An Exquisite Labour of Love
Bird of Dusk, is a feature length documentary film on Rituparno Ghosh that does justice to the complexities in his life and art. Bird of Dusk, directed by Sangeeta Datta, has been commercially released at Nandan II – a rare feat for a documentary film in India. This review by Subha Das Mollick gives glimpses into the documentary along with some additional information obtained by interviewing the director and some of her crew members.
Rituparno Ghosh stormed into the scene of Bengali cinema in 1994, with his film Unishe April. The death of Satyajit Ray two years back had left a void in the scenario and Rituparno’s film held a promise of filling the void. This Bergmanesque indoor drama exploring a strained mother daughter relationship, was strongly reminiscent of An Autumn Sonata. Unishe April fetched Rituparno Ghosh the Golden Lotus Award in 1995, for being the best Indian feature film of 1994. His earlier film Hirer Angti, made for Children’s Film Society of India, had gone unnoticed.
Rituparno Ghosh quickly consolidated his position in the close knit Bengali film industry as a prolific filmmaker, editor of a popular film magazine and a television anchor. Urban middle class Bengali audience could connect to the stories he told. They eagerly looked forward to the next Rituparno film.
Sangeeta Datta, an old associate of Rituparno from their Jadavpur University days, remembered him as a shy boy in the campus, who was often at the receiving end of ridicule because of his effeminate ways. She re-established contact with Rituparno when he was the editor of Anandalok and reminded him about the good old days of innocent ‘adda’ in the campus. By now Rituparno had put on a diva like attitude and had himself become the talking point in Page 3 circles. But for Sangeeta it was not difficult to penetrate the queer exterior and strike a relationship as a friend and co-worker till death did them apart. After Rituparno’s death in June 2013, Sangeeta strongly felt that the best way to perpetuate the legacy left behind by this meteor, would be a film. Thus was born Bird of Dusk, a feature length documentary film on Rituparno Ghosh. It is a layered and densely crafted film that does justice to the complexities in the life and art of Rituparno Ghosh.
Bird of Dusk opens with a short sequence from Aar Ekti Premer Golpo, where Rituparno speaks to Jishu Sengupta about Abanindra Nath Tagore’s creation of the painting titled Bird of Dusk. This brief conversation touches upon literature, imagery through words, transcreation of this imagery on the canvas and on home coming. It sets the tone for the layered narrative about to unfold.
The story of Rituparno’s life has been told in a chronological fashion. Early in the film Arghya Kamal Mitra reminisces Rituparno’s school years in South Point School, when Ritu used to entertain his classmates by dancing like Helen. The audience gets a glimpse of never before seen photos of Rituparno Ghosh as a school boy. Rituparno’s stint in the advertising industry, the copies he wrote for different products, have been retraced by Rituparno himself in a television interview recorded many years back. He said that he had no way of proving to his friends that the popular lines on the hoardings were his creation. Similarly, as a filmmaker, he could not morally claim that the films he made were his creation.
One of the first interviewees appearing in Bird of Dusk is Aparna Sen. Not only had she been a long time friend of Rituparno, but she was also the lead actress in Rituparno’s first commercially released film Unishe April. Aparna Sen recalls the heady days of shooting Unishe April and speaks about Ritu’s preference for composing his frames with a few characters. Aparna Sen’s daughter Konkona says that working in Ritu’s unit was like a long holiday. Scenes of mother and daughter together in Titli merges seamlessly with the interviews.
The narrative of Bird of Dusk has several strands deftly woven together by the director and editor. It took the duo more than a year to sift through stock footage from diverse sources, make them compatible to each other, matching in aspect ratio and colour tone and compile them into one time line. Subhajit Prasad, the editor of the film recalls that the first timeline was eleven hours long. It took months to trim the timeline to a three hours rough cut. The present 92 minute version is the result of a lot of difficult decisions.
Some strands in the film lend a uniqueness to Bird of Dusk as a documentary film. One such strand is the journey of a young man – a Rituparno look alike, who tries to connect to Rituparno through his autobiographical writings in the book First Person. These writings, read out by Soumitra Chatterjee, reveal the literary prowess of Rituparno. Writings by filmmakers are always very evocative and visual. Rituparno is no exception. In well chosen, emotionally loaded words he expresses his love for Kolkata, his attachment to his mother and his encounter with his mother’s death. Souvid Datta has done justice to Rituparno’s lyrical prose with his lyrical camera work. Kallolini Tilottama comes alive through Souvid’s lens. We have a tour of not only Kumortuli and the Ganga, but we witness Muharram at Anwar Shah Road, perhaps for the first time captured on screen.
Kolkata is not Souvid’s native town. He comes here once a year. Shooting for Bird of Dusk gave Souvid an opportunity to rediscover his parents’ home town. It goes to his credit that he has steered clear of picture postcard like images of Kolkata and has yet captured the magical moments in this city at different times of the day and in different seasons.
We find a Rituparno look alike young man recurring like a leitmotif at different spots of Kolkata. Sometimes he is spotted in a tram reading a book and sometimes he is seen sitting by the pond of Tipu Sultan Mosque. He eventually reaches Rituparno’s house Tasher Desh and hovers outside the gate. At the end of the film he reveals his identity as Ranjan Bose and says, “Today we are what we are because Ritu Da showed us the way”.
Rituparno’s decision to come open with his sexual preference and the agony he suffered as a result, give momentum to the second half of the film. Kaushik Ganguli says at one point, “When Ritu allowed the girl in him to come out in the open, I could see the girl strangling Ritu the filmmaker.” Kaushik Ganguli was the first person to create a space for Rituparno to openly express his sexuality. In his film Aar Ekti Premer Golpo, Rituparno plays the role of a transgender film director who makes a film on a legendary transgender stage actor, Chapal Bhaduri. Ritu gets a platform to bring out the woman in him. The audience witnesses him transform into an enticing, bejewelled woman. That moment symbolizes the turning point in Rituparno’s life, when his personal life and professional life begin to merge and overlap. The dialogues that Rituparno speaks in Aar Ekti Premer Golpo are more his own philosophy of life and gender identity than dialogues. He argues that gender is fluid and a choice. It is acquired in the course of one’s life. Sangeeta Datta picks up just the right segments from Aar Ekti Premer Golpo and plugs them into Bird of Dusk to underline Rituparno’s inner dilemma.
Did Rituparno’s friends and associates accept his transformation with open arms? Or did they keep him at arm’s length? Some of his associates have admitted in Bird of Dusk that Rituparno Ghosh died a lonely man. His quirkiness and queerness came in the way of his social acceptance.
Sangeeta Datta says that Rituparno’s decision to appear in front of the camera – to ‘lend his body’ to his work, proved to be suicidal. He had been diagnosed with early stages of diabetes and the rigour of performance took a fatal toll on his health. But perhaps this was Ritu’s way of communicating with his audience, the only avenue open to him to assert his identity.
Bird of Dusk rises to a crescendo with rapidly cut shots of Chitrangada, Rituparno Ghosh’s last directorial venture. Here he argues, he rages, he dances, he loves. He gives out the message “Be what you wish to be” and in a way, brings the curtain down on his own life. He leaves behind a legacy of fearless expression of one’s sexual preference. He urges society to be more accepting.
The questions is, will Rituparno Ghosh be remembered by posterity for his alternate sexuality or for his films. Today we encounter Rituparnoesque young men. Shall we encounter Rituparnoesque filmmakers too just the way Rituparno had gifted us a Bergmanesque film in 1994?
Even though Rituparno made films primarily for his home audience, his films had carved out a niche in the international circuit as well. Berlin and London film festivals showed great enthusiasm for Rituparno’s films. In Bird of Dusk, the curator of Berlinale is full of praise for Bariwali. She calls it a self reflexive film that brings out the inherent cruelty of the film industry.
Sangeeta once had a conversation with Rituparno, “You hurl from one film to another at break neck speed. Why don’t you pull the brakes to look back and assess your work?” Rituparno had replied, “I leave the assessment to academicians like you.” As if in response to this comment, after Rituparno’s demise, Sangeeta took up the editing of a book Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art. While doing the editing she decided to do a filmic assessment of Rituparno too. The idea of Bird of Dusk was thus sown.
In her exquisitely crafted film, Sangeeta Datta takes pains to bring out the greyness of Rituparno’s character. She does not shy away from churning up the controversy behind Aishwarya Rai’s casting in Chokher Bali or raking up the Rakhee -Sharmila controversy during the production of Shubho Mohurat. Arjun Rampal gives graphic details of how Rituparno made Amitabh Bachhan go down on all fours in a scene of The Last Lear.
Bird of Dusk is extensively touring the festival circuit in India and abroad. It has received the Documentary in Focus Award at the San Francisco Bay Area Film Festival, second place in Chicago and nominated Best Documentary in New York. Everywhere the film has succeeded in rekindling interest in Rituparno Ghosh. The young generation has repeatedly expressed desire to watch the entire body of Rituparno Ghosh’s work. His films had once brought out Bengali cinema from its moribund state. Bird of Dusk will help take Rituparno’s legacy forward.
All pictures used here are courtesy Sangeeta Datta.
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