“Free Speech Cannot be Gagged by Fear of Mob”:SC Asks WB Govt to Pay Rs 20 Lakhs Compensation

The Supreme Court bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta today asked West Bengal Government to pay compensation of Rs.20 lakhs to the producer of the film Bhobhishyoter Bhoot, which had to face an "unofficial" ban in the state.

Over this, the Court has imposed costs of Rs.1 lakh on WB Government.

The Court expressed serious concerns over "growing intolerance" in society against artistic freedom.

"Free speech cannot be gagged for the fear of the mob", said the Court.

Earlier, the Court had passed an interim order directing the WB Govt to ensure smooth screening of this film Bhobishyoter Bhoot.

The film directed by Anik Datta had ran into controversy due to its satirical content lampooning political parties. In its petition, Indibily Creative Pvt Ltd, the producer of the film, alleged that the State of West Bengal was misusing police power and acting as a "super-censor". The producer asserted that such obstruction to the exhibition of the movie violated its rights, as it had duly obtained a UA certificate for the movie from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

The Court said in its earlier interim order :

"Repeatedly, in decisions of this court, it has been held that once a film has been duly certified by CBFC, it is not open to any authority either of the State Government or otherwise to issue formal or informal directions preventing the producer from having the film screened. Such actions of the State directly impinge upon the fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression."

On March 26, the Court directed the Principal Secretary, Department of Home, Government of West Bengal and the Director General of Police to immediately issue communications to all the theaters where the film was being originally screened intimating them that there is no ban on the screening of the film.
The petitioner informed the court that it had received a letter from the State Intelligence Unit (SIU) of Kolkata Police asking for a pre-screening of the film for senior officials of the Intelligence Unit of the Kolkata Police. The letter had allegedly stated that this was because inputs had been received that "the contents of the film may hurt public sentiments which may lead to political law and order issues". To this, the petitioner had assured the state police that CBFC had already addressed such concerns while issuing the certificate.

Nevertheless, without any communication from the exhibitors, the producers came to know on day two of the film's release that it had been abruptly taken off majority of cinema halls and viewers were being refunded the price of their tickers. The Director and a few members of the cast and crew who visited Inox South City were told by local personnel that unnamed "higher authorities" had instructed them to take the film off that day. The petition claims that they were informed by several exhibitors, on conditions of anonymity, that the Station House Officer from the local police station had instructed them to stop screening the film with immediate effect.

"Petitioners urged the State to uphold the Rule of Law and Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, and not to be seen to be doing the very opposite, but the Government of West Bengal has maintained a stony silence that does little to conceal its obvious interference which is apparent in light of its prior communication through its State Intelligence Unit and the remarkably organized / concerted removal of the large-scale unlawful removal of the Film from the cinema halls in Kolkata", stated the petition filed by Advocate Rukshana Choudhury.