The monotony of an ordinary weekday morning is shattered by a tweet. “Shocked and still hoping that it’s not true. Filmmaker and friend Rituparno Ghosh is no more,” writes Onir. My heart sinks. A maverick storyteller nipped in the prime of life, his demise reported on as stolid a vehicle as Twitter. Ghosh would have composed an elegy or employed a Tagore verse, rendered by one of his heroines as she languorously paces the corridors of an old house with checkered tiles, four-poster beds, impressionist paintings and ornate lamps.
The loss is personal. Because his cinema was personal. Behind the edifice of narrative and visual opulence lay a need for self-expression of the most direct, uninhibited variety, whether by questioning patriarchal hegemony in middle-class Bengali society or by exploring facets of human sexuality and challenging boundaries of normative behaviour. “My city, I know, can neither handle me, nor ignore me,” he said in an interview, referring to recent cinematic ventures as actor and director and his regular public appearances in feminine garb. “The respect I used to command has been seriously affected by my decision to proclaim my sexuality,” he added, pain palpable in his words.
But Ghosh had long established his emotional credence and was merely being true to himself. His characters were always transparent, his communication direct. So much so that a daughter could scream at her mother and accuse her of being selfish in Unishe April (1994), a superb chamber piece in Bergman’s tradition (Ghosh denied it was inspired by Autumn Sonata) and harbinger of his distinctive style.
Born to a family of artists — his mother was a painter, his father a documentary filmmaker and his younger brother Indranil is an art director — Ghosh worked in advertising before making his debut film Hirer Angti in 1992, the year his ‘mentor’ Satyajit Ray died and the Bengali industry was at its nadir. He is single-handedly credited for its revival and struck a chord with the very people whose hypocrisy he derided, particularly in his most overtly feminist film (he called himself a ‘womanist’) Dahan (1997). Dahan was the rare film that touched upon marital rape while examining the dilemmas women face in a society governed by pusillanimous men.
His knack for scene-building and character development — he never hesitated to hold his shots and allowed his protagonists to engage in long, verbose exchanges — was best evinced in Utsab (2000), a richly textured drama about a family reuniting in their ancestral home for Durga Puja celebrations. The constantly shifting moods between the warring couple played by Prosenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta resonate in another marital face-off between Chatterjee and Konkona Sen Sharma in Dosar (2006).
Like Ray, he often dipped into literature, adapting Tagore novels — Chokher Bali (2003), Noukadubi (2010) and Chitrangada (2012) — and several stories, always making them his own, including Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side as Shubho Mahurat (2003), an elaborately designed murder mystery set against the backdrop of the film industry, but also a magnificent study of a deeply unhappy woman (Sharmila Tagore). Or O Henry’s The Gift Of The Magi in Raincoat (2004), which marked the beginning of his affair with Bollywood. Always deft at steering his actors, he got Aishwarya Rai to deliver one of her better performances.
Perhaps Ghosh got carried away in his eagerness to cast popular artistes or was working too fast — he directed 20 films in as many years — resulting in an uneven patch in the middle of his career. His films were always viable at the box-office even as they travelled to international festivals and garnered several National Awards. His unconventional lifestyle and willingness to engage with the public at various levels — he edited a newspaper, hosted television shows and wrote a weekly column — cemented his credentials as a cultural icon.
Though Arekti Premer Golpo (2011), Memories In March (2010) — both of which he wrote and acted in, but were directed by others — and Chitrangada (2012) were marred by a touch of self-indulgence (not unlike the over-wrought exposition of some earlier works), they opened the door slightly wider for mainstream discourse on gender identities.
His was a unique voice, looking at life and death unflinchingly in the eye, never baulking at expressing desire or debunking regressive values. His was a direct dialogue with the audience, fittingly accomplished through drawing room melodramas. In Memories In March, he wrote, “If I have to go away, can I leave a bit of me with you?”
And he did.
Deosthalee is a Mumbai-based film critic