'Casting Couch' Loses Its Springs: Kolkata Theatre Students Demand Director's Arrest
SHOMA A. CHATTERJI
KOLKATA: Bengali theatre is considered to be one of the most outstanding among regional theatres in the country.Many of these theatre-minded youngsters belong to theatre groups in the districts and are invited to attend different workshops conducted in their region by masters in theatre.
One such group, drawn from different theatre groups in and around Burdwan district were recently roped in to attend a five-day theatre workshop scheduled for October 8 through October 13 sponsored directly by the Government of West Bengal.
The workshop, conducted by the state-run Minerva Natyasanskriti Charchakendra was abruptly discontinued on Thursday October 12, after the students accused one of the workshop mentors of seeking sexual favours from female students in return of giving them roles in future productions. The workshop covered students from east and west Burdwan and Birbhum.
This mentor is a filmmaker and a theatre person. He had founded a theatre group Kaahon Performing Arts and is said to have organized a theatre festival called Panchashwar Theatre Festival in 2015. He was one among the few mentors appointed to conduct the workshop. His name is Premangshu Roy who has directed around five or six films of which the first has sunk into oblivion, the second, Katakuti – A Game of Relationships, drew reasonably good attention while two films following this, namely Wrong Number and Gondho (Smell) remain unreleased till this day. His latest film Chilekotha (The Attic) starring Bratyo Basu, a noted theatre person who is also a minister with the State Government, played the main role in the film.
This has become a big source of embarrassment for the Information and Cultural Affairs department that is under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. So, after initial reports about the accusation levelled by the 21 participants of the workshop comprised of 14 young boys and 7 girls in Bengali and English dailies, and one video clip posted on a social media network addressed by all the participants, the press is strangely silent about nabbing the culprit who reportedly, has given the police the slip.
In the video clip, the students alleged that Roy, in an inebriated state, would often hurl abuses at male students, while making lewd remarks about the women and referring to different parts of their anatomy.
"Roy has asked the female students to sleep with him while abusing the male students in an inebriated condition," alleged one of the youngsters taking part in the workshop. "We want to inform our chief minister that because of our complaint, the mentor has threatened us. He has used Bratya Basu’s name to threaten us," another student informed.
A young girl complained that he called her up at 2.30 in the night demanding to know why she had not come alone to his room that night and that he needed to converse with her on Whatsapp. “You give me one hour and I will give you one year (of theatre work)” one girl quoted him as saying,
Soon after the post went viral, the state government called off the event and removed Premangshu Roy from the post. Students, however, say that they will not rest till Roy is arrested. The workshop was the brainchild of Minerva Theatre group that is patronised by information technology minister and leading theatre personality Bratya Basu.
After being informed about the incident, Basu said he was extremely irritated. “I will look into the matter. I have never tolerated any kind of nonsense and I will not tolerate any nonsense in future as well,” said Basu.
Interestingly, Roy’s film, Katakuti – A Game of Relationships, questioned the concept of ‘sanity’ among human beings and used a lunatic asylum as the backdrop for a major slice of the film.. Among the several tracks, one involved a character called Pritha, a girl from an urban Bengali family who is exploited through the proverbial casting couch by a producer and never became the kind of actress she wanted to be.
“I loved portraying Pritha because the character had several layers and I liked the way Premangshu, very young but with a long track record in theatre, handled the film,” said Sreelekha Mitra who performed this role in the film.
This unfolds the inherent contradiction among theatre and cinema persons who say something in and through their films and do something completely opposite of what they say in their films or their plays. This does not strictly fall within the scope of “sexual harassment at work” because this was a workshop and not a workplace where a mentor could threaten female participants of giving it to him or else… But he did it all the same.
This reminds us of Madhur Bhandarkar’s top award-winning film Page 3. So, our Harvey Weinsteins begin at the grassroots level and do not need to be on an internationally revered body like the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences of Hollywood. They can begin their threats and cajoling even from a small theatre workshop held in a small town!
“Degi Kya?” asks a filmmaker of an assistant who approaches him to espouse the cause of a young girl aspiring for stardom. He brushes away her talent and beauty with two simple words. This scene from Page 3 exposes the ugly face of stardom, especially for the female of the species.
The starlet, who refuses to compromise, is seen cavorting with the same filmmaker later in the film. Interestingly, Bhandarkar himself happened to be in the eye of a storm when an aspiring starlet Preeti Jain accused him of ‘using’ her under false promises of marriage. Why did the furore against Bhandarkar fade away with the girl being made to look as if she was making false accusations?
What exactly, is the ‘casting couch?’ During the so-called "Golden Age" of Hollywood, it was not uncommon for would-be-stars to grant sexual favours to directors and/or producers in return for a role in films. These favours were usually rumoured to be on a couch in the filmmaker's office. This is how the phrase "Casting Couch" has been popularized. Though the practise is now veiled with a conspiracy of collective silence, concealed under thick layers of celluloid hypocrisy, the term remains in use.
“The casting couch is no myth. It truly exists, though its relevance and sheer power have been magnified beyond all decency. A lot of starlets fall onto the 'couch' and get signed repeatedly by one producer or the other,” writes a veteran journalist who is on first-name terms with the top stars of Bollywood. Yukta Mukhey whose career in films and modelling did not go the way her beauty title did went on record to say that “the casting couch does exist and it depends on the person concerned to surrender or to opt out.”
Imitation of Life (1959), starring Lana Turner as a single mother, offers an uncompromising insight into the casting couch in Hollywood theatre and cinema. The first time she meets an ‘agent’ he propositions her. She wants to make it big in films and theatre. "If the dramatist's club wants to eat and sleep with you, you'll eat and sleep with them. If some producer with a hand as cold as a toad wants to do a painting of you in the nude, you'll accommodate him for a very small part."
Lora is determined to succeed, but not by way of the casting couch. "It's disgusting! You're disgusting! You're trying to cheapen me. I'll make it Mr. Loomis, but it'll be my way." Later on however, she has an affair with the playwright of her first acting role on stage that begins to write plays specific ally to suit her.
Mae West, a sizzling Hollywood star was known for her famous one-liners. Once, a young girl who saw a large-sized diamond gracing Mae’s neck exclaimed: “Oh my God!” To which, Mae winked at the girl and said, “God had nothing to do with it.”