My first brush with Rituparno Ghosh was quite abrupt and premature. I remember waking up from my siesta one afternoon and finding my mother on the divan in the living room watching a film with extreme devotion. I do not recall my exact age at that point of time, maybe I was bordering on the teens.
I do however remember my mother being engrossed in the film, which made me sit and want to watch the film as well. The moment I sat and started watching the film, Ma became extremely conscious of my presence and after some time she asked me to go and finish my homework, her exact words being, ‘boshe boshe boro’der cinema na dekhe, giye porte bosh!‘ (instead of sitting and watching films for grown ups, go and study!). Any other time I would’ve happily obliged, but there was something in this film which made me sit and keep on watching, maybe it was the very fact that it was ‘boro’der cinema’ (cinema for grown ups) or maybe the murder mystery which the film portrayed was intriguing me all the more!
Has anyone guessed which Rituparno Ghosh film I’m talking about yet? – Subho Mahurat. That was the first Rituparno Ghosh film that I had watched. And the brief time for which I watched that film, made me realise that Bengali films are probably not that bad! Well I liked what I saw at that point of time, and I would like to watch such films in the future! Why don’t all Bengali films be like them—is what I eventually wondered.
At a time when Tollywood—was living a slow death, Rituparno Ghosh was the phoenix whose tears revived the industry and gave it a new light! But why is it so? How did a man with his simplistic storytelling win the hearts of many and how did he command such a devotion from the ‘madhyobitto‘ (middle class) that they were loyal to his films till their last breath?
You know that thin line between the ‘right‘ and the ‘wrong‘ and ‘truth‘ and ‘lie‘? That grey area which we all find so problematic but we cannot ignore? That is the area which Ritu’da focused on.
All those problematic areas, where the relationships entwine into an ugly tangle and we fail to categorise and put everything under water-tight compartments, that is the area which Ritu’da mostly indulged in. It started with the discomforting oppressions that women face at the home and from society. Whether its sexual harassment in Dahan, to emotionally abusive relationships in Utsab, later in Abohoman.
Then there were the forbidden relationships, those which are looked down upon in society. Incestuous affection between first cousins (Utsab) to a widowed woman’s unmet sexual desires (Bariwali), to a romantic rivalry between mother and daughter with regard to the same man (Titli), are the topics which followed.
Ritu’da became the storyteller who weaved stories which were real! Stories which talked about the secret lives of the so-called ‘bhhodro‘ (respectable) bongs, stories which everyone actually wanted to hear. He brought in a completely different wave in Bengali cinema. Alongwith his popularity, criticism and mockery followed suit. His style and mannerisms became the butt of jokes for many upcoming comedians. But he wasn’t afraid of facing criticism and that’s when he actually called these critics and comedians to his shows and openly confronted them. Everyone started to realise, Rituparno Ghosh was not here to cower down on the face of criticism.
And so came the second wave of his work—his venture into Bollywood. To the layman this phase of Rituparno Ghosh’s work was focused on scripts based on Bollywood stars and banking in on their star power. But in reality, it was about experimenting with literature! Transforming iconic texts into beautifully scripted yet somewhat flawed screenplays and projecting them on the silver screen! Tagore (Chokher Bali, Noukadubi) to O Henry (Raincoat) to Shakespeare (The Last Lear), the man did not fear to experiment with the greats. But his success in these ventures was extremely limited.
The last phase of his work was extremely personal. Maybe he was somewhat upset with Indian Cinema and it’s lack of gender fluidity. I guess he believed in Tagore’s ‘Ekla Cholo‘ (start alone) quite strongly and hence started to make films which portrayed homosexual relationships as opposed to heteronormative ones (Memories In March, R Ekti Premer Galpo- Just Another Love Story) by himself. And it was at this point in his filmography when I suddenly started to realise why Ma had said that his films were for grown ups. It’s because his films transformed us into adults.
By portraying the things, whose presence we refuse to acknowledge in society, Ritu’da was unabashed about his opinions and his cinematic vision. Which is why in the later half of his life, his loyal ‘madhyobitto‘ (middle class) fans started to question his work and started to denounce it as his personal agenda against the society.
But was it his personal agenda? His personal transition and self acceptance of being a gender fluid individual did not have anything to do with his cinema. People started to forget that the ‘shock‘ aspect was why people liked to watch his films from the beginning. People loved to reflect upon the grey area between good and bad, then what happened when the black and the white of gender identities completely transitioned into grey?
Why did people start becoming uncomfortable with that? Because generally we like to view things from a distance and like to think that we are accepting and ‘progressive‘, when in reality as soon as the distance is breached and our very own become the ‘exception‘ we become disconcerted, shaken from our positions, unable to accept the truth.
Be it good or bad, Rituparno Ghosh gave a new life to Bengali cinema, for which most recent film makers are hugely grateful to. One of the things that he was famous for was his nurturance of young upcoming film makers. It’s truly marvellous that a man who watched Ray’s films and got inspired by them so much, that he actually became an inspiration to upcoming film makers. I’m sure if Ray was alive, he would praise Ghosh for his excellent storytelling skills, and eye for detail.
That one summer afternoon, actually made me grow up in some way or the other. It made me start being comfortable with the so-called ‘uncomfortable‘ and start normalising it. Us Bongs are too proud to say it out loud, but we do miss you and your story-telling Ritu’da.
Featured Image Credit:The Guardian