My City Can Neither Handle Me Nor Ignore Me: Rituparno Ghosh
Everything is in a state of making… eternally… nothing is ever complete… the same is true of the body and therefore, identity. It’s a continuous process.
Kaustav Bakshi: You have often claimed Satyajit Ray to be your mentor…I distinctly remember one article of yours titled “Takey obhibabok bolbo na keno”? (Why shouldn’t I call him my mentor?) But would you consider yourself as belonging to the Ray gharana (style)? Or would you see yourself sustaining a genre of Bengali cinema popularized by the likes of Ajay Kar, Arabinda Mukhopadhyay, Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar?
Rituparno Ghosh: It was Ray who inspired me to become a filmmaker. I do not know whether my films appear to be like those of Ajay Kar or Tapan Sinha; if they do, well, the likeness was unintended.
But, yes, I definitely enjoy Ajay Kar or Tarun Majumdar’s films. In fact, I am quite fond of Kar’s Saat Paake Bandha, which is remarkably different from any other film of his oeuvre. Perhaps, a shadow of this film is discernible in Unishe April.
But again, the story of Unishe April was largely inspired by Ray’s Jalsaghar. I was watching the film on Doordarshan, when the story idea of Unishe April came to me. You know, watching a film on television can change your response to it; for television facilitates a more intimate viewing, and a more intimate connection with the characters in the film.
To a large extent, my experience of watching Jalsaghar on television made me read the film in a new light: I saw the film as a man’s much-cherished relationship with his mansion. Almost immediately, the idea of a story with a retired dancer as protagonist and her intimate relationship with her house came to my mind. The character of the daughter, which eventually superseded the mother, was conceived much later.
Kaustav Bakshi: The title of the film Unishe April is rather unusual. Did you choose 19th April keeping in mind that on this very date Rabindranath’s ‘Notun Bouthan’, Kadambari Debi attempted suicide, given that your protagonist makes a similar attempt?
Rituparno Ghosh: Not at all. In fact, at that time I was not aware that it was on 19th April that Kadambari Debi had attempted suicide and died two days later. I chose number 19 for a completely different reason: see, the calendar played a very important role in the film. Remember? I wanted a date, both the digits of which would change to signify the beginning of a new day. 19 would become 20… both the digits change…this would hammer in the idea of a fresh beginning altogether, the feeling with which the film closes.
Again, the choice of the month of April had a lot to do with the fact that we have Kalbaishakhi (stormy rains) in the evenings. The role of the rain and storm was also important in the film. Therefore, such a choice of title!
Kaustav Bakshi: I believe the Kalbaishakhi acted as pathetic fallacy too, as in, sweeping away the old and the decayed and facilitating regeneration…
Rituparno Ghosh: That may be a possible interpretation, but, honestly, I did not think of this symbolic dimension of the storm.
Kaustav Bakshi: You have often said that you have grown up on home-turf, that is, Indian cinema, and are not quite well-versed with Euro-American cinema.
Rituparno Ghosh: True. I got acquainted with Hollywood much later. Honestly, I had major problem with the accent. I remember going for an English movie and simultaneously imagining a scene when I could not clearly make out what the actors were possibly saying. I did not feel like watching these films when they released in the theatres and sadly, there were no subtitles in those days. Can you believe that I got introduced to Marlon Brando through DVDs?
These days, however, I have been watching all the films of select actors and directors of Hollywood in the order they were made.
Kaustav Bakshi: But, how do you react to people who find echoes of Autumn Sonata in Unishe April?
Rituparno Ghosh: You know, when people said that Unishe April was inspired by Autumn Sonata, I could not make them believe that at that time my knowledge of foreign films was negligible and I had never watched Autumn Sonata.
In fact, I sincerely believe, Unishe April had none of the complexities of Autumn Sonata, although, till date, I have not been able to watch this film properly. A sort of mental block has developed towards this film, owing to the fact that people have time and again compared it with Unishe April.
Kaustav Bakshi: I guess every interviewer wants to know how you manage to transform just anybody into an actor. Is there a particular way of dealing with actors? I mean how do you handle established stars who are hugely talented, stars who are not great actors, newcomers and child artistes? Do you apply different methods for each of these categories?
Rituparno Ghosh: Of course. Completely different methods.
Kaustav Bakshi: Which actor did you find most comfortable to work with?
Rituparno Ghosh: I would say I was very comfortable working with Kirron Kher. Had she known Bengali, I would have cast her many more times. I had to just tell her what I wanted and she delivered it almost effortlessly. I told her that Banalata is growing old and has developed a joint pain; so she finds it difficult to rise from a sitting position and limps for a while before regaining normal posture (at this point he rises and shows me the kind of walk he wanted Kirron Kher to walk); Kirron amazed me! She picked up the walk instantly. She used to come to the sets in western wear, but the moment she changed into the sari, it was difficult to think of her as Kirron Kher.
Kaustav Bakshi: You seem to have a magic wand with which you can extract the best performance from your actors. Of the younger breed of actors who do you find easy to direct?
Rituparno Ghosh: It’s very easy to work with Konkona (Sen Sharma). She does not like being directed as such. She intently listens when I read her the script and reacts like an audience, and then brings in her own potentiality to the performance and she delivers perfectly more often than not.
I have worked with Raima (Sen) in quite a few films. She is a director’s actor. And there’s nothing belittling about that! In fact, once Shabana Azmi told me that it’s a rare quality to surrender to the director completely. Rituparna (Sengupta) never comes to me with any baggage of her stardom. It’s easy to mould her for any character.
Kaustav Bakshi: I was particularly struck by Raakhee Gulzar’s performance in Shubho Mahurat!
Rituparno Ghosh: You know Raakhee Gulzar is never fastidious about make- up. She has tremendous confidence in her looks. This helped me a lot to give her the look of Ranga pishima.
Initially, I had told her to emulate Bhanu Bandopadhyay. However, Raakhee di was out of touch with Bengali cinema for quite some time; so, she could not really fathom what I meant. Anyway, I acted out the scenes and she emulated me almost perfectly.
Actually, I had noticed something about her: you have to give her a lot of business in order to make her perform well. She loves to cook, to serve and she eats very neatly…it is quite obvious, if you see her at all these activities, that she is enjoying them. I put this to use. Ranga pishima’s affection for her niece or her friend came out through her intimate engagement with cooking and serving food. Her confinement to the domestic space was also thereby established.
Kaustav Bakshi: And, Sharmila Tagore?
Rituparno Ghosh: Rinku di (Sharmila Tagore) is a very sophisticated and sensitive person. I have discovered that there’s a way of directing her. You have to refer to sequences from other films she has acted in, in order to draw an emotion in a given scene.
There’s a scene in Shubho Mahurat where after a bath she comes and sits on the bed. Water is dripping from her hair. An important conversation with her husband ensues. I told her, Rinku di, tui Debi r omuk sequence ta mone kor…ami thik orokom chaichhi! (Rinku di, recall that sequence from Devi…I want that kind of a reaction). I guess Rinku di, Amit da (Amitabh Bachchan) and Reena di (Aparna Sen), all of them, belong to the same category of actors.
Kaustav Bakshi: What about child artistes? Both Hirer Angti and Khela had children as protagonists, and they were very good. How did you handle them?
Rituparno Ghosh: I have never treated a child like a child. I never pamper them into delivering, as you usually do with a child. I have always treated them like adults. This makes them feel important and they deliver wonderfully.
Kaustav Bakshi: How do you direct dubbing artistes? Sudipta Chakraborty’s voice-acting in Chokher Bali is still talked about…
Rituparno Ghosh: I usually do the dubbing myself, and then the dubbing artistes imitate me. As for Tumpa (Sudipta), I was barely present at the time she dubbed; I had simply asked her to speak like me with intonations of an adolescent girl.
In case of Monali Thakur (Noukadubi), I had asked her not to bring into her dialogue delivery any insinuation of her singer’s voice! And she did a marvelous job.
Kaustav Bakshi: Let me shift to a different issue: in your films, physical relationship has always played an important role. You have never used metaphors in such scenes; rather you have unpretentiously portrayed sex. Then, what made you apologize when a section of the middle class Bengali audience expressed their discomfort in experiencing sexually explicit scenes in Antarmahal?
Rituparno Ghosh: Well, I was never apologetic about the content of the film; I apologized for the mis-communication… I mean none of the posters hinted at the mature content of the film. Most of the posters featured close-ups of the four lead actors.
Almost simultaneously another film Bibor was also released. The pre-release promos and the posters were all suggestive of ‘adult’ content. But I did not want the posters to be sexually provocative. Perhaps, this was a mistake. The Bengali middle class audience who went for the film with family (especially kids) was terribly disturbed. They were not prepared for what they saw.
Kaustav Bakshi: When you say ‘Bengali middle class audience’, which section do you exactly refer to? For example, I was not disturbed by Antarmahal at all. In fact, I thought it was one of the most unpretentious renditions of physical desires in Bengali cinema.
Rituparno Ghosh: Well, let me explain. On the eve of the release of Unishe April I was rather perturbed by the fact whether my audience would at all understand that Sarojini was a widow, and not a divorcee. I had completely de-familiarized the image of the traditional widow in cinematic representations; Sarojini was always decked up, particular about her make-up and accessories. I even made her wear a mangal-sutra, if you remember. This could cause a great deal of confusion, for the mangal-sutra is not just an ornament, but a symbol of marital bliss within certain communities.
When the film released, I realized that many could not identify with Sarojini’s plight…I believe, because Sarojini did not feel victimized as a widow, Aditi took away the sympathy of the audience… the so-called Bengali middle class audience. Had Sarojini played up her widowhood in the conventional way, the sympathy would have been equally divided. So, you understand which section of audience I am referring to?
Kaustav Bakshi: But, didn’t your Chokher Bali prepare this section of the audience for Antarmahal? I mean the former had explicit love-making scenes and more importantly a poignant scene where Binodini menstruates!
Rituparno Ghosh: Yes, all that, I guess, was overlooked, simply because I was working with a Tagore novel. The sexual explicitness was tolerated for it was accommodated in the larger context of the novelist’s essential ‘sanctity’. Yet, a lot of people have raised objections.
Kaustav Bakshi: But, do you think the kind of reaction Antarmahal drew was contingent upon how you represented the crudity of sex? For example, the creaking sound the bed makes every time the protagonists make love?
Rituparno Ghosh: Yes. As long as you romanticize about sex it’s not so disconcerting. It’s even better if you can represent sex figuratively than literally. But the moment you unravel the crudity associated with it, I mean a sort of brutality that underlies it, it becomes alarming.
Kaustav Bakshi: In case of Noukadubi I was half-expecting Kamala and Ramesh to have a physical relationship; but they didn’t. I guess the film would have been more complex that way…
Rituparno Ghosh: I deliberately avoided that, for, I wanted to make a very simple film…say, something like Balika Badhu? See, all the four lead characters live an ascetic life of sorts. That was intentional.
However, I feel, there wasn’t any point of making Noukadubi after having made Chokher Bali, which is, in any case, a far more intriguing and layered novel than the former. The possibility of exploring the sexual relationships was much more in Chokher Bali.
Kaustav Bakshi: I think that the liberty you took with Chokher Bali was more admirable. Your Binodini is iconoclastic because she mostly speaks through her body. She doesn’t subscribe to the patriarchal construction of woman.
Rituparno Ghosh: Yes. And the rebellion she puts up is symbolized by the repetitive use of the colour ‘red’. ‘Red’ is not just the colour of passion; it’s also the colour of revolt in Chokher Bali.
Kaustav Bakshi: In fact, all your films have conscientiously portrayed women’s desires, but, none of them can be called feminist in the strict political sense of the term. Is it impossible to make a radically feminist film in India or say, anywhere in the world?
Rituparno Ghosh: Right. It is very difficult to think outside and completely debunk the patriarchal model. Therefore, I call my films womanist, not feminist.
Kaustav Bakshi: In queer relationships too, isn’t it extremely difficult to think outside the patriarchal hetero-normative model?
Rituparno Ghosh: Absolutely. In queer relationships too the same power equation that defines a man-woman relationship is discernible, at least in most cases.
Kaustav Bakshi: I guess in Ar Ekti Premer Golpo too this was very much evident. Right?
Rituparno Ghosh: I know. The way I have essayed the role made me appear like a surrogate woman… not a man! In that case, what happens in Ar Ekti Premer Golpo is not really very different from what happens in any heterosexual triangle love story.
Had a so-called manly man played Abhiroop, the impact would have been completely different. In the Indian context, it was easier to imagine an effeminate man as the ‘other woman’!
Kaustav Bakshi: You have repeatedly claimed that Abhiroop, the protagonist of Ar Ekti Premer Golpo is not Rituparno Ghosh, the person, in any way. True, the actor and the character he plays should not be confused. However, is the same true of Chitrangada: the Crowning Wish?
Rituparno Ghosh: I wouldn’t say that Rituparno and Roop are completely different persons. In Roop, I saw the mistakes I had made when I was his age. I was already past that phase. Therefore, I felt like guiding Roop… I had developed a strange affection towards him. I felt terribly sad when I had to abandon him.
In case of Chitrangada, Rudra, the protagonist, contemplates sex change. In the end however, he asks the doctors to remove the breast implant…he chooses to stay the way he is. He abandons his urge of becoming Surupa… he revels in the in-betweenness.
Kaustav Bakshi: In other words, you believe in inhabiting gender liminality?
Rituparno Ghosh: I know many of my viewers apprehend that I might start wearing the sari any day. Let me tell you, I shall never wear a sari. I remember someone asking me whether I shall ever wear the dhoti-kurta? My answer was I wouldn’t. I’ll not wear any gender-determining attire… neither sari nor dhoti-kurta… I shall always go for something in-between. That’s the best way of celebrating gender fluidity.
Kaustav Bakshi: Let me come back to Ar Ekti Premer Golpo. Many felt a lot of your understanding of queer relationships had gone into the making of this film.
Rituparno Ghosh: You know Kaushik (Ganguly) had a very romantic understanding of homoerotic love. I mean he made this film out of a sense of deep empathy he felt for queer people. I had to bring in my ‘lived’ experience of the same.
Kaustav Bakshi: There is a particular sequence where Roop insists that Chapal divulge in front of the camera, some very personal detail about his sex life. Chapal refuses and infuriates Roop. Is this particular scene an auto-reflexive satire on filmmakers and playwrights (e.g. Ramanimohan or Sundar Bibir Pala) queuing up to cast Chapal cashing in on his unpretentious admittance of his sexuality?
Rituparno Ghosh: I won’t disagree with such an interpretation. But, Kaushik’s approach to Chapal da was very romantic, as I said. But it was important to talk about Chapal da’s discomfort in sharing his private life with everybody.
Kaustav Bakshi: Till date, only three films, namely Ar Ekti Premer Golpo, Memories in March and Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish, having queer male characters in lead roles have been made in the Bengali film industry. In all three films the parents of the queer characters have very important roles.
In Ar Ekti Premer Golpo, Roop calls up his mother every time he feels lonely or let down; in Memories, a mother gradually comes to terms with her son’s sexuality; in Chitrangada Rudra’s parents play a very important role in his journey. How important is the approval of the family in matters of a person’s sexual leanings or desires?
Rituparno Ghosh: The everyday struggle of the queer character must be pitted vis-à-vis the comfort zone inhabited by the hetero-normative family. Another important aspect is that a queer person tends to become lonely as he/she grows old… he/she is compelled to live a single life… in our country, at least, two men cannot adopt a child… so elderly queer people usually have no one to look after them…his/her acceptance in the family is therefore crucial, at least for me.
Kaustav Bakshi: This prompts me to ask you whether a film on same-sex desire can end in the ‘they lived happily ever after’ mode. Most queer films end in despair and heartbreak.
Rituparno Ghosh: I think that is not quite possible. If you do that you would be compromising with reality. At least not at this point in time.
Kaustav Bakshi: In the light of emerging theories of gender and sexuality, many existing literary and filmic texts are being re-read as queer. For instance, Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen?
Rituparno Ghosh: Well, you may read the bond between Goopy and Bagha as queer. They are both ostracized by society and they accidentally meet in the bamboo-clump. The homoerotic strain is somewhat allayed by Bagha’s abiding fantasy for the princess. But in the end, when both Goopy and Bagha win the princesses of their dreams, the director shifts to colour from black- and-white in which the entire film is shot. This shift, I guess, was deliberate and judicious, indeed. For, it leaves us doubting whether the marriage was meant to be a normative closure (as in a happy ending) or a second dream narrative takes off at that very point.
In other words, do Goopy and Bagha really get married or does the union with the princesses happen in their dreams? In this sense, the possibility of reading the film as a queer text is further reinforced.
Kaustav Bakshi: This reminds me I was a tad disappointed with Chokher Bali; I expected you to bring to light the homoerotic dimension in the Mahendra-Bihari relationship.
Rituparno Ghosh: Yes, I should have. But I was under too much pressure. I was showing a widow menstruating and was also breaking a number of norms in the film…I thought it would be a kind of overdose for my viewers… I strategically downplayed the homoerotic bit, although the hint was clearly there in Tagore.
Although Mahendra insults Bihari time and again, the latter cannot abandon him. He never stops visiting Mahendra’s house. A simplistic interpretation of this is Bihari returns again and again for he is too attached to Rajlakshmi and Annapurna. That’s one reason, may be! But, it’s his undying love for Mahendra that brings him back. The same is true of Shribilash-Shachish or Gora-Binay!
Kaustav Bakshi: Although you have not really made the homoerotic aspect of the relationship between the male leads obvious, you have paraded the male body…
Rituparno Ghosh (smiles): Yes…that’s all I could do!
Kaustav Bakshi: Chitrangada is your first directorial venture, where homoerotic bonding is no longer suggested; in fact, it is central to the narrative. Your protagonist is a non-normative sexual subject, seeking gender reassignment. Do we get to see more of such characters in your future projects?
Rituparno Ghosh: What is exactly non-normative? Representation of queer lives? No. Why do I need to do that? As many of you know I plan to make a film on Thakurbari… such a story is also a study in non-normativity…I shall try to capture the ups and downs of a nineteenth century Brahmo family located in a predominantly Hindu neighborhood.
The fact that Kadambari Debi impersonated male characters in the plays performed privately at Thakurbari also interests me. Again, the extra-marital liaisons that took place in that great house also need to be explored… again for instance, the alleged affair Jyotirindranath had with Noti Binodini… I do not know whether that shall be a part of the film, but nonetheless… all these point towards a remarkable non- normartivity… one need not always make films on queer characters.
Kaustav Bakshi: Thakurbari reminds me that whenever you have made films based on Tagore texts, such as Chokher Bali or Noukadubi, critics have often charged you of over-glamorizing your heroines or overdoing your sets. Did you do that keeping in mind the commercial viability of spectacle?
Rituparno Ghosh: Spectacle is an important aspect of cinema. But in conceiving Tagore heroines I don’t think I have over-glamorized them. The women of Thakurbari were particularly finicky about the way they dressed. Saratkumari Debi, for example, conscientiously followed intricate beauty regimes. The Thakurbari way of wearing the sari was quite famous. And in any case, Rabindranath has not left any illustrations of his heroines. A director, therefore, has the creative freedom in imagining them his way.
Kaustav Bakshi: Well, how was the experience of working on the documentary on Tagore? Did you discover anything in the course of research that made you rethink the documentary?
Rituparno Ghosh: What I have always felt about Tagore was that he was infinity incarnate. This very idea was reinforced as I researched for the documentary. It is absolutely impossible to capture him in one documentary… even ten would not be sufficient.
Kaustav Bakshi: Apart from this new film on Thakurbari, what other kinds of projects do we see you undertaking in future?
Rituparno Ghosh: See, I want to do new kind of films… In fact, I have already made the films I had always wanted to make: Unishe April, Badiwali, Dosor, Abohomaan…I want to make something different now…let’s see .
The Mahabharata has always interested me. In fact, I am currently reading a book on the gender constructs in the epic… a chapter dealing with Arjun/Brihannala and Amba/Shikhandi. I have a few ideas which need to be executed. Now on, I shall be making films that would demand of me painstaking research and serious homework.
Kaustav Bakshi: Abohomaan, I gather, from various other interviews you have given, is quite close to your heart… The film created a stir for a rather flippant reason… as a film on the much circulated gossip on the Ray-Madhabi affair…
Rituparno Ghosh: What pains me is that everybody went berserk trying to find allusions to Ray’s personal life! 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? I was surprised no one wrote about that. But people were more bothered about the Ray-Madhabi dimension. That way, the film was denied its due as a work of art.
Kaustav Bakshi: I think Abohomaan is one of your best films in the sense that it subtly questions the discourse of women’s liberation, from the point of view of two women Binodini and Shikha… both occupying vulnerable positions as actors in a predominantly male world of the stage as well as cinema… although their talents are recognized, they remain passive recipients…
Rituparno Ghosh: Yes. The irony inherent in a man’s attempt to educate a woman is to make her serve him better. Apparently, the woman who is liberated is actually all the more subjugated by patriarchy. This is what I wanted to bring out in juxtaposing the tales of a nineteenth century female actor and an actor of our contemporary times. Nothing has really changed.
Kaustav Bakshi: The same political subtext works in case of widow remarriage as well. A widowed woman is apparently ‘masterless’ and therefore needs to be put under the control of the patriarch. I think Chokher Bali fantastically debunks this in the end, when Binodini walks out on Bihari…
Rituparno Ghosh: Exactly! And, she explains her standpoint in that long letter she writes to Ashalata in the end…
Kaustav Bakshi: I would now shift to an issue which is apparently unrelated to your work, but something on many would like to hear you talk. The LGBT movement in Kolkata has gained significant momentum during the past two decades. Apart from several social events, a Pride March and a Film Festival are organized every year. You’ve never participated in any of these in the past; however, this year, Chitrangada was the closing film of ‘Dialogues’…
Rituparno Ghosh: Earlier, I used to believe that branding a film festival as LGBT was unnecessary! In fact, I have always felt patriarchal condescension became manifest in such labeling! For instance, having a separate film festival for women filmmakers… as if women are inferior artistes!
But of late, my perception about a separate festival on queer films has changed. I have arrived at a realization that such a festival is a part of a political activism which celebrates and reclaims non-normative sexual identities; it is not a projection of victimhood, but a poignant protest against hetero-patriarchy. Therefore, it is necessary.
Kaustav Bakshi: So, do you see yourself as entering into LGBT activism?
Rituparno Ghosh: No. An artist need not be an activist, and art doesn’t really need to be political all the time. As an artist, I have been participating in this movement in my own way. You can say my decision to enact queer characters on screen is an expression of my activism. I was aware that I would end up alienating a section of my audience which had never associated my sexual preference with my work. Even then, I could not be mendacious about my sexuality. That would have been dishonest.
Kaustav Bakshi: Do you think you have indeed estranged a section of your audience?
Rituparno Ghosh: Yes… But, my city, I know, can neither handle me nor ignore me… (smiles) Jokes apart, I have indeed estranged a section of my audience. I am aware of the loss. A lot of them are wary of my cross-dressing in public! In fact, the respect I used to command has been seriously affected by my decision to proclaim my sexuality.
Kaustav Bakshi: Sexual identity politics has gained extraordinary momentum in the past two decades or so. The categories such as “gay”, “lesbian”, “bisexual”, “transgender”, “transvestite”, “transsexual”, “intersex”, etc. have entered everyday parlance.
However, each of these categories is rather permeable, yet a penchant to identify with a particular category is quite high. If I ask you to identify yourself according to the terms that have become current in the discourse of sexual identity politics, how would you identify yourself?
Rituparno Ghosh: Our understanding of sexuality is sadly limited by the binary heterosexuality/homosexuality. There are several sexual identities which none of these terms can possibly contain or define. Not even the different terms you mentioned.
In any case, our identities are subject to the body which again is a boundary… I believe in transcending that boundary… the body is in a state of transition… perennially… so, is my identity. Therefore, it is not desirable to identify with a single category. It is in fact impossible.
Everything is in a state of making… eternally… nothing is ever complete… the same is true of the body and therefore, identity. It’s a continuous process.
Note by the Interviewer: Although the conversation with Rituparno Ghosh recorded above takes the form of a formal interview, the exchanges did not necessarily take place in the order that they appear here. What appears here is actually a collage of the snippets of conversations I have had with him over a period of time. We’ve often resorted to the vernacular in several occasions, quite naturally; therefore, in many cases, the responses of the director have been rewritten by me.
Hope you enjoyed reading…
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