If there’s something that’s as complex as the mysterious workings of the cosmos – then it must be human relationships, and the underlying emotions at play. And for someone to capture these complexities on-screen is no easy task. But for filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, it was what he excelled in.
A National Award-winning filmmaker, an LGBTQ rights activist, a strict taskmaster, a fashionista – Ritu Da, as he was fondly called, wore many hats and with pride. His passing away on May 30, 2013 at the age of 49, came as a rude shock to many, but what he left behind was a legacy that will live forever.
Ghosh’s films were known for the uniqueness and finesse with which he portrayed human emotions on screen. It was as if the actors bared their souls completely, stripping off every bit of falsification and pretence – such was the power of his direction. The way he recreated the dynamics of varied relationships on-screen – be it husband-wife, mother-daughter, friends, siblings – was commendable.
For him, Satyajit Ray is the reason he embarked on his filmmaking journey. And when he did, he followed the footsteps of Ray and remained true to his craft, never letting any external factor come in its way – till the very end of his lifetime.
From his first film itself, he had boldly taken a route less travelled. In a time when filmmakers were chasing commercial success and fame, he was unperturbed by any of these. Instead, he wanted to tell deeply personal stories – the ones that are often talked about only behind closed doors. And when his films were tagged “artistic” or “art films” and not “commercially viable”, that did not deter him from carving his own niche.
His second film Unishe April (1994) tells the tale of an abysmal relationship between a mother-daughter duo. Starring Debashree Roy and Aparna Sen, the film won a National Award in the Best Feature Film category. Thereafter, he films were bestowed with this award numerous times – be it for screenplay, film, direction, or the actors.
In his next, Dahan (1997), Ghosh ventured beyond relationships between humans to their correlation with society and its norms. Starring Rituparna Sengupta and Indrani Halder in the lead, it was also a story of women empowerment. The film revolves around one single incident of molestation on the streets of Kolkata, and how it changes the lives of two women – the victim and her saviour. He did not shy away from depicting the ugly face of patriarchy, which runs deep in our society’s roots.
In Ghosh’s 1999 film Bariwali, starring Kirron Kher as the protagonist, loneliness finds voice. How a lonely landlady, who lives with her maid in a big mansion, gives the nod to a film shooting to take place in her house is how the story kicks off. It beautifully narrates the angst and longings of a lonely soul.
On the other hand, in Utsav (2000), he brings in the flavour of Bengal’s biggest festival, Durga Puja. The film revolves around the reunion of a big family in their ancestral home during the auspicious event. What unfolds thereafter is the unearthing of hidden emotions, long-lost memories and unrequited desires. Starring Prosenjit Chatterjee, Rituparna Sengupta and Mamata Shankar, among others, Utsav deals with a multitude of emotions that find expression during a festival.
In 2003’s Shubho Mahurat, Rituparno retained his affinity for an ensemble cast and weaving a story around the ripples caused by one incident. The tale is about how the murder of an ageing actress leads a journalist to uncover the killer. Here too, women take the lead and boldly stride over to claim what’s theirs – like in many of his films. Thus, oftentimes, he has been praised for breaking the taboos and clichés that Indian cinema had held on to for long – depicting women as victims, waiting to be saved by a ‘knight in shining armour’.
In the same year, his Chokher Bali and Raincoat released. In both these films, he collaborated with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The former was an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel of the same name. Ghosh had always shown his fondness for the legend, and paid tribute to him by incorporating his songs, poems or verses in his films. Later on, he adapted another novel of his into a film, Noukadubi (2010), starring Prosenjit Chatterjee, Raima Sen, Riya Sen and Jisshu Sengupta, among others.
But his love for Tagore travels far and beyond. He made a documentary on the Nobel laureate: Jeevan Smriti. In this memoir, he narrates the life story of Tagore in a way that transports the audience to his world. The way he juxtaposes two worlds – one where he embarks on a journey to discover Tagore by visiting the latter’s ancestral home and scenes recreated from the life of the latter – is splendid.
Undoubtedly, Ghosh mastered the art of storytelling. His films’ narrative style was smooth, and one could see the story unfolding – without dramatising any event. Films set in a single room or location were what he explored often. For instance, in Raincoat, starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Ajay Devgn, most of the film takes place in one room. It tells the tale of two former lovers who reunite after ages, only to delve deeper into each other’s misfortune and misery.
Another aspect of Ghosh’s films that contributed to the realism he created on-screen was the setting. He preferred to keep things as real as he could – be it undergarments hanging in one’s room (as in Raincoat), or the visibility of menstrual blood (Chokher Bali) or the use of informal language.
His actors knew his craft, and respected his vision thoroughly. Thus, when he often deglamourised them by refraining from using makeup, or letting them wear shabby clothes – they complied without hesitation.
Though Ghosh never spelt it out, he was open about his sexual orientation. His films, especially the later ones, reflected it more profoundly. And the year 2010 bears testimony to it. He acted in two films – Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo (in which he starred alongside Indraneil Sengupta, Raima Sen and others), and Sanjay Nag’s Memories in March (alongside Deepti Naval). In the former, he played a queer filmmaker who comes back to his hometown with his partner to make a documentary. And in the latter, he plays the lover of a deceased man, who forms a special bond with his late boyfriend’s mother.
In 2012, one of his last films Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish was released. It is often deemed his most personal work. Ghosh plays Rudra, a homosexual man who falls head over heals for Partho (Jisshu Sengupta). Their relationship seems passionate and intense yet at times fragile. Rudra undergoes a sex reassignment operation for him, and to build a life with him – but only to be left by Partho.
In real life as well, Rituparno lived a solitary life. His films always reflected his state of mind – the longings, the betrayals, the yearnings. Though he may have left us, his films will always remind us of him. Bhalo theko, Ritu Da (stay well, Ritu Da).
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.