Sitting in my drawing room, watching a steady stream of visitors walk in and out of Rituparno Ghosh’s south Kolkata residence on my television set, it is hard not to wonder about the tangible ordinariness of death that Ghosh so effortlessly conveyed in his films. It’s like an out-of-body experience, the way his camera guides us through the drawing room in the death sequence of a filmmaker in Abohomaan (2010). Tea served to guests, the awkward pleasantries exchanged between mourners, the strained conversations and the heaps of wreaths – add up to create an atmosphere of a sadness that is almost philosophical.
In 1994, when he made a quiet, but confident entrance into the middle-class Bengali milieu with Unishe April, he talked about the aftermath of death. Focusing on the strained relationship of a mother and daughter, it brought to fore the pettiness, bitterness and bile that death brings. His understanding of his characters, their inability to articulate their emotions came from a deep understanding of the human nature. I knew why Aditi (the character played by Debashree Roy in the film) needed to thank her mother for every little thing. It is because like me, she needed to treat all interactions with her mother as transactions. That’s the passive-aggressive way to deal with unspoken grudge. In his next film, Dahan when he questions the middle-class Bengali obsession with status quo, he does so in a manner that was to be later defined as “Ritu touch”. Using a well-known incident where a middle-class Bengali woman was molested in public by a group of men, he narrates a tale of survival. Romita (the molestation victim) may seem to be a passive sufferer but she is constantly questioning presence in the film.
By the time Bariwali was released in 2000, Ghosh found his niche in Bengali cinema. In an industry plagued with potboilers by Swapan Saha and Anjan Chaudhuri, Ghosh was a bridge. In a city slowly waking up to capitalism, malls and multiplexes, his films attracted a primarily middle-class audience that streamed to standalone theatres like Minar, Bijoli and Chabighar to see characters go through emotions that were pertinent to them. Dining room conversations that were trademark of Ghosh’s films, subtly brought forward inter-character dynamics. The quintessentially Bengali aesthetics of his films seemed so true to their times that they became almost aspirational for the audience. We wanted to have conversations such as these; we wanted that ceramic bowl on our dining tables. The release of a Rituparno Ghosh film was indeed an occasion to look forward to. But Bariwali was a work of considerable evolution. Soaked in a sense of immense melancholia, it talked about a middle-aged woman’s engagement with loneliness. It was poignant, wry and in a strangely beautiful way, humorous.
As a fan, I often wondered if there is a bit of Rituparno in Bonolota (the central character of Bariwali played by Kirron Kher), whether he too is a victim of fate and personal demons? In his subsequent films, interviews and newspaper columns, he bravely answered these questions. In the ideal world, his sexual orientation would have been immaterial, but we do not live in an ideal world. Rituparno Ghosh knew it, which is why his personal and professional decisions are so important. Whether hauling up the local media for questioning his sexual orientation, or standing up for LGBT rights, he seemed to have made a conscious decision to not compromise on his ideals and beliefs and avoid ruffling feathers. When he starred as a gay filmmaker grappling with a LGBT-themed subject in Kaushik Ganguly’s Aarekti Premer Golpo, it was easy to assume that the reel-life character was a representation of Ghosh himself. It goes without saying that Rituparno Ghosh was making some deeply personal decisions at that point of time. In his last film, Chitrangada, he muses on the concept of sexuality and gender in a way that seems extremely self-reflexive. He was working on the adaptation of Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi with director Sujoy Ghosh playing the eponymous character. The fate of the film may be still undecided, but Bengal will eagerly await its last date with Rituparno Ghosh.