It seems something almost straight out of the celebrated opening sentence of Franz Kafka’s The Trial: ‘Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.’

In 2102, Bhooter Bhabishyat, Anik Dutta’s debut film, became a huge hit at the box-office in Bengal. The film – about the resident ghosts of a haunted house who try to stop the property from being converted into a shopping mall – was a sharp satire. It fused biting social commentary with scintillating humour. Dutta’s new film Bhobishyoter Bhoot, which the filmmaker clarifies upfront ‘is not a sequel’, opened last week, on 15 February. In a surreal turn of events, by evening the film was dropped from many theatres and by Saturday had been taken off.

When asked on what grounds the film has been ‘banned’, Dutta says, “I don’t even know it has been ‘banned’. There has been no official communication to the effect. Out of the blue we were told that the film was taken off theatres on instructions from higher-ups.”

Dutta says that the makers were “simply told that shows have been cancelled and advance tickets booked are being refunded.” According to the filmmaker, the police authorities cite no law-and-order problems foreseen. “There is no religious or community sentiment hurt, which are the standard grounds for such action.”

The filmmaker says that “there have been attempts to block the making of the film right from the start.” Initially, it appears that the producers of Bhooter Bhabishyat objected to the making of a sequel, to which they had rights. “But then this is not a sequel, it is an independent film that stands on its own. So that does not hold. Somewhere down the line other people who had no stake in the film got involved,” says Dutta. As to who these other people are, his response is, “I can only speculate.”

Could it have something to do with Dutta’s tongue-in-cheek comments alluding to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a panel discussion at the 24th Kolkata International Film Festival in 2018? In a panel discussion called ‘Who makes a film: the producer or director’ the filmmaker had said, “If the venue of the Kolkata film festival is anything to go by, it is the political person whose portraits are plastered all over.”

As the comment generated a furore on social media, the filmmaker had later clarified, “When I walked in through the gates, I saw the Nandan logo designed by Satyajit Ray hemmed in by big flexes with someone’s face, a political leader not related to films. When I went for a panel discussion, I just aired my view in a humorous way. I said if someone comes to Nandan today, he or she might think that there is only one person who makes the films here.”

Dutta says since there has been no communication from the chief minister’s office, he can only speculate if his comments at the film festival would have led to his new film being taken off the theatres.

“I am not aligned for or against any political dispensation, I just voiced what I felt I needed to – at the panel and then in the film,” he says.

What is it about the film’s narrative or subject matter that could invite such an action?

“Well, it is a satire, with strong political undertones narrated through “the existential crisis of ghosts”, their struggle to stay relevant. Taking off on this premise, it makes oblique and not-so-oblique references to contemporary social and political dispensation,” says Dutta.

The “authorities” had asked the producers for a special screening of the film before its release, on the ground that its content could be problematic, but the filmmakers had refused to do that. The film has been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and once that is done, a film does not need any other permission and there is no ground to stop screening it.

Dutta says, “This is what makes it all so dangerous. We are undervaluing the system itself. After the film has been cleared by the CBFC, how can anyone take such an arbitrary step? It is a violation of a legal contract and no responses are forthcoming, either from the authorities, the police, the chief minister’s office.’

Dutta says, “This is what makes it all so dangerous. We are undervaluing the system itself. After the film has been cleared by the CBFC, how can anyone take such an arbitrary step? It is a violation of a legal contract and no responses are forthcoming, either from the authorities, the police, the chief minister’s office.’

The film fraternity in Bengal has come out strongly in Dutta’s support. On Sunday, filmmakers and activists took part in a protest gathering, displaying critical slogans about censorship by the West Bengal Government.

“I thought we live in a democratic country where freedom of speech is guaranteed and it’s sad to see how voices can be silenced. It’s quite disheartening. The era of fascism was over. I was told. Let people judge,’ says director Mainak Bhaumik.

‘The issue has now moved beyond just the film, and the movement is growing organically – it’s no longer restricted to the film,’ Dutta says, signing off. But that could well be cold comfort for the financial damage and creative anguish that the arbitrary act has entailed – one that is almost Kafkaesque (or as the director puts it, ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit?’) in the way it has played out, where the filmmakers are negotiating a bizarre situation without being informed of the charges that have led to the situation. 

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