The disappearance of Bengali director Anik Dutta’s Bhobishyoter Bhoot from Kolkata theatres the day after it was released on February 15 was criticised by artists and activists at a demonstration on Sunday evening.

Protestors have alleged that the allegorical comedy has been the victim of a vendetta by Mamata Banerjee.

Bhobishyoter Bhoot was released across the state on February 15 but was dropped from several theatres in Kolkata in the evening. By Saturday, the film had vanished from theatres in Kolkata.

“Despite release orders issued to the exhibitors with advances paid for exhibition of the film from 15th Feb to 21st Feb 2019, yet without any prior notice or information, they suddenly withdrew the film on the afternoon of 16th Feb,” noted a press release by the film’s producers, Indibily Creative Pvt Ltd.

On Saturday evening, when Dutta and members from the film’s cast and crew visited a theatre operated by the Inox multiplex chain in South Kolkata, an employee allegedly told them that they were under instructions from “senior authorities” not to show the film and refund tickets, according to the press release.

“I don’t know why they stopped our film’s screening – maybe, they don’t like my face,” Dutta said. “We didn’t target any political party or person taking names in our film. Then, party A thinks we are from party B and vice versa.”

The West Bengal government has not responded to the protest.

Bhobishyoter Bhoot.

At the demonstration in Kolkata on Sunday, several artists and activists held banners and placards criticising the act of censorship. “Amar Didi shilpi didi, amar Didi kobi, police diye bondho koren notun Bangla chobi,” read a Bengali couplet on one banner at the gathering in front of Metro Channel police station in Kolkata. (My Big Sister is an artist, my Big Sister is a poet, and she uses the police to censor a new Bengali film.) Mamata Banerjee is often referred to as Didi or Big Sister.

The protest was organised by actor Joyraj Bhattacharjee. The co-producer of Bhobishyoter Bhoot, Indira Unninayar, told that they were contemplating further legal action, in addition to sending notices to the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association and exhibitors asking to know why the film had been cancelled.

Joyraj Bhattacharjee demanded to know how exactly the film had been stalled. “What an artist can say or cannot say cannot be forcibly decided by any authority, and when that happens, that is fascism,” he said.

Anik Dutt (in a green shirt) at the protest in Kolkata on Sunday. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.

Bhobishyoter Bhoot follows Dutta’s 2012 film Bhooter Bhobishyot, in which a bunch of ghosts living in a haunted bungalow rise up against plans to demolish their home to make way for a shopping mall.

The new film, according to the press release, “mourns the living dead and the ghosts propose to become relevant in the future and support the cause of the marginalised to protect their rights”. The cast includes Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Barun Chandra, Swastika Mukherjee, Paran Banerjee and Moon Moon Sen.

The film is a “political satire where various fictional parties of different political leanings, Left or Right, have been spoken about”, cast member Kaushik Sen told For instance, one of the film’s characters, Das, abandons his Leftist politics to start a venture capital firm he names Das Capital.

“Not exhibiting a film for 48 hours without any clear reason is unprecedented,” said actor Kaushik Sen. “Free speech issues aside, this is also a financial setback for the producers.”

A banner at the Sunday protest reads: ‘My didi is an artist didi, my didi is a poet, and she uses the police to censor a new Bengali film’. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.

The disappearance of the film from the theatres is only the latest controversy in which Bhobishyoter Bhoot finds itself. Over the course of production in January and February 2018, Anik Dutta and co-producer Indira Unninayar claimed that they faced threats.

“Different state film federations pressured technicians to leave the film, and many left,” Dutta claimed. “Some producers told the cast and crew that if they worked in the film, their work in other TV series and films would be stopped.”

Dutta alleged that the hurdles were the result of the film’s links with the leading Bengali producer SVF, set up by cousins Shrikant Mohta and Mahendra Soni. SVF had bought the rights to Dutta’s previous movie, Bhooter Bhobishyot. On January 24, Shrikant Mohta was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested in connection with the politically sensitive Rose Valley ponzi scam. Two Trinamool Congress MPs were arrested in connection with the Rs 17,000-crore scam and are currently out on bail.

According to the press release from the Bhobishyoter Bhoot producers, four days before the film’s release, producer Kalyanmoy Chatterjee received a phone call and a letter from the West Bengal Intelligence Special Branch “saying it had received some information about the film”. Another letter followed, asking the producers to organise a private screening for the police by February 12.

“This office is in the receipt of further inputs that the content of the film may hurt public sentiments which may lead to political law and order issues,” stated the letter, which was released along with the press statement.

SVF is also involved in legal proceedings about Bhobishyoter Bhoot, saying they own the rights to the first film and therefore any sequels, Dutta said.

“I made sure that the new film is not a sequel,” Dutta said. “I had certain things to say about the world around me. Since my previous film was popular, I put ghosts into the new film too so that four extra people would watch it. A sequel should either have the same characters or a story that progresses from the previous film. By that definition, Bhobishyoter Bhoot is not a sequel.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story said that director Anik Dutta had blamed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for waging a political vendetta against him. In fact, some participants at the protest had done so.