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Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film — Book Review

April 21, 2023 | By

There is much food for thought for every reader of Rituparno Ghosh On/And Film. The editors have compiled Ghosh’s own writings, speeches and interviews. Subha Das Mollick reviews the book.

Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film

Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film

Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film
Edited by Somdatta Mandal & Koushik Mandal
Hawakal Publishers
Pages: 364

Rituparno Ghosh had a trailblazing track record as a filmmaker. In a career spanning about two decades, he made twenty feature films that have won numerous awards — both national and international. Twelve of his films have won the National Award in various categories. And he was much more than a filmmaker. He excelled as an actor, editor of a popular film magazine and the Sunday supplement of a Bengali newspaper, a talk show host, a writer — and of course, a crusader of alternative sexuality. As long as he was alive, some loved him, some hated him but nobody could ignore him. Once he famously said in an interview, “My city, I know, can neither handle me, nor ignore me”.

Rituparno was queer in more sense than one. Today, a decade after his untimely demise on May 30, 2013, a look back at the comet that blazed across the firmament of Indian cinema, helps to bring a fresh perspective to the works and ideas of this multifaceted personality. Rituparno Ghosh deserves to be posited appropriately in the history of Bengali cinema and Indian cinema. All his life Rituparno made only Bengali films (except the Hindi film Raincoat), but he effortlessly brought Bollywood stars into his oeuvre of Bengali films. His films deserve a closer examination and a fresh evaluation against the backdrop of his other creative ventures. The book under review attempts to do just that.

In Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film, the editors have avoided all reviews and criticisms of his films by critics and scholars. They have also refrained from giving their own opinions and analytical comments. Instead, they have painstakingly compiled Ghosh’s own writings, speeches, the interviews he gave to various print and television journalists and the comments he made as talk show hosts. They have arranged excerpts from these sources into five chapters that bring out the diverse facets of his career. The overall packaging of this diverse material and their juxtapositions within the chapters, cemented with the editors’ introductory or connecting notes, have helped to bring alive the nuanced persona of Rituparno in all its complex and contradictory shades.

In the introductory chapter of the book there is a quote of Rituparno acknowledging Satyajit Ray’s influence in his life:

I felt like making films after I watched Satyajit Ray’s films. Most of his films are my favourites. Many aspects of his filmmaking are also my favourites. The structure, dialogue, economy and gravity of his films are also inimitable … I started realizing that film realism is not reality. Film has its own realism. In Pather Panchali we see Apu’s eyes at first through a tattered kantha which comes back as a leitmotif when we see Aparna’s eyes peering out of the torn curtain in Apur Sansar. This emphasis on what you want to see and what you want to show was a very important exercise.

Having acknowledged Ray’s overarching influence in his work and in spite of it, in more than one interview, Rituparno has candidly acknowledged that he is a ‘mediocre filmmaker’; that he can never rank among the first 500 filmmakers of the world. Yet, in spite of the self-confessed mediocrity, ‘he managed to secure a firm position as a man who brought the middle-classes back to the theatres with a signature stamp of his own’, write the editors in their introductory chapter.

Rituparno’s disarmingly honest confessions come as a revelation. On being asked about Bergman’s influence in his first released feature film Unishe April, he confesses that Unishe April does not have the layers and complexities of Autumn Sonata and he had not watched Autumn Sonata before he made Unishe April. In fact, being a rooted middle-class Bengali, he had watched very few European or Hollywood films before he launched his film career. On being asked whether the name Unishe April bore resonances of Rabindranath Tagore’s notun bouthan Kadambari Devi’s suicide, he said:

Not at all. In fact, at that time I was not aware that it was on 19th April that Kadambari Devi 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 movie. 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 kalboishakhi (nor’westers) in the evenings. The role of the rain and the storm was also important in the film. Therefore such a choice of title!

In the very next question he confesses that he did not have the symbolic dimension of the storm in mind while including it in the mise-en-scene.

Such pragmatic details, shorn of pretensions of profundity, make Rituparno as a person endearing and this book under review immensely readable. The editors have turned this book into quite a page turner with their own translations of the Bengali writings and interviews of Rituparno. The stupendous hard work that has gone into sourcing, selecting, arranging and rearranging, has paid off in the end. The dedication page of the book says, ‘for all Rituparno aficionados’. But the book will have appeal for anybody with a passing interest in Rituparno. The reader’s interest and appreciation is likely to grow deeper with every chapter. Just as research scholars will find the authentic and direct information, without the mediation of scholars and critics valuable, budding filmmakers will find some chapters and passages of immense value. For example, in an interview published in Silhouette Magazine, Rituparno speaks in details about how he handled different actors. These tips can be invaluable for any aspiring director.

Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film

Index page of Rituparno Ghosh: On/And Film

Chapter 1 of the book is a bouquet of Rituparno’s writings on cinema — the audience, awards and industry.The editors have translated an extremely valuable piece of writing by Rituparno, that had appeared as a cover story in Desh on August 5, 2001. The English translation is titled “Stories of Middle-class Life is still a Compulsion in Bengali Cinema”. The write up is a well-researched fine combing of Bengali cinema that brings out Bengali audience’s fixation with middle class values. It is a significant resource material for researchers on Bengali cinema. The English translation would refresh the memory of those who had read the original piece in Bengali many years back and would help to reach out to the new generation of readers. Another translated speech titled “Imperialism, Country and Cinema” is equally scholarly in its content, specially after the first few rambling paragraphs.

Chapter 2 gives a film-by-film description of Rituparno Ghosh’s oeuvre. Many fans of Rituparno may not know that his first film is Hirer Angti, produced by Children’s Film Society of India. Rituparno calls it his still born child because the film, in spite of its charming storyline and attractive treatment, never got released. It happens to be a highly enjoyable children’s film based on Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s story. Although Rituparno says that he should have brought a touch of magic realism to the film, we do not regret this digression from the original literary work.

Chapter 3, dedicated to “The Queer Trilogy”, is likely to attract maximum attention and controversy. But if one reads with an open mind, one will get insights into the psychological and social dimensions of same sex bonding. This chapter also gives a list of Rituparno Ghosh’s favourite films on same sex love — something that is rarely touched by the mainstream media of Bengal.

While Chapter 4 deals with Rituparno’s forays into television and documentaries, Chapter 5 is a treasure trove. It reproduces verbatim, interviews of Rituparno taken by different people on different occasions. The last one is a hitherto ‘unpublished and uninhibited interview’ taken in 2013 by Gautam Bhattacharya. We not only come to know about Rituparno’s dream projects, we also get insights into his androgynous personality.

In conclusion, whether or not one is an admirer of Rituparno’s work, there is much food for thought for every reader of Rituparno Ghosh On/And Film. Remarks that seem trivial on the surface are also bearers of the thought process of this unique individual who never shied away from expressing his deepest beliefs and his true self.   

More Must Reads in Silhouette

Rituparno Ghosh – The ‘Enfant Terrible’ of Contemporary Indian Cinema

Remembering Rituparno Ghosh

My City Can Neither Handle Me Nor Ignore Me: Rituparno Ghosh

Tagore’s Noukadubi And Rituparno’s Inspiration: Interrogating Marriage And Home

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
All Posts of Subha Das Mollick

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