Benu Chattopadhyay in Siliguri on Tuesday
Jan. 15: A Calcutta-based theatre director was made to apologise in Dinhata this morning by Trinamul activists who said his group’s play had slandered the government by allegedly using the words “Ma Maati Manush” and “Didi shob shamley nebe” in a certain context.
The director of the theatre group, 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” as in the Trinamul slogan. He also said there was no such line as “Didi shob shamley nebe (Didi will manage everything)”.
The play that was staged by the New Theatre Group was Setubandhan, written by Ajitesh Bandopadhyay. Chattopadhyay admitted that 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 building of a bridge that in the end never gets made as a contractor siphons off government funds. An engineer steps in to inspect the matter and decides to take steps against the contractor. When the engineer tries to take action, he gets a warning over the phone.
“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. We used lines such as ‘Ma maati hoye gechhey’ meaning the bridge has become dust, hinting at corruption,” the theatre director said.
Chattopadhyay said the play was staged last night at the Assam Bangla Natya Utsav at Nripendranarayan Institute in Dinahata.
“We started the play at 7.15pm and it concluded at 9.15pm. As we came out of the auditorium and headed towards the guest house where all 21 members of my team were staying, we heard some people in small huddles expressing anguish over our play,” Chattopadhyay said.
“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 during the play,” Chattopadhyay said.
Around 11.15pm, four-five policemen came to the guesthouse after the organisers left.
“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 crosscheck. 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.
When The Telegraph enquired about the filing of any police complaint in Dinhata this evening, police officers said no complaint had been filed against the group.
This morning, some Trinamul workers and policemen went to the guest house.
“Around 11.15am, they came in and started abusing us. The policemen stood mute. One of leaders, Partha Nath Sarkar (he is the general secretary of Cooch Behar district Trinamul), demanded an immediate apology from us. The group told us that they had informed their people in Dewanhat and Cooch Behar and unless we apologised, we would not be allowed to leave Dinhata,” Chattopadhyay said.
“We kept on 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),” he asked the Trinamul activists.
He said the group had already brought a couple of newsmen who were standing ready outside the guesthouse. They were brought in and Chattopadhyay was asked to speak before the cameras.
“I sought an apology for what we had not said,” he said in the evening at Siliguri. “The incident today left us mentally shattered. I have been a part of this festival for the past five years and have conducted theatre workshops in Dinhata. I have never faced such humiliation during my attachment to theatre since 1969,” he said.
After Chattopadhyay apologised, the group somehow gobbled their lunch and left to board a Calcutta-bound train. Chattopadhyay, however, got off at Siliguri, about 170km from Dinhata, and gave his account to journalists.
On March 14, 2011, Pashu Khamar, a play based on George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm, was stopped from being staged in Hooghly. The Left was in power then. Arpita Ghosh and Shaoli Mitra, both prominent members of Mamata Banerjee’s culture clan, were to act in the play.
Partha Nath Sarkar, who had allegedly led the Trinamul activists to the Dinhata guesthouse and threatened the actors, 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.
Udayan Guha, the Forward Bloc MLA of Dinhata, condemned the event. Guha, whose party holds sway in this area of Cooch Behar, said: “Such an incident has never happened in Dinhata. We condemn the highhandedness of Trinamul which has brought infamy to the town.”
Today, Arpita Ghosh, whose play Pashu Khamar was halted in Hooghly, said the harassment of the theatre group was “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 suggests democracy is being attacked…. We should be tolerant and listen to each other.”
As news of the harassment spread, state forest minister Hiten Burman, who was supposed to publish a souvenir on the occasion of the theatre fest in Dinhata, cancelled the programme.