Calcutta, Nov. 4: Josef, rest in peace. Rest in peace indeed.
If the long-departed Red Tsar takes a quiz in contemporary Bengal, he will have reason to feel vindicated as well as threatened.
Question: Who is the better Stalin when it comes to censorship?
Answer: Surprise, surprise. Stalin’s old comrades still hold sway. (See chart)
Question: But isn’t the Left out of power now and Stalin’s legacy under threat?
Answer: The new regime has just opened its account (see chart again). It has a long way to go to catch up but in the matter of following the Left, the new government has so far built up an enviable record. So, Josef Stalin has few compelling reasons to feel forgotten and forsaken.
If there is one element bothering the soul of the original Man of Steel, it should be the scramble by the Mamata Banerjee government to distance itself from the spellbinding mystery over why 3 Kanya was not screened at a theatre associated with the government.
The film has some parallels with the Park Street rape, which the chief minister had initially described as a “sajano ghatona (fabricated incident)”, and a dialogue mentions a “Madam” while making a disparaging reference to a section of journalists.
A minister, who had yesterday told this newspaper that he had played a role in ensuring that the film did not reach Star theatre, today spun multiple strands in an off-the-record conversation. The gist of his account follows:
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee was “not even” aware of any such film.
She is “very upset” with the way matters have been blown out of proportion.
She has instructed “me (the minister) and two of my senior colleagues” to ensure that such acts are not repeated.
The chief minister thinks that any attempt to “muzzle film directors, actors and actresses sends wrong signals”.
Others came up with various reasons to suggest there was no attempt to keep the film out of Star.
Artage, which manages the CMC-owned Star, said the length of the film stood in the way of screening. “The evening show starts at 6pm. The night show is slated for 8.30pm. 3 Kanya is a two-and-a-half-hour film. People coming out of the evening show would have clashed with those entering for the night show,” said Ranjan Ganguly, the Artage manager.
Another suggested reason: the film was withdrawn on Saturday as the 6pm show would have clashed with a play slated to be staged there.
But Agnidev Chatterjee, who directed 3 Kanya, said: “First, we were told the film was anti-government. Now we are being told that Star will not screen the film because of the length. What is happening? Why did they take the booking money from us if they thought the film is too long? We will move court and seek compensation.”
Government officials hinted at a “vested interest”. “Neither the CMC nor Trinamul is connected to this. Maybe it is the handiwork of somebody with a vested interest in the film,” said Debasish Kumar, the mayor-in-council who oversees Star theatre matters at the CMC.
All of which makes it appear more Goebbelsian than Stalinist. Stalin would not have wasted time on acrobatics like the German propagandist. Legend has it that Nikolai Yezhov, the Russian water commissar, was arrested and shot after he fell from grace. Censors promptly erased Yezhov’s image from a picture that showed him standing on Stalin’s left by the Moscow Canal.
Such chilling tales may carry an apocryphal cloud as the years roll by. But how-to-do-it lessons abound closer home.
In 1979, two years after the Left Front began its long innings in Bengal, the DYFI, the CPM’s youth wing, showed how to tackle themes it could not digest. Renowned German choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch had brought to Calcutta Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in April. A little before the performance ended, demonstrators stormed the stage and the show was abandoned. The next day, a group landed up at the Goethe-Institute to protest “imperialist” West Germany’s designs on India.
And how was West Germany plotting to enslave India? Through nudity, of course — the purported reason for opposing the ballet. Bausch had once said while recalling the protests: “That was quite an experience.”
As it turned out, the experience made a lasting impression on a youth leader. The DYFI was then led by a certain Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who continued the good work as culture minister and chief minister.
Over a decade later, the cast and crew of The City of Joy would learn what it was to annoy the Left when Bhattacharjee was culture minister. The crew ran into a firebomb attack and many other tricks in the protest trade perfected by the CPM — all in the name of protecting the lily-white image of Calcutta. Eventually, the high court had to step in.
The new government is not short of members who have tasted the bite of Left censorship.
Bratya Basu, playwright and incumbent higher education minister, recalled: “Just before we staged Winkle Twinkle at Ashoknagar (in 2002), CPM workers had warned us that the play should not be staged. They felt the play attacked the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee regime.”
The Left was so sure of its right to control thought that it made little effort to couch diktats in niceties. “I remember that, outside the Academy of Fine Arts, a well-known CPM leader had told me directly, ‘Ei dhoroner natok korben na’,” Basu said.
The experience of Suman Mukhopadhyay, who directed Herbert, which was frowned upon because of a perceived anti-government slant, confirms the then administration’s penchant for direct action as well as telltale bureaucratic schizophrenia.
“I got a call from the Nandan authorities that Herbert would not be screened because it gave out a wrong message. I asked them to give it to me in writing, which they didn’t. Till date, I don’t know what they had objected to,” Mukhopadhyay said.
If “the call” failed to get the message across, Big Brother always had the option of sending “little brothers” in uniform. Policemen had kept watch when Arpita Ghosh, now a key member of Mamata’s culture clan, staged Poshu Khamar in Hooghly. “Policemen and district officials were surrounding the stage even before we could start,” Ghosh said.
When threats did not work, humiliation wrapped in red tape tried its hand. Director Kaushik Ganguly recalled: “Nandan asked me if Arekti Premer Galpo was about homosexuality and whether we have shown things aesthetically. This, after the film was screened at Berlin and the Indian Panorama!
“Nandan told us that a preview committee would watch the film and decide its aesthetic qualities and then take a call on screening the film. After such humiliation, we decided not to screen Arekti Premer Galpo at Nandan.”
Minister Basu hit the nail on the head when he said: “All I can say is that the Left Front’s plans and vision were in line with Stalin’s cultural policy.”
This is the big challenge for the new government. This “ideological” ground and the party machinery made the Left’s attempts successful, while the Trinamul protests are narrower and unorganised, pointed out writer Raghab Bandyopadhyay.