Raised in Kolkata, Rituparno Ghosh, 46, started out as an adman before transitioning to films. His second film Unishe April won the 1995 National Film Award for best film. Since then, he’s been a fixture on the international festival circuit with 15 more Bengali, Hindi and multilingual features, often using Bollywood stars like Bipasha Basu and Amitabh Bachchan. Now for the first time, Ghosh has acted in a film — in a double role. Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Galpo (Just Another Love Story) has Ghosh playing a gay film director who has a stormy affair with his bisexual, married cinematographer. The plot involves Ghosh’s film crew making a biopic of Chapal Bhaduri, a veteran transgender jatra actor who played women’s roles. The film also presents flashbacks with the whole cast doubling up in an earlier era of Bhaduri’s youth, with Ghosh playing the young Bhaduri. As production designer and creative director, Ghosh also controlled most of the film’s visual aesthetic and editing. He has also just wrapped up playing the role of an adman in a second film called Parapar.
Just Another Love Story was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. Ghosh lost 14 kg for the movie and has made several stunning public appearances of late in turbans, chokers, salwar kameezes, lipstick and kohled eyes. In an in-depth conversation with TEHELKA, he breaks his silence for the first time to the Indian media about the film, his acting and his increasingly feminine appearance.
We met in Ghosh’s south Kolkata home. The drawing room had the dusty patina of living with books, old furniture, sculptures and a mild carpet. Among the Amitav Ghosh, Adonis, Gorky and Aeschylus on the shelves were also two copies of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. Despite the deep black circles under his eyes, Ghosh seemed more relaxed than his antsy self on the phone. He swung between joviality and tetchiness as the conversation progressed. Excerpts:
Did your acting debut terrify you?
Yes. I never knew how I’d react to a camera. I thought I’d technically be a horrible actor, since all my close acting friends said: “He’s capable of very subtle and fine acting — but everything will happen outside the camera!” I didn’t know if I’d panic once the camera started rolling since I knew the [film] stock is also going. Seventeen years of directing have taught me the frugality of filmmaking, which isn’t supposed to bother an actor. As an actor there’s also a director inside me, however much I want to bury him.
What made Kaushik Ganguly invite you to act?
Maybe because there were these two characters who perform two different femininities. He thought I’d do it more truthfully and not make it a caricature. But he was scared if I’d be able to play the old-world character [of Chapal Bhaduri’s youth] — shed off my urban qualities and get into the skin of a touring village artist. Eventually he was more impressed by that performance.
Did you find Ganguly’s direction much different from yours?
Frankly, I didn’t concentrate on it very much. I didn’t have the time or the energy. I told Kaushik not to rehearse me — just take me to the location and I’ll react to the ambience, the space and my co-actors — that’s what I understand as acting. So for me there’s no template, it was very fluid. The other thing was adjusting to an unknown unit which I hadn’t cast — they weren’t my decision. Also, I wanted to transfer my discomfort with the wig into a feeling of not belonging to this place — it was August and humid. I found what’s very irritating about acting are the [makeup] touch-ups — in the middle of the shots, they’d come into my space and touch my face because the makeup was melting away. I realised I’d have to deal with these intrusions and yet be a part of the character.
You didn’t do any formal preparation?
No, I realised that acting is a combination of the right amount of tension and relaxation. If you get too relaxed you’ll be casual, if you get too tense you won’t be able to perform. I found the tension of my body. After finishing a scene holding a bottle, I didn’t want to lose that tension so I’d sit still [between shots]. I didn’t take lunch breaks. I requested Kaushik not to break too much but if he had to, I’d sit in my position because for me to come back was difficult.
Your films often have intersecting narratives. Do you feel like you’re living inside a film? Do you perform in real life?
I think I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have acted. As Tarkovsky says, “Acting isn’t in great talent, it’s in the desire to perform.” I have the desire. I don’t hide behind it. I become a diva when I act (laughs), it gives me a chance to play a diva — which I can’t afford to do while directing.
Both your characters seem impeccably dressed. As production designer did you obsess about the movie’s look?
No, the characters demanded it. I knew I was playing an old jatra actor who performs female roles. The only thing is — I never practiced wearing a saree, which I regretted. When I finally wore it, I didn’t know the relationship between a heavy Benarasi saree and the ornaments — how and where to place your hand, with also the threads coming out and a huge wig tied into a bun with flowers. The only scenes I hated doing was with the sarees. I became 30 kg heavier and my natural confidence as an actor was gone.
Did the two femininities in both your roles attract you?
No, it was a challenge. Chapal da speaks in a feminine voice because he’s trained that way [imitates a falsetto]. It’s a peculiar voice. It’s very difficult to portray your emotions in an unnatural voice.
Did you model Chapal da on any of the actresses you’ve worked with?
No, because an actress, and a man playing an actress, have two kinds of sexual confirmations by society. If I’d modelled myself on an actress it would’ve been a normative sexual confidence, which I didn’t want to portray. The man I’m playing is reticent and old and not the diva that he used to be. We had a sequence where he walked in and smiled, and the way he sat with an extra femininity was important. He is not [just] a woman, he’s an extra woman — to prove his performance. I met him on the sets but I didn’t want to become too familiar because I didn’t want to mimic him.
So how was your modern character’s femininity different?
I play him with an extra femininity because he’s more than 10 years younger to me. At that age you want to prove you’re a gay activist. There’s a flamboyance to justify my [character’s] existence and validate my relationship with my boyfriend. Professionally, I’m the senior [but in] the couple he’s the man and I’m the woman, so I have to play myself down.
In the distance between Section 377 and the death of the AMU professor SR Siras, what is our society’s confusion?
Section 377 has created a polarity between homosexuals and heterosexuals. It doesn’t deal with the entire matrix of sexualities in between these two polars — that’s where androgyny lies. I think that has remained pretty grey, nobody is looking into that. This film deals with various sexualities which can’t be classified into two distinct social classifications. I think homosexuality is becoming a stereotype now.
Are you eager to act again?
Maybe, if it’s interesting, but not after the second [film]. I shouldn’t have done two films in a row. Direction is easier.
Is compassion important to get good performances from actors?
Yes, actors need to be pampered [since] they’re insecure. Even Amitabh Bachchan complained that after a shot, I never say: “Wonderful, very good.” I say, “Cut. Next shot.” There isn’t a single kind word from me and he used to wait for it. As an actor now, I know how important it is for the director to tell you if it’s a good shot.
Why are your movies preoccupied with exploitative film directors?
I’ve seen a certain ruthlessness in filmmakers, including myself — the creator’s selfishness. Ruthless towards anything that hinders the film and so his personal gain — I want to make this film because I want to make great art and become famous. Human compassion isn’t allowed.
Why do you want fame?
To be in circulation. Then I’ll have producers coming to me. I don’t think I’m a great filmmaker. But I want to keep the myth of a great filmmaker alive through the fame. I don’t think my films are great films — they’re just competent films.
Have your recent public appearances in feminine attire been due to this film or out of a personal choice?
My appearance is more androgynous than feminine. My public appearance has nothing to do with my films — Kaushik can’t be blamed for what I do in my personal life! [Laughs.] Nobody should be held responsible for that.