Shrikant Mohta West Bengal’s biggest film producer and distributor.
New Delhi: Shrikant Mohta is in jail in Bhubaneswar. West Bengal’s biggest film producer and distributor has for company a handful of clothes, and a pendant of Lord Venkatesh or Vishnu, The Supreme Being or The Preserver, and the reigning deity of Tirupati hills. There are high chances Mohta, sent to judicial custody for 15 days, may not get bail given the nature of the charge sheet filed against him by officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Giving Mohta company is a person from Kolkata, a seasoned journalist and former editor of Bengali daily Ei Samay, Suman Chattopadhyay. Both Mohta and Chattopadhyay have been charged with taking sleazy cash on a promise of investments from Ponzi merchants but not delivered.
Kolkata is in a state of shock; the rebellious city lies like a prostrate, disemboweled Gulliver. There’s a deadly silence in the city where dailies and news channels are currently debating a soccer derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, not Mohta. Why? Wasn't he the biggest influencer of West Bengal’s fledgling film industry?
So how important, how influential is Mohta? Of all those arrested in West Bengal’s big bucks Ponzi scandals where millions lost crores, Mohta is the most powerful, even more powerful than TMC leader and MP, Sudip Bandhopadhyay (once arrested, now on bail). Mohta started humbly, handling works at his family business of making Rakhis, which had a Rs 50-100 crore annual turnover. And then, he developed a liking for films and eventually walked into Tollywood.
He had Rs 10 crore to spare for making films in 1998-99. It was a lot of lucre in cash-starved West Bengal film market. His first movie was Sasurbari Zindabad (Hail The Home of Inlaws), which had Rituparna Sengupta and Prasenjit Chatterjee in the lead. It was a great hit and marked the return of Prasenjit as the state’s reigning hero. Along with Prasenjit’s comeback, Mohta made his mark and create his position in Tollywood, slowly edging out distributors like Pritam Jalan and Arun Mehra.
By then, Mohta had sent out feelers to cash-starved directors in Kolkata. Everyone started lining up at his office where he would greet them with cucumber sandwiches and tea served in earthen pots. He, along with his cousin Mahendra Soni, further cemented their positions with an another hit movie, Saathi, in which he introduced Jeet, a Sindhi by birth, and Priyanka Trivedi. The movie was a super hit. Old-timers in Kolkata saw how at the launch party, Mohta proudly claimed he will rule the roost for a very, very long period in the Bengal film industry.
He was being loved by all. Actors would be calling him every now and then, so would politicians, and bureaucrats of the state government in West Bengal, and of course, other industrialists. Mohta then delivered another masterpiece, Fatakeshto MLA, the movie marking the return of Mithun Chakravarty to Bengali cinema. He started a music channel, Sangeet Bangla around 2005. Mohta was now a big name in West Bengal; he was playing big stakes in big games.
It was around the time, the ruling Left Front was feeling the heat of Mamata Banerjee. The Red Brigade, which had always considered Banerjee a troublesome politician who had to be listened to but ignored, was having serious difficulties in checkmating her rising superpower across the state.
Mohta used his glamour contacts to reach out to Banerjee, realising the TMC leader had a soft corner for film stars and wanted to field some veterans in the next state elections in 2009. He was helped by Nishpal Singh, the smart film producer who was dating the glamorous Koel Mallick, the daughter of veteran actor Ranjit Mallick. Koel was being paired with Jeet in a number of movies produced by Mohta’s company, Sree Venkatesh Films. Nishpal Singh - who eventually married Koel - joined hands with Mohta and the bridge to the TMC powerhouse was built. And once Banerjee became the CM, Mohta stuck to her like the bears of Goldilocks.
Now Mohta was power, Mohta was life to Tollywood, Mohta was everything. He struck a super duper deal in 2010 with Star Jalsha, the Bengali entertainment channel of the Star Group, to produce movies. Many in Kolkata say the deal happened because the Star Group realised the importance of Mohta in Kolkata and his grip on the state’s film industry. Mohta, thanks to the deal, pocketed a hefty advance from Star and the next year, CM Banerjee was on the stage to offer the Star Jalsha annual awards.
It was around the time when the Ponzi Kings of West Bengal were emerging as big players in the state, throwing cash to win everything ranging from soccer clubs to news channels, newspapers, and influential politicians, and other celebrities in the state. Gautam Kundu of Rose Valley, who launched another movie channel, Rupasi Bangla, realised he would not be able to counter Mohta. He struck a Rs 50-crore deal with Mohta for a set of new movies.
Mohta took the cash but delivered some cheap remakes of Tamil movies. He told Kundu that some of the cash was used to buy some expensive paintings of Mamata Banerjee and that he will deliver the movies at a later date. Kundu was livid, even filed an FIR and subsequently an arrest warrant against Mohta. But Mohta was too big for Kundu. He silenced him with threats from the city’s cops, some of his goons even walked right into Kundu’s house to tell the Ponzi King he will get nothing from Mohta. Kundu sulked but could do nothing; eventually, he was arrested one day by the CBI in the Rs 15,000-crore Rose Valley scam and pushed into jail. Mohta, claim sources, even threatened Kundu in jail.
Mohta was, by then, a near-invincible character, he had started planning bigger.
He and his partner Mahendra Soni were encouraging directors to shoot in exotic locations in the snowy Alps in Switzerland or the Amazon jungles of South America. They produced Amazon Obhijaan, which is the most expensive Bengali film till date. Mohta, true to his style, unveiled the poster of the movie across the entire playing field of the Mohun Bagan football club. He launched Qube Cinema in eastern India and pushed digital cinema servers across the state. In the process, he started tightening his grip on the old movie halls, nostalgic markets, he even tried to take over a slice of the Kolkata Port Trust to open a studio. No one would antagonize him.
Everyone fell in line to please Mohta, who would routinely ask his actors to attend political rallies organized by the TMC. Those who didn't fall in line had to suffer. Among them were award-winning directors like Pradipta Bhattacharya and Sushil Pal whose movies had serious troubles before releasing in Kolkata, and vanished from cinema halls within days. Another classy filmmaker, Anik Dutta, faced similar tensions from Mohta.
But now, the glitz and glamour are all over for Mohta. His lawyers asked for a private hospital for their client, arguing Mohta had low blood pressure and developed chest pains, the judge did not relent and said the jail hospital is well equipped to handle such a case.
Except that the hospital will not be swanky, and lack the glamour quotient that was so common and so routine for Mohta.