An ex-advertising man who made a quiet cinematic debut with his children’s film Hirer Angti (1992) before grabbing attention with the National Award-winning Unishe April (1994), Rituparno Ghosh has established himself as a filmmaker whose prolific output (15 films in 16 years) is also consistently interesting. While happy to be fêted as heir to a Bengali artistic tradition, Ghosh is also unselfconsciously enthusiastic about all things Bollywood. Which may explain why he’s become that rare thing — a genuine crossover phenomenon. Excerpts:
You’re one of the few Indian filmmakers who write their own screenplays. Were you already a writer before you became a filmmaker?
I was a copywriter with an ad agency, so I used to play with words, yes. But no, I started writing really for my films. And I find it hard to direct someone else’s script, just as I find it hard to write for other people.
Do you have a more free relationship with films that stem from your own ideas — like Titli or Utsab — than those that are adaptations, say Chokher Bali?
Not really. What inspires me in a novel is the core of an idea. I don’t feel the need to be loyal to the narrative, only to the spirit. For example, Chokher Bali. Tagore himself wasn’t happy with the ending, with the widow Binodini leaving for Banaras, devoid of all desire. My film emphasised her independence — her last letter talks of her own desh, which should be read not as country, but as space or domain. Another thing is my use of the colour red for Binodini’s shawl. In 1902, red meant passion. But the 20th century has taught us that red is also the colour of revolution. So, when I use red in 2003, it is revolution through passion. Here I am ahead of Tagore, because he didn’t have the benefit of the last 100 years.
How much is your work shaped by your Bengali roots, and by growing up in Kolkata, with all its cultural traditions?
A lot. I was born of painter parents so I was exposed to art exhibitions from childhood. Now I realise that my visual training began then. I went to an English medium school, but there was a strong vernacular upbringing at home. When I turned six, my father gifted me a Bengali copy of the Mahabharata, and read it aloud to me one chapter at a time. If I didn’t know the meaning of a word, he would say, keep listening, you’ll understand. My father also put me in the habit of consulting a dictionary, and taught me never to mark a book with anything but a pencil. To this day, I read the newspaper with a pencil in hand. From South Point School I went to Jadavpur University, which was a melting pot of ideologies and backgrounds. Calcutta being a Left city, it was almost fashionable to be Left-wing. I studied Marx as my special paper in Economics. I went to film festivals. But it was watching Satyajit Ray’s films that made me decide to become a filmmaker. I had seen some before but, in 1975, Kolkata Doordarshan happened, and the whole of Ray’s repertoire opened up before my eyes. I am grateful to television for that. Also, because of Doordarshan, I grew up watching all kinds of films, Bengali and Hindi. Which is why I’m not judgemental about cinema. I’d watch a Rock On or an Om Shanti Om with as much passion as anything else.
You’ve spoken of Ray. Popular Bengali cinema, too, used to be of a very high quality till the 1960s. What has changed since?
You know, Bengali directors like Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar were placed in the popular cinema bracket because we couldn’t find any other place for them. But they were realist too, only their realism was styled differently from Ray’s or Ghatak’s. Nowadays an actor must feature in a certain kind of film to come up with a credible performance. That wasn’t the case with Bengali cinema. When Soumitra Chatterjee got the National Award for Best Actor this year, I commented that even if you took away all his parallel cinema performances, he could have got the award for his roles in popular cinema alone. The same authors, the same sensibilities were being put on screen: Ajay Kar’s Saptapadi and Ray’s Jalsaghar were both based on stories by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. Only the cinematic treatment differed. I think the day Bengali cinema lost its literary roots, its core connection to the culture snapped. Not that cinema must have a literary backbone: Tagore himself said that only if it moves away from the story will it become true cinema. But, in Bengal, cinema didn’t acquire a new vision — the stories just became inferior.
You’ve shifted from working with only Bengali actors to working often with Bombaybased ones, and twice worked in a language other than Bengali. Was there something inherent in Raincoat and The Last Lear that made you make them in Hindi and English respectively?
The Last Lear could only have been made in English, but Raincoat could easily have been in Bengali. In hindsight, maybe it should have been. But if I stick to using only Bengali actors, I am denied a vast repertoire of talent. And I think it’s easier for me to make a film in Hindi than for Hindi-speaking actors to act in Bengali. Like in Sunglass, Naseeruddin Shah has a significant role in both the Hindi and Bengali versions. In both, he speaks in Hindi — because he just cannot speak Bengali. I think we need to explore the idea of multilingual films. When we talk of crossover films, we talk only of Indian films with an international sensibility. But we can have a huge crossover within the country itself. Think of a film like Roja, where a Tamil girl in Kashmir finds herself unable to communicate and has to resort to sign language — that poignancy got lost in the Hindi dubbing. No one has given a thought to the marketing potential of such crossover films. We make unconventional films and try to fit them into conventional marketing avenues. But if one-fifth of the experimentation that has happened in production went into marketing, I think we’d have a different film industry.
Your work has been seen as centring around complex women characters, with men being either absent or weak or ogres. Would you agree?
In Dahan I now think I glorified the women and was horribly judgemental about the men, which was simplistic. But I am interested in vulnerability. I would say I’m anti-patriarchal. Bonolota, Kirron Kher’s character in Bariwali, is not very different from Harry in The Last Lear, though one is a woman and the other a man. Both are vulnerable to the greed and politics of an organised power system – you could call it the patriarchy of art.
There is a criticism of your films that they’re not ‘cinematic’ enough, or they’re ‘filmed plays’. Would you like to respond?
People have this simplistic idea that if you shoot outdoors it becomes cinema, and if you stay indoors, it’s a play. By that criteria, only Kurosawa is cinema, not Bergman. That ‘chamber dramas’ can be excellent cinema has been proved by Bergman. I’m not saying I’m Bergman, or that Raincoat is great cinema, but I do find it a little undemocratic to not acknowledge my kind of cinema as an equally legitimate form.
You’ve made a children’s film and, more recently, a mystery. Are those genres that you’d like to work in again?
I wanted to make a whole detective series with Ranga Pishima (Rakhee Gulzar’s character in Shubho Mahurat)! It’s very difficult to make a non-judgemental crime story, which is what I tried to do there. Grey characters, no police intervention: the detective knows who’s committed the crime, but does nothing. I deliberately had women as both criminal and detective because they’re inherently more tolerant. In an ordinary detective story, it is the hunter and the hunted — there’s no relationship between them except of wit. But how can you be so unemotional about a person you are practically obsessed with?
Why did you choose to adapt Utpal Dutt’s Aajker Shahjahan into The Last Lear? Is it much changed from the original play?
I saw Aajker Shahjahan as a college student and was very moved. Plus, there was the question of cinema’s relationship with theatre, which interested me. And I wanted to take Utpal-da out of the context of Bengal. He is known to Hindi filmgoers only as a comedy actor, but he has such a tremendous body of work as a playwright. The original play is about the vulnerability of old age as well. There, the relationship between Shahjahan and his daughter Jahanara echoes the relationship between Lear and Cordelia. So, when I thought of making something with universal appeal, I arrived automatically at Shakespeare. That’s how The Last Lear was born.