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Remembering Rituparno Ghosh

March 24, 2014 | By

To Rituparno Ghosh’s credit he brought a section of the Bengali audience back to the cinema halls – to me this is his greatest contribution to Bengali cinema and any history of it will remain largely incomplete unless this due tribute is paid to him.

May has a very special connotation in the Bengali psyche. It is in this month when two of the brightest stars in Bengal’s cultural sky were born – Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. It is on a rainy day in the end of the same month when Bengal lost its most versatile filmmaker of contemporary times.

Rituparno Ghosh

Rituparno Ghosh
(1963 – 2013)
(Pic Courtesy: dearcinema.com)

As I drove to my workplace through a drizzle and an overcast sky, the FM radio was tuned on and that is when this shocker of news almost hit me numb. Rituparno Ghosh is no more.

It came as a blow as probably a month back I edited an interview of him for my magazine Silhouette and the interview has become quite popular for the intense and intimate answers by the director. And more importantly, I was supposed to meet and talk to him about a project of mine in the near future. All these now rest – in peace.

Looking back, it is difficult to decide where to start from about Ritu, as he was popularly known. His first film was a children’s film Hirer Angti in 1992, which though not commercially successful, was quite a well- made one.

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Unishe April (1994) straight away put him to success

His biggest break came with Unishe April in 1994 which straight away put him to success – National award for Best Feature Film and Debashree Roy bagging the one for the Best Actress. Notwithstanding the national awards, Unishe April became a blockbuster hit.

Three years later, Ritu repeated his success with Dahan (based on a true incident) – another commercial hit and couple of National awards – for Best Screenplay to him and the Best Actress award jointly for the two female leads Rituparna Sengupta and Indrani Halder.

Bengali cinema was in tatters following two major setbacks – the death of Uttam Kumar in 1980 and the demise of Satyajit Ray in 1992. Interestingly enough, Ritu just filled this void with those two most popular films.

They came at a time when the middle class-educated and intelligent-Bengali was slowly turning away from cinema in general. There was a type of cinema which started becoming popular in the rural space which drew heavily from the action films of the South.

To Rituparno Ghosh’s credit he brought a section of the Bengali audience back to the cinema halls – to me this is his greatest contribution to Bengali cinema and any history of it will remain largely incomplete unless this due tribute is paid to him.

Ritu left behind a repertoire of 19 films in all, in a span of 21 years, the last one Satyanweshi (working title) on the vastly popular Bengali sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi being unfinished.

For me, Ritu as a director was never important until 1999 and his fourth film Bariwali with Kirron Kher (for which she won a National award for Best Actress). Bariwali had a deep sense of understanding and pathos, deftly handled and reverberating with intense human connect.

 Chokher Bali

Chokher Bali stars Prasenjit as Mahendra, Aishwarya Rai as Binodini and Raima Sen as Ashalata

This was also a time when there was a saying that whoever acted in his films would go on to win a National award! Probably this prompted a host of Bollywood biggies to acknowledge his credibility and acumen by working in his films – Aishwarya Rai (Chokher Bali, Rain Coat), Rakhee and Sharmila Tagore (Shubho Mahurat), Ajay Devgan (Raincoat), Abhishek Bachchan, Soha Ali Khan and Jackie Shroff (Antarmahal), Madhavan, Naseeruddin Shah and Jaya Bachchan (Sunglass – unreleased), Bipasha Basu (Shob Charitro Kalponik) and the towering Amitabh Bachchan (The Last Lear).

To Rituparno’s credit he did evolve over a period of time and hardly any film of his can be termed as a predecessor to anyone else – they were largely varied. He started with a style which was predominantly indoors and dialogue-centric. We always lamented the excess of dialogue and the disregard of silence, the primary reason why his films were less cinematic to many including me.

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Rituparno won 12 National Awards. Abohoman, Bariwali, Shubho Muhurat and Dosar were all award winning films

However, he did quite a few things intelligently – in keeping things indoors in his initial years he could design his film in such a way that he could control the budget. And in having a lot of verbal communication in the indoor setting, he just sparked off the side of the Bengali psyche which quintessentially loves to remain indoors and unexplored.

In his choice of subjects and films, Ritu helped the Bengali urban middle-class to identify themselves with his reel characters – lazy and laidback and hence resolved to talking mostly and staying indoors! This did the trick for him – kept his film expenses at the minimum and yet reaped rich dividends.

Added to this are the National film awards – a whopping 12 of them in his 17 released films. Such a flurry of national awards can be matched by none other than Satyajit Ray. But then Ray never achieved the box-office success that Ritu enjoyed on a regular basis.

Besides, it was Ritu who brought back Rabindra Sangeet in the Bengali film which can be considered as a pioneering act. His settings in his indoor-dominated movies set up the interior design of a host of Bengali mega-serials of the 2000’s.

To me none of the above two aspects work – but looking back there is no way but to admire how he had paced his creative innings. The first ten years till Titli were a phase of Ritu – mostly dialogue-centric, indoors (though Titli was an exception) and urban.

The year 2003 saw him make Chokher Bali  – not only this was his first attempt at a Tagore story but more significantly with this film he broke the barrier around him – he roped in Aishwarya Rai, the biggest heroine of Mumbai at that time and just increased the budget manifold. And there was no looking back after that.

Shob Charitro Kalponik in 2008 was one film which I would remember as Ritu’s finest for being overtly cinematic in spite of having quite a few flaws in entirety. Amongst my film critic friends, we would chuckle that this is one Ritu film for which we need to keep our eyes open. For every other we can shut them and just keep the ears open to understand the film- the absolute cacophony of the soundscape with dialogues.

Shob Choritro Kalponik

I would remember Shob Charitro Kalponik as Ritu’s finest.
(The National Award winning film starred Bipasha Basu, Prosenjit and Jisshu Sengupta)

Shob Charitro… for the first time to me showcased Ritu’s talent as a creative filmmaker who has supreme command and confidence on the medium, who understands cinema is as much visual as sound and visual is not only in showing good-looking national stars on the frame.

In three of his films as an actor, I have seen the last two –Memories in March (directed by Sanjay Nag) and Chitrangada (directed by Rituparno Ghosh). The first one is a superlative film by its own standards and Ritu brought out the angst, the soft sensitive touches of homo-erotic love with a highly nuanced performance.

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Raincoat (Hindi) starred Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devgan

He just picked the strings in Chitrangada and delivered boldly and more importantly, honestly. However there is no doubt that he was limited in his range though he was deep in his understanding of himself as a person and type of character he portrayed – that of a homosexual. As an actor Ritu probably would play just one role – the one he modeled on himself.

Any discussion on Rituparno Ghosh would be incomplete without his gender stance and his notions of sexuality. He himself started decorating him like an artifact. Artificial – maybe but he never cared and no one else should as well.

His quest for his own sexual and gender identity was something he harped on in his appearances in the public space. He got jeered down for his alternative ways of thinking and living which just proves how patriarchal and typically male-oriented the society is.

He lamented in an interview in my magazine – “I know my city can neither handle me nor ignore me”. It is important to understand that the city which took him up, held him high, made him such a hit film-director who could blend art with commerce with fair success just couldn’t handle his alternative sexual choice and desires. In the later years any interview of Ritu – be on-screen or in print was laden with melancholia like Rudra of Chitrangada.

In the same interview he spoke about Abohomaan – a film very close to his heart: “Most of my viewers missed out on some finer nuances of the film in that mad attempt. Did you notice Ananya’s first appearance? She comes in when Dipankar De is watching a film on a projector. This is a little tribute to one of my favorite directors Guru Dutt! Remember Waheeda Rahman’s first appearance in Kagaz Ke Phool?”

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The Last Lear (English) stars Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Arjun Rampal, Divya Dutta, Shefali Shah and Jisshu Sengupta.

Like his idol Guru Dutt, Rituparno Ghosh also probably lived his life on screen far too much than he actually needed or rather wished for.

Bengali cinema will remember Rituparno Ghosh for being a pioneer and a host of young directors need to attribute their courage to take up the camera to this diminutive, ‘feminine’ individual. The meandering lines in Nandan to pay the last tributes as he was lying there reminded of a day 21 years back.

Like his mentor Satyajit Ray with whom he was most often compared (if not from creative perspective) the influence on the general Bengali psyche that Ritu could muster was phenomenal. He was actually a part of the living-room existence – the reason people thronged from far off places to pay their last tributes. He could connect with the urban intelligentsia and his films could portray women in a radiant light of their own – probably better than anyone else.

In a rare interview, cinematographer V K Murthy (who worked on almost all the Guru Dutt films, with the exception of Baazi) spoke about what Guru Dutt told him at the very end of his life – “mujhe director banna tha, director ban gaya; actor banna tha, actor ban gaya; picture achchi banani thi, achchi bani. Paisa hai, sab kuch hai, par kuch bhi nahi raha” (I wanted to be a director, I became one. I wanted to be an actor, I became one. I wanted to make good films, that wish also came true. I have money, I have everything but there is nothing left).

Both their films were haunted by the concept of death – time and again like a forlorn shadow. Guru Dutt passed away at the age of 39. Ritu could live only 10 years more.

Author’s Note: “Just after his demise, the news channels and print media broadcast Ritu’s age as 49 apart from the Times of India which reported as 52. Few days later Anandabazar Patrika declared it to be 51. A friend who was a junior to Ritu in school vouches for 53 or 54. I am not changing the content of the article based on this – the moot point remains, even if he is 3-4 years off on either side.”

This article was first published in Dearcinema.com on May 31, 2013

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent book on cinema is Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa. He has also authored the acclaimed Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter.
All Posts of Amitava Nag

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