Rituparno Ghosh – The ‘Enfant Terrible’ of Contemporary Indian Cinema
In a strange way Rituparno’s positioning in the Bengali cultural space has similarities and parallel with two most revered Bengali film-makers of all times – Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. A tribute on the death anniversary of this path-breaking filmmaker.
May has a very special connotation in the Bengali psyche. It is in this very month when two of Bengal’s brightest stars of the cultural sky were born – Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. It is on a rainy day in the end of the same month two years back when Bengal lost its most versatile film-maker of contemporary times. It was a romantic rainy day in 2013 unlike the sweltering summer this year and I was driving to my office when the news of Rituparno Ghosh’s untimely death hit me quite hard, like many others. Two years later and the initial shock evaporated by now what does Rituparno Ghosh’s cinema mean to me?
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, Rituparno’s films just filled this void to start with. There were the likes of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghosh or Aparna Sen – however, the middle-class educated and intelligent Bengali was slowly turning away from cinema in general.
In parallel there was a rising of another type of Bengali films which was targeted and marketed for the less cerebral section of the audience, primarily in the rural belt though not always. The phenomenon of Prasenjit surfaced from this trend as well as Chiranjit who had a shorter stay with fame though. 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.
Interestingly, Rituparno’s films bagged him a lot of national awards and also to the actors of his films – one probable reason why a host of Bollywood flocked to work in his films – Aishwarya Rai (Chokher Bali, Rain Coat), Rakhee and Sharmila Tagore (Subho Maharat), Ajay Devgan (Raincoat), Abhishek Bachchan, Soha Ali Khan and Jackie Shroff (Antarmahal), Madhavan, Naseeruddin Shah and Jaya Bachhan (Sunglass – unreleased), Bipasa Basu (Sab Charitra Kalponik) and Amitabh Bachchan (The Last Lear).
Rituparno often commented he wanted to make films made in the Bengali language but for an Indian audience – one of the reasons he took stars of the Bombay film industry quite often and at times made films in Hindi (Raincoat) or even English (The Last Lear). This is unique of him since not even Satyajit Ray (apart from occasionally taking Sharmila Tagore and one Hindi film in Shatranj Ke Khilari) ever reached out to the Bombay stars in a conscious bid to make his films more acceptable outside of Bengal. In this effort and with moderate success, Rituparno not only broadened the horizons of Bengali cinema but has given the entire fulcrum of ‘regional’ cinema a whole new dynamics – the debate, problems and the future of which is beyond the scope of discussion for this article.
If we now analyse the filmic career of Ghosh, he started off with films which were largely indoors with loads of dialogues and a complete disregard for silence – something I never liked then, and even now. However he was intelligent in controlling his budget in keeping his cinema mostly static in the initial years – he was probably trying to gain faith of his producers and ensured that he is not being extravagant and in the process missing out being able to make the films at all! And in having a lot of verbal communication in the indoor setting he just sparked off the side of Bengali psyche which quintessentially loves to remain indoors and unexplored.
In his choice of subjects and films Rituparno 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! Side by side it was Rituparno who brought back Rabindra Sangeet in the Bengali film (which disappeared mostly in the ‘80s) which can be considered as a pioneering act and 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 the way he had paced his creative innings. The first ten years till Titli were a phase of Ghosh – mostly dialogue-centric, indoors (though Titli was an exception) and urban. The year 2003 saw him make Chokher Bali – this was not only his first attempt at a Tagore story but more significantly with this film he broke the barrier round him – took Aishwarya Rai, the biggest heroine of Mumbai at that time and just increased the budget manifold. And there was no looking back after that.
In a strange way Rituparno’s positioning in the Bengali cultural space has similarities and parallel with two most revered Bengali film-makers of all times – Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. If Satyajit gave masculinity to the body of Bengali cinema, Rituparno without doubt added feminity to it. This feminity is of the mind – which many female film-makers with a patriarchal bent can never think of bringing forth.
Take the example of Sob Choritro Kalpanik (All Characters are Imaginary). To me this is one of Ritu’s finest films for being cinematic where he could blend visuals with sound effectively – lack of which in general is one big drawback of Ritu’s cinema according to me. In this film a woman finds solace in another woman – Radhika in Nando’s mother and later, more interestingly Radhika in Kajari, Indranil’s literary muse. In some deft montages the director mixes Radhika and Kajari in one soul – Radhika’s transcendence from Indranil’s wife to the perception that she herself can be his muse. The light and shade brings in Kajari and submerges her identity in the cool sublime exteriors of Radhika. And during this immense turmoil of soul exchanges we hear the marriage chanting of East Bengal, now Bangladesh. These are folk songs that reverberate with the resonance of the marriage between Radhika’s and Kajari’s identities… and possibly Nando’s mother’s? Perceived from the director’s point-of-view it can be safely assumed that here the gaze on the muse Kajari is a female gaze – Radhika’s illusive fantasies in search of a girl or, is it the self she has long lost which she finally discovered after her husband’s death. More importantly he talks about sisterhood – something not known in Indian cinema in the popular mainstream space.
The reason why Rituparno is so endeared amongst Bengalis along with Ray is probably also because both of them would take up Rabindranath Tagore’s novels and short stories and transform them into films which will remain important renditions in the history of Indian cinema, the only other to share the same fame is Tapan Sinha. If Charulata by Ray is an all-time great movie of the world, Ghosh’s Chokher Bali will remain a fitting adaptation of one of Tagore’s modernist novels. Like Ray, Ghosh as well was at the helm of the cultural identity that shaped the Bengali intelligentsia – Ghosh would edit popular magazines and host two of the best talk-shows in Bengali media of all times – Ebong Rituparno (And Rituparno) and Ghosh & Co.. There is no doubt that his formidable literary and artistic readings and knowledge along with a sensitive rendition of the acquired information made these shows very popular.
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 open space. He got jeered down for his alternative ways of thinking and living which just proves how patriarchal and ‘typical’ male-oriented the society is. He lamented in an interview in Silhouette – “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 alternate sexual choice and desires. He believed in gender fluidity and in being a ‘parallel’ to the man-woman duality. For him it was not important to be gay or a lesbian or a transgendered – it is important probably to be something in-between but over-encompassing. He probably had experienced this plurality in him which resulted in his decoration of himself and also his choice of films. He took to acting probably to spread his cause, his self, more than anything else.
In this regard he is closer to Ritwik Ghatak in the fact that Ritwik with his life-style and propaganda was equally stomped down by the Bengali middle-class ‘bhadralok’ albeit in a different context altogether. If Rituparno’s sexuality and his ‘living one’s life’ the way he wanted was something that the mass couldn’t digest, it was Ritwik’s alcoholism and his big-mouth which rarely suited the educated. In both cases the person was more the point in discussion and not the oeuvre he left behind – utterly unfortunate and a bitter reality. Interestingly enough for both their last films have elements of autobiography and would remain hallmarks in their own career and in understanding them within their creative space. With Jukti Takko Aar Goppo Ritwik opened up a new window of personal cinema where the creator gets juxtaposed with his creation and his visions – extremely political and rooted within critical cinematic flaws and shortcomings. Nonetheless, this last film is one which has a didactical influence in understanding Ritwik’s nuances and his dichotomies.
Ironically, in similar veins, Chitrangada’s Rudra will be one rubric for analyzing the critical dilemma of the artist in Ghosh and the physical turmoil he had to undergo. There were two prevalent themes in many of Rituparno’s films based on his own script/story – the relation with the parents and the embracement of death. Time and again from his first film Unishe April, through Asookh and finally in Chitrangada it is the relation between generations which he deftly touches upon and gives importance equal to the one between genders. In parallel, in all of these films it is the shadow of death in different forms – suicide, death of near ones and of relations – not the physical death alone but more importantly ‘biraha’ which transcended the physical, mortal separation.
This feeling of loss of the self for the other is grounded in Rituparno’s experience of Tagore – something which he could use to tap the Bengali mind with élan. Both Ghatak and Ghosh experimented with their body but in different ways – and used their ‘body’ as the canvas of their denial of the system and their own revolt against the society. Tragically for both it was their very body which did a renegade and both died soon after making the films in discussion above – Ritwik at the age of 51 and Ritu at 49!
In the final analyses there are a few in Rituparno Ghosh’s cinema oeuvre which expanded the medium of cinema and championed the creator’s vision and beliefs. The others died with a damp whimper. Rituparno Ghosh probably will remain an ‘enfant terrible’ of contemporary Indian cinema – less for his creations but more for his ‘self’.
 My City Can Neither Handle Me Nor Ignore Me: Rituparno Ghosh – Interview of Rituparno Ghosh
(This article has borrowed handsomely from my two previous tributes to Rituparno Ghosh in Dearcinema and DeepFocus after his demise in 2013)
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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