Bhobishyoter Bhoot row: West Bengal Govt to pay Rs. 20 lakhs to the Producers for attempting to silence speech

Supreme Court: The bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta, JJ issued a Mandamus restraining the state of West Bengal from taking recourse to any form of extra constitutional means to prevent the lawful screening of the feature film Bhobishyoter Bhoot that was made to support meaningful Bengali cinema.

Factual Background

  • Bhobishyoter Bhoot, a social and political satire about ghosts who wish to make themselves relevant in the future by rescuing the marginalized and the obsolete, has a UA certification for public exhibition, issued by the Central Board of Film Certification1 on 19 November 2018. Prior to its national launch, the film was slated for release in Kolkata and some districts of West Bengal on 15 February 2019.
  • Petitioner received a letter from the State Intelligence Unit calling upon him to arrange a prior screening of the film for senior officials of the intelligence unit of Kolkata police by 12 February 2019.
  • The letter stated that inputs were received “that the contents of the film may hurt public sentiments which may lead to political law and order issues”.
  • The petitioner categorically informed the Joint Commissioner of Police (Intelligence), Special Branch, Kolkata that his office does not have the jurisdiction to seek ‘advance’ private screening prior to the release for a “few senior officials” on a “priority basis” as sought. No further communication was received from the Kolkata police.
  • Petitioner proceeded with the release of the film on 15 February 2019. Within a day of its release in Kolkata and a few districts of West Bengal an overwhelming majority of the exhibitors abruptly took the film off their screens on 16 February 2019 without a communication from the producers.
  • The petitioners had argued that the State of West Bengal is misusing police power and acting as a ‘super-censor’ sitting atop the CBFC and is violating the Petitioners’ fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14,19(1)(a), 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Indian Constitution through the Kolkata Police which is under the Department of Home.

Overreach of powers by West Bengal Police

Noticing that the statutory authority to certify a film for public exhibition is vested in the CBFC under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952, the bench said,

“The police are not in a free society the self-appointed guardians of public morality. The uniformed authority of their force is subject to the rule of law. They cannot arrogate to themselves the authority to be willing allies in the suppression of dissent and obstruction of speech and expression.”

The Court also noticed that the Joint Commissioner was not unmindful of the fact that the film had been slated for release within a few days of his communication in theatres across the city of Kolkata and the State. If there was any doubt whatever over the entitlement of the producers to have the film exhibited, it was laid to rest when the producers immediately informed him of the film being CBFC certified. Hence, the Court said,

“Such attempts are insidious and pose a grave danger to personal liberty and to free speech and expression. They are insidious because they are not backed by the authority of law. They pose grave dangers to free speech because the citizen is left in the lurch without being informed of the causes or the basis of the action. This has the immediate effect of silencing speech and the expression of opinion.”

Holding that the West Bengal police have overreached their statutory powers and have become instruments in a concerted attempt to silence speech, suborn views critical of prevailing cultures and threaten law abiding citizens into submission, the Court concluded,

“In the present case, we are of the view that there has been an unconstitutional attempt to invade the fundamental rights of the producers, the actors and the audience. Worse still, by making an example out of them, there has been an attempt to silence criticism and critique. Others who embark upon a similar venture would be subject to the chilling effect of ‘similar misadventures’. This cannot be countenanced in a free society. Freedom is not a supplicant to power.”

Direction

State of West Bengal has been directed to pay to the petitioners Rs. 20 lakhs compensation and Rs. 1 lakh towards cost of proceedings within a period of one month.

[Indibility Creative Pvt Ltd. v. Govt. of West Bengal, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 520, decided on 11.04.2019]

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