Rituparno Ghosh: The Artist, The Maverick…

It is indeed difficult to bring yourself to write a eulogy – especially for a man whom you have not only admired but also emulated. More than anything, it takes time for the information to be a part of your system that someone whom you idealized has passed away, untimely and undeservingly. As I sit down here today write this panegyric, a fanboy in me weeps solemnly at the demise of his master – who held a beacon for many others to pave the way beyond the drudgeries of commerce, into the pristine realms of art.

rituparno-ghoshI was introduced to Rituparno Ghosh when I was barely 8 or 9 years old – when I saw “Unishe April”. The filmmaking bug had not bit me yet, I was not mature for it then, but I distinctly remember savouring the mother-daughter conflict drama and being absolutely mesmerised by the performances. My father walked off in the middle of the movie, calling it “intellectually slow”, but I was hooked on to the conversations between Sarojini (Aparna Sen) and Aditi (Debasree Roy), and the see-saw between their love and hatred, hope and despair, friction and reconciliation. The film ends with Aditi picking up the telephone receiver and saying a stern “Hello” to her boyfriend (played by Prosenjit – in his one among many roles in Ghosh’s films). Frankly, I found the end very abrupt then and I remember asking my mother “Why did it end like that?” She had pursed her lips and expressed absolute lack of cognizance of the implication of the “Hello”. Years later, when I saw the film again, the culmination revealed itself with an astonishing significance – the stern “Hello” comes after an entire day through which Aditi continually cries over the phone, begging her boyfriend to marry her. However, the latter denies it on the grounds that his family objects to Aditi’s mother being a dancer. All this while, till the end, the tears that rolled down Aditi’s eyes were as much as of heartbreak as they were of her ire at her mother’s ignorance of the date the story is set in – 19th April – the death anniversary of Aditi’s father. However, by the end of the film, Aditi and Sarojini reconcile their differences and Aditi’s sternness is only a result of Sarojini’s support. The understanding came with a renewed deference for the man whom I had started revering for his films.


Rituparno Ghosh has time and again been called as the best Bengali filmmaker since Satyajit Ray. It must have been a real treasure for someone who was a self-confessed fan of Ray and his works, alluding to the maestro’s works in so many occasions. Indeed, Rituparno made his foray into the industry at a time when we had either the bizarre, absolutely tasteless commercial films targeted for rural audience or the equally bizarre, artistic abstract pieces targeted only for festival audience. Rituparno was the first director who sought to bridge the divide by making films that reached beyond the niche festival segment, yet maintaining his artistic dexterity. Yes, like all greats, Rituparno did make a few poor films – movies that would receive peripheral mention in his rich filmography – yet, the term ‘poor’ could only accorded to those films when compared to his other works; scaled against the populist cinema that we have, even “Khela” or “Sob Choritro Kalponik” would seem masterpieces. When a man leaves behind a body of work for posterity to cherish, it is even insolent to make a commentary on his films or his style or his uniqueness. Yet, a post on Rituparno could not possibly be complete by talking about his biggest contributions to the world of cinema, especially Bengali cinema.

The Women
Should you ask “Have women never looked more beautiful than in his films?”, I shall say, “Maybe they have, but never have they been endowed with so much strength in other movies”. Rituparno Ghosh celebrated his female characters – no, his heroine didn’t wear chiffon and definitely didn’t walk on the Alps with unbridled hair. In Ghosh’s films, the heroine wore simple cotton saris and decked herself up with only as much as makeup as required. Yet, she exuded such power that often the men felt sidelined. While his initial flicks had women in pivotal roles, his later films gradually had the men coming towards the centre stage. Yet, and possibly with the only exception of “The Last Lear”, the women never lost the arclights. Whether it was “Shubho Mahurat” where the aged Ranga Pishima (Rakhee Gulzar) does a Miss Marple in solving a high-profile murder case, “Chokher Bali” where the widowed Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) doesn’t get sexually intimidated by either Mahendra or Behari, “Dosar” where Kaberi (Konkona Sen Sharma) takes care of her promiscuous husband while making the latter feel inferior in the relation, or “Abohoman” where the struggling starlet Shikha (Ananya Chatterjee) unapologetically lies in front of the famous director for whom she is auditioning, Ghosh’s women have proudly basked under the glory of his craftsmanship and sensitivity.
Yes, his women have followed societal conventions, have been vulnerable, have suffered from anguish of self-inflicted humiliation, yet they had decided what they chose to do – no decision was ever thrust upon them. Just the way “Bariwali” had the pan-chewing arthritis afflicted Banalata (Kirron Kher) preparing overnight for a small role in a film and then realising the futility of it, or “Dahan” had Romi (Rituparna Sengupta) who buckles under the pressure of her in-laws and declines to recognise her molesters, or “Antarmahal” has the elder zamindarni (Rupa Ganguly) finds herself losing favour after the arrival of her young counterpart, or “Sob Choritro Kalponik” had Radhika (Bipasha Basu) gradually coming to terms with the fact that she had unnecessarily derided her husband, the realisation setting in only after the latter’s untimely demise. But, then haven’t women in our society been a victim of norms and rituals – Ghosh’s women at least decided whether they wanted to be victimized or not.

The Writing

Let me say that I feel Rituparno Ghosh has been the best film-writer of his times. I have heard that Rituparno Ghosh had completed writing certain scripts in 3-4 days. No wonder a man of his artistic sensibilities has such a prolific bank of work. However, what surprises me is how the man could inculcate such deep sensibilities in his writing, even at that speed. Yes, his characters did sound poetic at times but you could always ignore that, because the emotion they resonated through those lines touched the core of our hearts. Yet, when I say poetic, I don’t mean ‘abstract’ – his actors never spoke in a realm that we couldn’t understand – they were within the confines of normal human interaction yet maintained the distinctive “Ritu-da” stamp. Here are a few samples:
Raincoat (Hindi, 2004)

Neerja and Manoj are estranged lovers who meet after a long time, when Neerja is married and Manoj is trying to start his enterprise. Manoj asks Neerja about her marital life. She bends forward, removes the locks from her face and says, “koi daag nahi, kharoch nahi, acid se bhi nahi jalaaya, mera pati mujhe sach mein bohut pyar karta hai Mannu.”
The film later reveals that Neerja’s husband barely stayed at home and the married couple had scarcely any interaction. However, what carries the beauty of the line is the irony of marriage that it carries – the absence of any physical injury signifies a happy marriage – isn’t that a way a lot of us judge the sanctity of the relationship? I have heard so many people complaining about “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna” that Rani was a bitch cheating on her husband who looks good and doesn’t hit her. Not just about KANK, whenever I have heard similar analogies, this line from Raincoat reverberates in my ears.

There are many such lines from Rituparno’s films which remain with you even after his films are over. In my post on Abohomaan, I had mentioned quite a few precious dialogues from the movie. One of my favourite monologues in his films happens as a voice-over by Romi (Rituparna Sengupta) in Dahan, along with the closing montages of the film. An excerpt from the voice-over is given below:

“9 Golf Club, once it used to be my home. There is a Kadam tree in front of my house. It is visible from the balcony. One day during the monsoon, I saw a dog sitting underneath the tree. Had it wanted, it could have easily crossed the street and found a better shelter under the balcony of the adjacent building. But it didn’t get onto the street, in the fear of getting drenched. We are all so afraid, aren’t we?… Why did I do so much for my in-laws (the sacrifice she made)… Is it really love, concern or the 14’by12’ feet security this house gives me… I am not sure whether my marriage will sustain or perish. Perhaps, beyond a point, it doesn’t matter. After all, we are all so alone – you, I, Palash (her husband), maybe even the guys in metro station (who molested her)… So, I thought why disturb the status quo. Let the relationships around us be the same, just not depend on them. Till now, I have only feared the thought of walking alone. But then I thought, why should I deny myself the joy of it. I am coming Didi, alone. Yours Romi.”

But what remains special about Rituparno’s writing is that he treated every character with such affection, that even a cameo or a small character never felt ignored. Be it the servants, the neighbours, the distant relatives or the mistress, they were all dealt at par – without the director’s judgment smearing the characters in the paint of bias. As Chandreyee (the mistress to Prosenjit) in Dosar says, “I know we would not be able to go on a holiday. At least, let’s make the plan properly,” she makes you sympathise for her, despite the fact that the film made you root for the wife (Konkona) at every point. How often have we seen the writer dealing with his characters with such objectivity – not frequently I would say. However, when the words were not required, the director spoke everything through minute aspects. The scene in “The Last Lear” where Harish (Amitabh Bachchan) teaches Shabnam (Preity Zinta) and how it becomes a catharsis for Shabnam – an actress dealing with her personal anguish, is one scene that leaves me in goosebumps. It doesn’t need a genius to say that Bachchan outscores the younger Zinta, but the scene still stays in my memory.

The Performances

A brilliant filmmaker always elicits the finest performance from his / her actors. Rituparno Ghosh was no exception to the same – maybe, at the pinnacle of it. Ghosh did work with a lot of popular actors, besides popular actors from Bengali films like Prosenjit, Rituparna, Sharmila Tagore, Mithun, Soumitra Chatterjee, he cast a lot popular imported faces like Aishwarya Rai, Bipasha Basu, Soha Ali Khan, Jackie Shroff, Abhishek Bachchan, Preity Zinta and above all Amitabh Bachchan. At the same time, he worked with uncanny choices like Kirron Kher, Ananya Chatterjee and definitely surprised us by extracting superlative acts from the Sen sisters – Raima in her debut, Riya in her first Bengali film. Some of the best / most surprising acts (among many) in Ghosh’s films to me are: (in no order)

1) Aishwarya Rai – Chokher Bali – even Sanjay Leela Bhansali accepted on Koffee with Karan that the only performance of Aishwarya he savoured (besides his own films) was Chokher Bali. The woman who seduces a man out of his marriage, but in love with the man’s best friend, and is herself the best friend of the man’s wife – Binodini was indeed “chokher bali” – the eyesore. But even in the white widow saris, beads as accessories and a Charulata-esque pair of binoculars in her hands – Aishwarya Rai stormed the screen with elan. 2) Riya Sen – Noukadubi / Kashmakash – I could never envision that Ria Sen could act. And what an act it was. Ria just stole the show from others who were stalwarts as compared to her. As the docile village girl who realises that the man whom she considers her spouse is not married to her, Ria is stupendous. She is naive, not exceptionally pretty, not the most articulate character either – yet Ria just steals your heart – and you can’t but thank Rituparno for that magic.
3) Kirron Kher – Bariwali – we knew Kirron as the loud, almost intimidating woman who couldn’t be thought as anything but a Punjabi / Pakistani woman – but Rituparno Ghosh shred all the North-Indian physicality and brought in the quintessential old Bengali woman in her – the one who has a brass vessel to keep the ingredients for her pan, who wears the atpoure sari and keeps the keys locked at the end of her aanchal, who has arthritis and takes some time to walk after she gets up from bed. And Kirron Kher did deservingly win her National Award for Bariwali.
4) Rituparna Sengupta – Dahan – people loved Indrani Halder’s performance more in the film but I somehow feel Rituparna’s “Romi” is a much tougher role to portray. She is a woman who was once independent and free-spirited, hailing from an affluent family. But one stray incident devastates her and those whom he considered her own, force her further into the cocoon. Romi refuses to acknowledge her molesters in the court but eventually breaks free from the shackles of the marriage. As the strong woman oppressed by societal conventions – Rituparna is brilliant.
5) Prosenjit Chatterjee – Dosar – the film is definitely the superstar’s finest performance till date. Frankly, I don’t see him surpassing that either. For a man of his personality, it needs a director of Rituparno’s calibre to take away every ounce of heroism and give an image subdued, vulnerable – the weaker member in the marriage. The film is actually centred around Konkona, but Prosenjit’s Kaushik is definitely the show stealer. He knows he has wronged his wife, he feels embarrassed when his wife mocks his attempt to sleep next to her but still wants her and not the nurse to dress and address his wounds. Forget “Autograph” or “22e Srabon” – this is Bumba’s best by far.
6) Ananya Chatterjee – Abohomaan – now, Ananya was primarily a TV actress and she was suddenly exalted to the lead role in a Rituparno Ghosh film, to reprise a role which was supposed to be enacted by Madhuri Dixit in the Hindi version. However, Ananya when cast among veterans like Dipankar De, Mamata Shankar and mainstream actor Jisshu Sengupta, not only held her own but also outshone everyone. As the middle-class girl who becomes a superstar, rumoured to having an affair with the maverick filmmaker who gave her a chance, but dejected in her own world – aware that she would neither receive love from the director nor be able to love anyone else – Ananya brings a stunning vulnerability in Shikha, who could never be Srimati.

The Queer Films

Rituparno Ghosh never shied away from discussing sexuality in his films. Whether it was the marital rape in Dahan, the sexually liberated Bindoni in Chokher Bali or the crude love-making scenes in Antarmahal, Ghosh received both praises and brickbats for his undeterred portrayal of the same. However, his landmark contribution remains the portrayal of same-sex relationships – without caring for the guile of sophistry. One might say that he could afford to have that courage because he was a homosexual man himself, that too not within the closet. Maybe, but does that mar his contribution? I doubt. Ghosh started off by being the lead actor and creative director of Kaushik Ganguly’s death “Ar ekti premer golpo” (Just another love story) where he dealt about the tribulations of a gay filmmaker in love with his married and bisexual cinematographer. He went ahead and contributed to Sanjoy Nag’s “Memories in March” – which, according to me, is one of the finest queer films ever made. Though Ghosh did not wear the directorial hat in either of the films, you could see his distinctive style peeping through the reels, and realise that somewhere Kaushik Ganguly or Sanjoy Nag (also Ghosh’s associate director in many films) remained as titular heads or overwhelmed by the maestro’s presence.
Sometime later, Ghosh acted and directed in “Chitrangada” – his rendition of Tagore’s famous dance-drama. The film may not be the most accomplished work of Ghosh, but definitely had a brilliant thought going behind it – despite a laggard second half, it deserves a watch just for the interpretation of the original play. Yes, I do have my share of reservations against these films – not for the subject but the fact that by portraying himself as gay and the heroes as bisexual, Ghosh somewhere reinforced the thought that purely homosexual men are feminine. Yet, you cannot but appreciate the fact that Rituparno pushed the envelope and did so with élan.

His swansong “Satyanweshi” will possibly release this year. According to sources, Ghosh had completed the shoot before his demise. Hence, it would be left for his team to complete the editing for it. As I draw the curtain to this post, I am short of words to express a proper conclusion for him, his films or his contribution to art. Actually, there is so much more to say, that the space and time are both grossly inadequate. I can only express my regards by saying that he will always be a teacher to me – a trailblazer who will guide me whenever I lose my words or my path in the trivialities of commerce, elicit the sensitivity and guide with the perfect emotions. With him as my guru, I am sure never to lose either my art or my faith in it. My team and I at IIFT had presented a stage version of Rituparno’s “Dahan” on the stage of MICA, and we received a lot of adulation for the rendition. Someday down the line, I would definitely want to make a film on the man that was, the artist that was, the maverick that was…

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6 thoughts on “Rituparno Ghosh: The Artist, The Maverick…

  1. A very worthy tribute befitting a fine director. Its a big loss to Indian cinema in general and Bengali cinema in particular.
    May his soul RIP.

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