, he depicts a well-known sting operation – an idealistic journalist turns up with a video that shows identifiable TMC leaders and a top cop accepting cash for party favours – an obvious reference to Tehelka’s Narada sting operation.
‘Ruling Party’ cadres threaten to kill an old man living in an old house, reflecting the spate of similar crimes against senior citizens in the city. Local goons monopolise any and all business – from collecting hafta, to terrorising senior citizens, and disrupting film shoots.
This is bound to resonate with the local populace – a couple of years ago, Mamata Banerjee was forced to make a public statement against this ‘syndicate raj’ in her state, prompting the film’s characters to talk about how they have lost their livelihood to her diktat.
The ‘Ghost’ of Didi, a Looming Presence in ‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’
There are a host of other controversial chapters from the Trinamool Congress’ eight-year legacy. But Dutta’s target has been the chief minister herself.
Mamata Banerjee’s much-derided promise of ‘poriborton’ (positive change) that inspires a bunch of folk singers in the film to make a song and dance about it. Her well-known passion for the colour blue, and painting blue diamonds on all flyovers gives jobless youth a ‘shot’ at livelihood in the film. Pun intended.
Her party slogan Maa Maati Manush and the party symbol play peekaboo with the camera. A gun wielding ‘party’ goon who wants to earn a decent living by selling his water colours, is told that no one will buy his paintings unless he becomes a prominent minister – a nudge-nudge wink-wink about Banerjee’s paintings that have been sold for lakhs of rupees, with the CBI hot on the money trail.
The Bengal chief minister herself is never mentioned or present in any of the frames, but Dutta makes her conspicuous by her absence as ‘She Who Must Not Be Named’. He also pokes fun at her accent (film is spelled as FLIM on a plaque, mimicking her accent), her ‘lack of sophistication’. And that’s where the grand setup crumbles to a more ‘social-media’ kind of posturing.
‘Bhobishyoter Bhoot’ Says Too Much, Leaves Little to the Imagination
Dutta tries to pitch himself as the lone voice of dissent articulating the frustration of an ageing middle-class population at one end, and the angst of the idealistic university students at the other. In between, he stops to air his views on the redundant communist ideologues, the ‘boxwalas’ or the anglicised Bengalis of the post-Independence era, the cabaret dancers, Rabindrasangeet singers, out-of-job typists, and the ‘chaddi’s’ who have taken beef away from menus.
That’s a lot to say, especially when there are a hundred inside-jokes (that make no concession for out-of- towners). Overt digs at media houses (no points for guessing that the anti-establishment editor “who was replaced overnight”, is Aveek Sarkar of ABP), commentary on land acquisition (the local resistance in Bhangar that the TMC is still battling), and the filmmaker’s peers who work with rival production houses (a dig at SVF’s Shrikant Mohta who was recently arrested for his role in a chit fund scam).
There is even a roll call of legendary assassins, revolutionaries and characters from pop culture, summoned as an army of ghosts, with long history lessons in between. And not to mention the mandatory tributes to Satyajit Ray, who set the gold standard in political and social satire with his Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne films. But Dutta’s problem is that he tries to be too clever – says too much and leaves little to the audience’s imagination.
All said and done, this is the kind of film that should not be throttled. That it is running successfully at theatres is a triumph for freedom of expression. Dutta’s voice must be heard. But this self-indulgent piece of work is not the best way to hear it.
(Chandrima Pal is an author and senior journalist. She tweets @captainblubear . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsWith Selection on Monday, Final Countdown for ICC World Cup Begins . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.