Updated: March 26, 2021 1:06:03 pm
In 2019, when protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens broke out in different parts of the country, Bengali theatre and film actor Anirban Bhattacharya wrote a poem in solidarity with the dissenters. “It was a defining moment in recent political history because the protests were completely non-partisan. They were a spontaneous outpouring of people’s anger and distress and were not organised by any political parties. I wanted my poem to bear witness to that moment,” says the 34-year-old, one of West Bengal’s most popular contemporary actors, who has acted in films such as the National Award-winning Gumnaami (2019) and Dwitiyo Purush (2020).
Bhattacharya had recited the poem at a few events, alongside his translation of Aamir Aziz’s now-famous poem, “Sab yaad raakha jayega”, but as the protests escalated, friend and fellow theatre director Subhadeep Guha set the poem to music and the two discussed the possibility of a protest video with other artistes from the entertainment industry. The two had completed recording the song with a bunch of colleagues, when a nationwide lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to shelve their plans. As the lockdown lifted and the year lurched from one uncertainty to the next, Bhattacharya says the project became more urgent because there was no let-up in the “totalitarian tendencies” of the central government. Together with a host of colleagues from the entertainment industry, both veteran and young, Bhattacharya and Guha finally managed to record the music video, Nijeder Mawte Nijeder Gaan (Our Opinion, Our Song) earlier this month.
Released on the Facebook page, Citizens United, on Wednesday night, the music video directed by National Award-winning actor Riddhi Sen and actor Rwitobroto Mukherjee, features over 20 prominent Bengali actors, theatre and film directors, music directors and singers, including Rudraprasad Sengupta, Arun Mukhopadhyay, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Anindya Chattopadhyay, Parambrata Chatterjee, Kaushik Sen, Anupam Roy, Rupankar Bagchi, among others. Within a few hours of its release, the song had received over 1 lakh hits on the Citizens United page on YouTube alone, besides being shared extensively on social media.
The video, interspersed with newspaper headlines on issues ranging from the Babri Masjid verdict to the year-long internet outage in Kashmir to the Unnao and Hathras rape incidents to the surge in petrol prices and India being downgraded by American research institute Freedom House as a partially-free nation, was intended as a “report card” of sorts of the central government’s performance over the last six years, says Riddhi Sen.
“One of the reasons why we felt we had to put this song out now is because we are at the brink of a crucial election in West Bengal and it is really important to speak up. We have seen actors in the state, who are active members of political parties, change colour not out of any political philosophy that they might believe in but for their own benefit; we have seen actors in Mumbai mime the central government’s lines when they tweet in protest of Rihanna speaking up for Indian farmers (protesting the new farm laws). There’s a general feeling that actors are spineless in India, and, perhaps, that’s largely true. But the culture of protest still thrives in Bengal and we wanted to tell people that we have to speak up when we see injustice around us,” says Sen, 22, who is the youngest actor to have won a National Award for Best Actor for his performance in the Kaushik Gangly-directed Nagarkirtan (2017).
Actor Surangana Bhattacharya, 23, who has done the screenplay for the video besides featuring in it, and is particularly outraged by the government’s patriarchal outlook when it comes to women’s issues, says, “Dissent is a right and one doesn’t need to be especially political or brave to exercise it. There’s a tendency to reduce every dissenting voice into one identity or the other, mostly discreditable ones. This was intended entirely as an artistic reaction to what is going on in the country, independent of any political allegiance.”
The 6.32 minute-video, shot over three days by cinematographer Modhura Palit, features city landmarks such as the Tagore residence in Jorasanko, the Nakhoda Masjid in central Kolkata, the Chinese Kali Mandir in Tangra and Sisir Mancha in Kolkata’s Rabindra Sadan. “We cannot say it enough times that India is a land of diversity.
At a time when our own government is telling us who is one of us and who is not, we deliberately chose places that reflect our syncretism. This is our way of saying that you cannot divide and govern us, that this land belongs to all of us,” says Guha, 40, known for productions such as Understanding Macbeth and Long March.
Taking on narratives such as “tukde tukde gang”, “Urban Naxals”, “anti-nationals” and the frequent reaction to dissenting voices with “Go to Pakistan”, the song iterates, “Ami onyo kothao jabona, ami ei deshetei thakbo (I am not going anywhere, I am staying put in this country).”
“We are under no illusion that a song will change anything. At the most, it will inspire a few people to think things through. Our song is not just against the BJP, it’s against the machinery of fear they have deployed. Even if they fall, this culture of fear will be appropriated by other parties. There is a long fight ahead of us as citizens. We have to see through the charade and speak up for ourselves and for each other. That’s all this song is about,” says Bhattacharya.