It’s extremely difficult to write about Rituparno Ghosh. Although he would be remembered as a filmmaker, I would say he was also a filmmaker among many other things. He was the keenest learner I have ever met, always aspiring to know more. He was often known to have approached people, notwithstanding age or fame, with his child-like appeal: Amake eta ektu poriye dibi/debe? (Will you teach me this?). Even to the last day of his life, he went on learning and unlearning. When it came to learning new things, he was as vulnerable and eager as a five-year old who was being ushered into the world of knowledge for the first time. He was an excellent teacher too, and could mould his views depending upon who he was addressing. I have scarcely met anyone so deeply interested in aesthetics in every possible form. Interior decor or cooking, clothes or jewelry, painting or music, cinema or literature, Ghosh took an earnest interest in everything. And his interests were neither superficial nor short-lived; his interests were abiding, and he never gave up before he delved into the core of things, and researched until he was satisfied. What used to amaze me most were his very intelligent and thoughtful questions on any topic we discussed. In fact, in many occasions, he had made me re-think and return to a certain subject with renewed interest and a fresh perspective only by the questions he asked. He was extremely well-versed in Sanskrit and Bengali literature, and could quote from an extraordinary range of texts to substantiate a point he wanted to make. His memory was enviable, and even at 49, he could recite poems he had read in school.
Born to parents who were seriously dedicated to the arts (both his parents were painters), Ghosh was nurtured in an aesthetic environment which implanted in him a profound sense of beauty and the faculty to appreciate it. Although a student of Economics, he used to sneak into Bengali and English literature classes, for they had a magnetic appeal for him. He had indeed got admitted to St. Xavier’s to an English Major course; but left it for Jadavpur University, for his parents felt it would be better if he studied Economics. Although Ghosh always cherished every single moment he spent on the Jadavpur University campus, and thought those five years indeed had a significant contribution in making him what he was, he always regretted that he did not officially study literature. But he compensated for it remarkably and could put to shame those who had degrees in Bengali, Sanskrit or English Major.
He remembered and could recite the obscurest of poems; had a keen ear for poetry and music; he could pen lyrics and rhyming verses without even putting in an effort; and make colloquial prose sound like poetry. It was not really surprising that he could recite the Meghdootam without batting an eyelid, for his mother often read out to him Kalidasa’s epic poem before he went to bed. It wasn’t surprising that he took a keen interest in culinary arts, for his maternal grandmother was an excellent cook and carried with her a plethora of utensils, spices and spatulas while she traveled with her engineer husband. Ghosh used to fondly recall the refinement and perfection with which his grandmother prepared and served every dish. He used to recall how his father brought baul singers home and they intently listened to their songs and stories.
His father had taught him that there wasn’t any age for learning and there was something to learn from everyone. His mother had a very important role in developing his sense of perfection and orderliness. What Sarojini tells Aditi in Unishe April: Jeta korbe bhalo kore korbe! (Whatever you do, do it with perfection) is something Ghosh learned while he grew up. And, it’s fascinating that he wasn’t baptized Rituparno; he chose his own name. His father used to drop him in the Children’s Library while he browsed and read in the adult section. He was introduced to the Mahabharata, in which he came across this name. He chose to call himself Rituparno, and his parents relented. Early on in life, he had chosen his own name and broke the rule, which in retrospection appears so consistent with his entire life, his career, and his undaunted struggle against normative assumptions and gender identities.
Ghosh’s entry into the film industry went largely unnoticed, for Hirer Angti (1994) wasn’t released widely. The film gained popularity later when Rituparno Ghosh became a household name, after Unishe April (1995), loosely based on Autumn Sonata, resurrected Bengali cinema which was being considered nearly dead. (However, at that time a very few was aware that this man was the writer of several ad jingles which had become an integral part of their everyday life) Exasperated by the shoddy films which had no originality or connection with the Bengali middle class reality, the educated Bengali audience had long dissociated themselves from Tollywood films, having nothing to fall back on, except nostalgically looking back at and ruing the lost glory of the industry. Unishe April, Dahan (1997), Badiwali (1999), Ashukh (1999), Utsav (2000) and Titli (2002) brought back to Bengali cinema the verisimilitude which was its defining character during the golden age of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Although the films betrayed a very deep influence of Ray, Ghosh was actually merging two traditions in his films, thereby blurring the dividing line between art and commercial cinema: the art-house cinema represented by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, and the mainstream commercial cinema represented by Ajay Kar, Tarun Majumdar, Arabinda Mukhopadhyay, and Tapan Sinha.
Film critics, however, complained how Ghosh was more interested in the gloss and consciously marketed a ‘good life’, and he was widely censured for confining himself to the comforts of the bourgeois living room. Aveek Sen in a very insightful write-up took him (among others, such as Aparna Sen and Goutam Ghosh) to task thus:
These films use a form of easy realism that could give to their audience the addictive pleasure of recognizing their familiar selves in the films’ polished surfaces. Rooms, clothes, makeup, speech, food, local references reflect back an everyday world that falls in exactly with the images designed for and distributed to a particular “niche market”. This phrase has been used recently by Rituparno Ghosh, who understands “the sentiment of the urban and educated Bengali who has purchasing power”.
Sen’s criticism is indeed unquestionable, and Rituparno Ghosh knew much too well that he wasn’t a great filmmaker, and before his death, in an interview, he did admit that he would not even be counted among the first 500 great filmmakers of the world. In fact, towards the end of his life, he had had an anagnorisis as it were: he realized that his works had acquired celebratory status in comparison to the general mediocrity that has been ruling Tollywood for the past three decades. He wanted to look beyond Tollywood and compete with filmmakers recognized worldwide.
Still, it is undeniable that it was Rituparno Ghosh who had brought to Bengali cinema a newness or a modernity, by bringing out of the closet certain issues which were so far ignored or were not considered worth representing in ‘polite’ cinema: he de-familiarized the image of the widow repetitively in film after film; his widows, Sarojini (Unishe April), Binodini (Chokher Bali, 2003) or Rangapishima (Shubha Muharat, 2003), did not wallow in self-pity or felt victimized. Most importantly, he portrayed women as subjects with intense sexual desire. In almost all his films, he called into question the institute of marriage and romantic love and unraveled the power politics that operated within it, where a woman was often denied agency. While Dahan shocked the audience by its brutal representation of marital rape, Dosor (2006) delved deep into the complexities of adultery and love outside wedlock without moralizing. In other words, while Ghosh circumspectly addressed bourgeois sensibilities, and took extreme care to recreate situations in his films with which they readily identified, he also unsettled the Bengali bhadrolok by jolting them out of their complacency. While the middle-class Bengali audience pretended to have overlooked a widow menstruating in Chokher Bali, they were profoundly disconcerted at Ghosh’s unpretentious depiction of the crudity of sex in Antarmahal (2005). In fact, time and again, Ghosh attacked patriarchal assumptions and misogynistic representations of women in films, endeavoring to reverse the gaze of the camera, which was so far, predominantly heterosexual male.
Ghosh further shocked his audience when he began appearing in transgressive clothes in public, wearing kohl and makeup. His sexuality which was so far speculated upon was confirmed as it were, when he appeared as a transvestite filmmaker in Kaushik Ganguly’s poignant love story Ar Ekti Premer Golpo in 2010. Ghosh was completely aware that he would lose a section of his audience who did not feel comfortable with honest exhibition of one’s sexuality in real or reel life. Yet, he did not step down; he asserted his gender fluidity not only by appearing in flamboyant clothes and makeup in public functions, but also in his next two films, Memories in March (2011) (the film was written by Ghosh but directed by Sanjay Nag), where he played Ornab mourning the untimely death of his boyfriend, and Chitrangada (2012), where he played Rudra, a dancer and choreographer, contemplating a sex reassignment surgery. Sadly enough, Rituparno Ghosh’s celebration of his sexuality shifted the audience’s interest from his work to spicy gossips of his private life that began doing their rounds. In fact, a lot of them flocked to watch Chitrangada believing it to be a confessional film, where Ghosh had revealed his personal life.
While Ghosh became an iconic figure for the LGBT community (although he was not an activist per se), he also caused discomfort to the heteronormative folks by his very assertiveness and powerful presence. To the heteronormative folks, Rituparno Ghosh appeared as a threat, as someone who had successfully dismantled the assumption that effeminate, cross-dressing men were powerless, and would always be at the mercy of so-called manly men. He consciously confronted social banter and mockery by constantly ‘performing’ his sexuality in public and in his films, thereby endearing a lot of men and women who inhabit the margins in terms of their sexualities, while infuriating those who cannot accept any kind of transgression of set gender codes.
His untimely death has indeed caused irredeemable harm to Bengali cinema, to Bengali music (a great lyricist as he was) and of course, Bengali literature. Perhaps, his death has relieved many who felt terribly uncomfortable by his sexual identity and his celebration of the same. Unfortunately, but expectedly, a lot is being made of his sexuality and private life after his demise on 30 May 2013. The media is going berserk to discover the ‘real’ cause behind his sudden death, floating different rumors one spicier than the other. In an interview with Shohini Ghosh in December 2012, Ghosh, with his characteristic sense of humour, admitted: ‘So, while all actors and directors are allowed routine procedures, I am not. I have to be suffering from AIDS or cancer!’ As an acquaintance, I would say Rituparno Ghosh who lived life to the lees, and deliberately played up his sexuality, would not have been annoyed by such speculations. Rather, he would have been amused, the quintessential diva and the humorous person that he was! Like his heroine Padmini Chowdhury (played by Sharmila Tagore) in Shubho Muharat, he would have smiled a wicked smile realizing he indeed wielded extraordinary power of arousing mass curiosity and creating headlines, even after his death.