At a time when Bengali cinema was gasping for breath, having been pulled down over nearly two decades to the very depths of mediocrity, Rituparno Ghosh appeared on the scene as no less than a saviour.
There are more than a few things on which the bangali bhadralok (Bengali gentry) prides itself. Their association to Rabindranath Tagore, maach and rasogolla, the bangali adda (tete-a-tete) and antlamo (intellectualism), being just a few that have almost attained a stereotypical cult status.
But there is one other thing that Bengalis take very seriously – cinema. The films of Satyajit Ray are any day a deal-breaker when it comes to assessing the cultural acceptability of a possible life partner. Bengal prides itself on being the birthplace of Ray, along with the other two stalwarts of Bengali cinema – Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Add to that one other name – Rituparno Ghosh.
When Ghosh broke into the film scene, Bengali cinema was all but dead. Gone were the days of the evergreen Uttam-Suchitra, the plots were cheap remakes of Southern films, the music was abysmal, and the educated Bengali had withdrawn itself completely from the Bengali movie theatres. This is when Ghosh launched his career with films like Heerer Angti and Unishe April. The bangali bhadralok was enthralled. They flooded back to the theatres. Bengali cinema had found a new lifeline.
Ghosh chose as his subject the bhadralok himself. His stories were strictly, of, by and for the bhadralok bangali.
He shared with Ray the innate ability to look into a woman’s heart. Like Ray, Ghosh created his own repertoire of female characters. In fact, the majority of his films revolved around strong female leads, each with her own needs, desires, life choices, and sexuality.
Some of his memorable narratives include: the battle of egos between a mother-daughter duo in Unishe April, the skilfully portrayed sexual frustration of the middle-aged spinster in Bariwali, the strained ties of a traditional Bengali joint family that is bound together by duty in Utsab, the inner turmoil of a woman who finds out about her husband’s infidelity in Dosar, and of course, the scathing social commentary in Dahan.
Despite being ridiculed for his physical appearance and mannerisms, Ghosh championed the cause of the third gender in India like no other. He was undaunted by the endless media attention. In fact, he was emboldened by it.
From the beginning, Ghosh was frank about his sexuality. He never saw any reason to remain closeted, unlike some contemporary commercial filmmakers in India, who claim to feel insecure and choose to keep quiet.
Ghosh’s gender fluid characters came as a breath of fresh air in a country where gender identity remains a misguided, hypocritical and phallocentric concept.
Towards the latter part of his short yet prolific career, Rituparno took center-stage as an actor. He starred in Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story) and Memories in March; In Chitrangada, which he directed, Rituparno rediscovered himself as an actor of sheer power and sensitivity. All three films saw the actor-director bring queer characters to life before an otherwise prudish Indian audience. His characters shed light on the loneliness and fragility of same-sex relationships, and third space angst. Chitrangada received some flak for being too preachy. Yet, underlining the film was its autobiographical disposition, which in itself required substantial backbone.
There was one other side to this versatile man, and that was Rituparno, the author. For those who don’t know, Ghosh was a remarkable non-fiction writer, which is illustrated in the posthumously published two-volume compilation of his editorials in a reputed Bengali weekly.
Rituparno Ghosh used his cinematic licence to explore the social and cultural realities of middle class existence, inspiring an entire generation of filmmakers and filmgoers to make honest cinema and remain unwavering in life and art. Today, with a heavy heart, we remember this brave son of Bengal, years after his untimely demise.
(Surangama Guha Roy is a writer, editor, and a self-proclaimed troublemaker. She is a film enthusiast, an avid reader, and a published author who began her career as a full time lecturer of Sociology.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Rituparno Ghosh’s birth anniversary.)