Opinion | Calling out the Hypocrisy in Amitabh Bachchan’s Remarks at Kolkata Film Festival

The Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) 2022, organised by the West Bengal government, was inaugurated in the state capital in the presence of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, among others. Speaking at the event, Amitabh raised issues like civil liberties, censorship, and freedom of expression. At the 28th KIFF on Thursday, the actor said, “Questions are being raised on civil liberties and freedom of expression.”

Ironically, Amitabh Bachchan spoke in the presence of Mamata Banerjee, whose government has often been accused of being illiberal towards criticism. The TMC government is often charged with violence against its political and intellectual opponents. But the actor, while sharing the stage with her in the event organised by her government, chose not to utter a word on the worsening situation in West Bengal. No wonder, soon after his speech, Banerjee praised Big B’s bravado for speaking the ‘truth’ and said that the acting legend, a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, deserves the Bharat Ratna.

Amitabh is often referred to as Jamai Babu in Bengal for marrying Jaya Bachchan, a Bengali. She has long been a spirited campaigner for the West Bengal chief minister. Jaya Bachchan, a self-professed Banerjee supporter, had said during the 2021 Assembly polls in the state: “I support what Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress (TMC) stand for.”

The TMC dispensation has been accused of political violence, administrative apathy, banning of movies, detaining journalists, and punishing citizens for speaking the truth. In 2013, a Bengali movie named Kangal Maalsat was denounced due to a sarcastic display of Mamata Banerjee’s oath ceremony and Singur Andolan. In 2019, the Supreme Court imposed a hefty fine of Rs 20 lakh on the Bengal government for attempting to stop the screening of Bengali film Bhobishyoter Bhoot, which displayed the decaying state of West Bengal. Most recently, speaking against The Kashmir Files, a movie portraying the genocide of lakhs of Kashmiri Hindus during the 1990s, Banerjee said, “The movie is mostly fiction, and it is all planned.”

Recently, a youth was arrested at Tribeni in the Hooghly district of West Bengal for allegedly posting insulting comments on Facebook against the chief minister. Suresh, in the Facebook post, said, “There is no rule of law in the state. Qualified people are not getting jobs. Unqualified people are stealing the jobs that should have gone to the deserving. In the dead of night, police brutalise peaceful protesters. Nothing can be said. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is protesting corruption. We will continue to do so. The police will file a false case in this issue, but we will not back down.”

Previously, the West Bengal Police arrested a YouTuber from Taherpur in Nadia district in a joint operation with Taherpur and Taratala police for allegedly making jokes on the West Bengal CM and the TMC.

With Mamata Banerjee on the dais, Big B’s words sounded phoney. Even after a decade’s rule in Bengal, Banerjee’s governance model is still at odds with democracy. The state has been in the headlines for a coon’s age now, rarely in a good way. Apart from the unabashed pampering and mollycoddling of the Muslim community, images of piles of cash at Bengal former minister Partha Chatterjee’s ‘close associate’ Arpita Mukherjee’s home following an Enforcement Directorate raid and broad daylight robberies with the police acting as hapless spectators underscore the magnitude and brutality of the post-poll violence in West Bengal, which has been unprecedented.

Soon after TMC’s lead widened in the state elections, the party hoodlums hired DJs to play the party’s celebratory ‘Khela Hobe’ song while bulldozing law and order, allegedly murdering Hindus, especially the supporters of the BJP, and hanging the bodies from trees to forge a brutal image of fear and terror. Worse, still multiple reports of women being forced to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’ while being gang-raped surfaced. In a heart-wrenching viral video, a young woman severely bruised her eye trying to stop TMC goons from pulling her by her clothes in Howrah. She said, “Several people thrashed my uncle. On learning about it, my father went to save him. He was also beaten. When we (family members) went to save him, they assaulted us too.” In Diamond Harbour, a Dalit man named Manomoy Naskar and his family were beaten up with rods for taking Lord Ram’s name and having a saffron flag at home. In another incident, Rita Mondal of Gosaba and Amrita Das of Domjur were assaulted and threatened by TMC goons, who said, “We will have you stripped and raped by Muslims.”

In North 24 Parganas, a bridge connecting a small village to the outside world was mowed down with a JCB because results from the village’s local polling booth indicated that all the villagers had collectively voted against the TMC. Such are the civil liberties offered in West Bengal. According to a report, 11,782 cases of violence were reported as of June 9, 2021, and nearly half, or 5599, are Dalits, tribals, and OBCs. After speaking to the victims, a fact-finding committee named Call for Justice said, “The police are fully aware, but no one dares to touch these hard-core criminals because of blatant political patronage. The targeting of people from SC and ST, women, children, and other vulnerable sections of the society reflects the deep-rooted malaise in the system.”

The fearless month-long retribution, which occurred in the state following the elections and has no precedent in Indian democratic history, will be remembered as the darkest hours of Indian democracy. But I guess, we all should know better by now what to expect from Bollywood and the phoney heroes, who are often portrayed as larger than life. The double-speak and hypocrisy are glaring out in the open for us to see — ludicrous at best and ridiculous at worst.

In the 1960s, Brahmins were portrayed as diabolic and in the ensuing decades, seeping down the social hierarchy, the Kshatriyas and the Baniyas (Vaishya) were all painted with the ‘Mephistophelian’ brush of being bloodsuckers and unholy persons. The people belonging to India’s largest minority community, however, were shown as altruistic, humane, gallant, and martyrs. This societal identification, favourable to one religion while hostile to another, succeeded in creating a subtle discord in Indian society.

One expected Amitabh Bachchan to have taken an honest position on issues of such importance.

Yuvraj Pokharna is an independent journalist and columnist. He tweets with @pokharnaprince. Views are personal.

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