Scary movie, serious question: In how many ways can Bengalis die?

The way each ghost dies in the film Bhooter Bhabishyat represents a sort historical, albeit ironic, continuity of various ways in which Bengalis have met their end over the centuries

Bhooter Bhabishyat
Bhooter Bhabishyat movie poster.
In the 2012 horror-comedy Bhooter Bhabishyat, a film director Ayan (Parambrata Chatterjee) finds that the Baroque mansion in north Calcutta where he intends to shoot his movie is haunted. The ghosts who live there are engaged in a desperate struggle save their home from a Marwari (who else?) property developer, Ganesh Bhutoria (Mir). Ayan is introduced to the dramatis personae by one Biplab Dasgupta (Sabyasachi Chakrabarty), who is also revealed to be dead later in the film. He narrates the story of the struggle of his paranormal comrades to Ayan. In doing so, he also tells him how each of the ghosts died.

The way each ghost dies in the film represents a sort historical, albeit ironic, continuity of various ways in which Bengalis have met their end over the centuries. For instance, the original owner of the mansion, Darpa Narayan Chaudhuri (Paran Bandhopadhyay): He is killed by dacoits on a trip to his rural property to collect taxes from hapless farmers. Dacoits and thugs who terrorised rural Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries have passed into myths and folklore. Darpa Narayan represents the lazy, city-dwelling zamindars created by the Permanent Settlement Act, 1793, who remained loyal to their British overlords.

No wonder that the first ghost he invites to stay with him is Sir Donald Ramsey (George Baker), an Englishman mistakenly killed by Bengali revolutionaries of the early 20th century. Mistaken assassinations were not uncommon, the most (in)famous being Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki throwing bombs at a wrong carriage to murder Magistrate Kingsford. The next ghost is yesteryears actress Kadabala Dasi (Swastika Mukherjee), who dies after being spurned by her lover. Her trick of appearing in a mirror behind a contemporary actress while she puts on make-up is straight out of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost.

References to literature and cinema are a many in Bhooter Bhabishyat. For instance, while planning how to shoot a section of the narrative set in the early 1970s — the high noon of the Naxalite movement — Ayan says he will use a hand-held camera, like Mrinal Sen, referencing the opening shots of the auteur’s classic Padatik (1973). The Naxalite in Bhooter Bhabishyat is Biplab Dasgupta, who is “encountered” by the police — not an uncommon way for a Bengali to die, especially in some sorts of movies and books. The other ghosts are a Kargil martyr, a rock musician who ODs during a writer’s block, a young girl who killed herself on learning that her lover had abandoned her after taking money from her industrialist father, a refugee from East Bengal who fell off a train, and finally a cook who had served in Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah’s army. In a stunning cameo, one of the many in his long career, Saswata Chatterjee plays Haatkata Kartik — the ghost of a political goon with only one arm, who has bumped off by his protégé.

So, it is indeed a surprise that having populated his first film with so many ghosts, Anik Dutta, the writer and director of Bhooter Bhabishyat, was spooked during the recent Kolkata Film Festival. What made him uncomfortable, in his own words, was the monopoly of a particular politician’s face in posters and placards all over the hallowed halls of Nandan cinema, the primary venue of the festival, and the Academy of Fine Arts campus all around. At a panel discussion, he said that visitors to the festival could not be faulted for thinking there was one filmmaker in Bengal these days: Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
“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,” Dutta told NDTV. His humour, however, received brickbats with many supporters of the CM accusing him of being politically motivated — “haunted by the ghosts of the Left”, according to one imaginative Twitter commentator. Others called him a mediocre director with only one hit film to his name. The two films he has made after Bhooter Bhabishyat Aschorjo Prodip and Meghnad Badh Rahasya — have not do as well as the first one at the box office.

To be fair to Banerjee, she has never claimed to be filmmaker. She has written poems, criticised by some to be no better than doggerel. So what? Too many Bengalis write bad poetry anyway. She has made paintings as well and sold them at high prices, much to the chagrin of many artists who are unable to do so. Her exhibitions have been held at galleries reserved for the crème de la crème of the art world. Critics have claimed that there is not much aesthetic merit in her works but tell that to her patrons. How many can claim to hang a canvas in their drawing room signed by the chief minister?

Maybe, she will also make films one day. Will being at the helm of a film set be too different from being at the helm of a state government? Of course, this remains in the realm of speculation. Actors — Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, MGR, N T Rama Rao, Jayalalitha, to name a few — have successfully negotiated the trappings of state craft. I don’t know if any successful political leader has forayed into tinsel town, but wouldn’t that be a wonderful idea for a film? Incidentally, Dutta’s next project is titled Bhabishyater Bhoot — the ghosts of the future.