Jan. 15: A Calcutta-based theatre director was made to apologise in Cooch Behar by Trinamul activists who said his group’s play had slandered the government by allegedly using the words “Ma Maati Manush” and “Didi” in a context that suggested corruption was being condoned.
The director, 71-year-old Benu Chattopadhyay, today said the play had several mentions of the words “ma” and “maati” but there was no mention of “Ma Maati Manush” which Trinamul uses as its slogan.
He added that there was no such line as “Didi shob shamley nebe (Didi will manage everything)”.
Trinamul leaders in Dinhata, 170km from Siliguri, insisted that a voiceover mentioned the sentence while referring to corruption in building a bridge. However, the party leaders would not explain why they found such a reference in a play insulting to the government.
The enforced apology and the circumstances, “if true”, drew strong condemnation from Arpita Ghosh, a theatre director and a key member of Mamata Banerjee’s culture clan.
“I did not know about it (until now). But if this has really happened, it is very unfortunate. Theatre is a reflection of society and we do theatre because we want to say something. Not everything might appeal to everyone. The occurrence of such incidents (attack on the theatre director) suggests democracy is being attacked. It is very important to respect democracy and that is a sign of a healthy society. Such incidents are harmful for democracy,” said Ghosh whose play Pashu Khamar (Animal Farm) was prevented from being staged by a CPM leader when the Left was in power.
In Dinhata, the play that was staged by the New Theatre Group was Setubandhan, written by Ajitesh Bandopadhyay.
Chattopadhyay said some lines in the play were re-written to make a “1960s’ play relevant for today’s audience”. The mention of “ma, maati” was among those improvised lines.
Chattopadhyay said the play was about corruption. It deals with the construction of a bridge, which is aborted as a contractor siphons off government funds. An engineer decides to take steps against the contractor. When the engineer tries to take action, he is told over the phone that “ma maati hoye gechhey”, implying that the project has gone to dust because of corruption.
“The phrase ‘ma maati’, not anything else, was uttered by several characters, including the contractor, engineer, a drunkard and an unknown voice that instructs the engineer over phone to forget about his inspection,” the director said.
Chattopadhyay said that as the 21-member group left the auditorium, “we heard some people in small huddles expressing reservations over our play”.
“We ignored it and went to the guest house. Soon, the event’s organisers came to us and said that some people had expressed dissent about some lines. They repeated two lines — ‘Ma Maati Manusher sarkar achhey. Didi shob shamley nebe’. I told them that those lines were not uttered in the play,” Chattopadhyay said.
Around 11.15pm, four to five policemen came to the guesthouse, he said.
“One of the police officers told me that people had complained against us for the so-called lines in the play. I told them to take a look at the script and cross-check. They refused to do so but repeated that people had said we have uttered these phrases,” said Chattopadhyay, who is known to be a Left-leaning theatre artiste. “I adhered to what we had told the organisers. The police left after 15-20 minutes,” he said.
Police officers today said no complaint had been filed against the group.
This morning, some Trinamul workers and policemen went to the guesthouse. “They (the Trinamul workers) abused us. The policemen stood mute. One leader, Partha Nath Sarkar (the general secretary of the Cooch Behar district Trinamul), demanded an immediate apology from us. The group told us that unless we apologised, we would not be allowed to leave Dinhata,” Chattopadhyay said.
“We kept insisting that we had not uttered those lines. They kept threatening us. This went on for an hour. We were feeling insecure. We had three women in the group who started crying. Apprehensive of a worse situation, I agreed to apologise,” Chattopadhyay said.
“Amay ki boltey hobey, bolun (Tell me, what do I have to say)?” the director said he asked the Trinamul activists.
The group brought in a couple of television reporters and asked the director to speak before the cameras.
“I sought an apology for what we had not said,” Chattopadhyay said in the evening in Siliguri. “The incident today left us mentally shattered. I have been a part of this theatre festival for the past five years and have conducted workshops in Dinhata. I have never faced such humiliation during my attachment to theatre since 1969,” he said.
After Chattopadhyay apologised, the group left to board a Calcutta-bound train. The director, however, got off at Siliguri and gave his account to journalists.
Trinamul leader Partha Nath Sarkar said the party sought an apology to “calm the agitated residents of Dinhata”.
“People had expressed anguish after hearing the dialogues. The phrases hurt their sentiments,” Sarkar said this evening. “We thus went to the group members and asked for an apology. Things became normal after the director sought an apology in front of us and before the cameras,” he said.
Asked why he had found some of the dialogues offensive, Sarkar said he had gone to see the play last evening. He claimed that after the play got over, some local people asked him why he did not “protest against the play when it was going on”. “I thought we should not stop the play, but we should approach the group and tell them to apologise,” the Trinamul leader said.
Rabindranath Ghosh, the Cooch Behar district Trinamul president, stood by Sarkar.
“The theatre group had resorted to slandering (the government) which prompted local people to protest,” he said.