'To each epoch its poet' – Jean-Paul Sartre
With the death of Uttam Kumar in 1980, the Bengali film industry entered its darkest phase. Ritwik Ghatak was no more and Suchitra Sen had embraced self-imposed seclusion. Though Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha would continue to make some important films in the decade, and Soumitra Chatterjee was still active as an actor, the high noon of Bengali cinema was well past. By the time Ray passed away in 1992, the industry was literally in the doldrums. New film-makers like Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghose and Buddhadev Dasgupta gamely tried to carry the baton of 'good' cinema, but with limited success. As Tollygunge was reduced to churning out abysmally poor copies of Hindi and south Indian films – with neither their financial and technical resources nor their chutzpah – viewers opted for the television, which played on the audience's nostalgia for the golden era by showing classics of the 1950s and '60s.
It was at this juncture that Rituparno Ghosh came into the limelight with Unishe April in 1994. Over the next twenty years, and twenty feature films, he not only breathed new life into the industry, but also went on to wield the kind of influence and attain a stature that few film-makers from Bengal had before him.
Ghosh achieved an enviable fusion between high art and commercial success which few film-makers, if any, in Bengal had managed with such consistency. Calling upon the communication skills he had mastered in his decade at the reputed ad agency Response, he seamlessly blended the intellectual cinema of Ray with the more approachable and audience-friendly works of stalwarts of the golden era like Tapan Sinha and Ajoy Kar. In so doing, he brought Bengali audiences back to the theatres without in any way compromising his art.
Critics often carped about his cinematic obsession with the upper middle-class and bourgeois living-room milieu, but as author and film-maker Sangeeta Datta, who was associate director on several films by Ghosh, and whose biographical documentary Bird of Dusk is a loving tribute to the auteur, says, "His focus on Calcutta-based or urban stories needs to be seen in the context of the consumer culture of the 1990s. But he was a true inheritor of Ray's legacy both in his literary cinema (adaptation of Bengali literary classics, especially Tagore) and his women-centric middle-class Bengali narratives. Rituparno's early films were feminist and he dealt with domestic violence, marital rape, incest, subjects which middle-class family values considered taboo. His later films engaged with issues of sexuality and the long tradition of gender fluidity that is part of Bengal's culture and performative tradition."
Adds Shohini Ghosh, professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University: "He passed away at a time when he was exploring the many possibilities of the idea of the cinematic. He wanted to make films whose story would lie in the telling. 'No one should be able to go home and tell the story', he would say. 'They would have to see and experience the film'. Shob Choritro Kalponik was a move in that direction."
His cinema traversed the entire gamut from intimate women-and-relationship-centric chamber dramas set in urban middle-class Kolkata to adaptations of classic and contemporary literature, including Tagore to unflinching explorations of alternative sexuality and gender issues. Also, one would be hard-pressed to recall another Indian film-maker who addressed film-making and the performing arts in his films with such regularity. It is as if he was questioning and critiquing his artistic self through these explorations of the psyche and attitude of people involved in films.
His adaptations of Tagore delved into the poet's work in ways distinctly different from Ray's. For one, unlike Ray's, and his own small-budget chamber dramas, Ghosh's Tagore films were grander in scale. With the epical Chokher Bali, for example, he enlarged the scope of a dying Bengal film industry, getting a marquee name like Aishwarya Rai in what was a casting coup. As his films became favourites at award functions and international festivals, leading Hindi film stars made a beeline for him. The roster included Amitabh Bachchan, Sharmila Tagore, Raakhee, Preity Zinta, Soha Ali Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Arjun Rampal, Ajay Devgn, Jackie Shroff, Bipasha Basu and others. These collaborations boosted an ailing industry and played an invaluable part in increasing theatre occupancy. Secondly, as Shohini Ghosh says, "Rituparno felt that Ray, masterful though his films were, tended to limit the transgressive potential of Tagore's work. Consequently, his adaptations and interpretations were fearless and emancipatory."
Coming Out of the Closet
However, it is in dealing with his sexuality that he probably blazed a trail. A myriad-minded intellectual and prolific and gifted writer, who edited the popular film magazine Anandolok and later Robbar, the cultural supplement to the Bengali daily Pratidin, he engaged with a wide array of subjects, including poetry, politics, sexuality, personal mood and memory pieces, garnering a dedicated readership. Sangeeta Dutta is emphatic that the day is not far when Ghosh will be reassessed as one of the most important Bengali writers. "Towards the end of his life, his writing was so full of empathy, not just for the LGBTQ community, but also for the marginal, for the in-betweenness of things."
There had been an undercurrent of the 'queer' in his cinema from the beginning, and he was probably the first 'celebrity' to 'come out' officially and unambiguously. It was obviously something he anguished over. In Bird of Dusk, Ghosh's friend and mentor, film-maker Aparna Sen, speaks about his turmoil over his coming out of the closet. "I often asked him if he wanted to be me, whether he wanted to go for a sex change procedure, and he said no."
Apart from his cross-dressing, he also became robustly vocal about his identity as a queer, using, in the words of Shohini Ghosh, "his star persona to bring queerness out of the Bengali bhadrolok closet." It is on this front that his contribution is unparalleled.
In the wake of the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court judgment on Section 377 of the IPC, however, Ghosh began to appear publicly in feminine clothes and flamboyant makeup. Apart from his cross-dressing, he also became robustly vocal about his identity as a queer, using, in the words of Shohini Ghosh, "his star persona to bring queerness out of the Bengali bhadrolok closet." It is on this front that his contribution is unparalleled.
Unfortunately, this came at a cost, both personally and as an artist. For one, it has often tended to overshadow his achievements as a film-maker and writer. Secondly, as he himself admitted in an interview to Kaustav Bakshi of Jadavpur University, "I have indeed estranged a section of my audience … the respect I used to command has been seriously affected by my decision to proclaim my sexuality."
There is however no denying his influence on contemporary culture. From his early feminist work to his later works as an openly gay film-maker, he was setting trends and bringing into family dramas uncomfortable questions about sexual identity and social norms. The importance of Rituparno Ghosh lay not just in reviving a moribund industry. What makes his contribution to his cultural and social landscape seminal is the manner in which he captured its zeitgeist, pioneering a social and cinematic revolution in the process. Rituparno Ghosh was an artist of his epoch who, by the time he passed away, had transcended it in many ways.