Rituparno Ghosh : Of Torment and Turmoil

An article by Monali Majhi

Celebrated as a queer filmmaker, Rituparno Ghosh was a non-conformist. And I mention queer because by using this very term his contemporaries used to hurl attacks against him and every time, he emerged victorious. It is this identity that defined him but it is not the only identity to do so. He wore many hats. He  was a lyricist, writer, director and not to forget also an actor. His subtle sense of art and aesthetic enriched Cinema. Born to artist parents, Rituparno was named Souronil  but he later changed his name after a character of Mahabharata because. Rituparno, the leaf of the changing season, was the name he identified himself with. Intersectional Identity, redefining norms and questioning gender roles became dominant features in his films as well as his personal life. 

Rituparno did his Master’s in Economics from Jadavpur University before joining a famous advertising house called  Response in Kolkata. Working with Response, he wrote for many award-winning advertisements. He was inspired by Satyajit Ray’s films and Abanindranath Tagore’s writings to become a filmmaker. The regret he died with is that his first film Hirer Angti (1992) was censored one week before Satyajit Ray left us. He could not show his idol his work.

Rituparno emerged in the Bengali film industry at a time when it was nearing stagnation and was on a cultural downward spiral. The industry was reduced to producing remakes of various regional films. The middle-class audience was turning back to the black and white era which they termed as the golden period of Bengali cinema. Things took anupturn after the release of Unishe April, Rituparno’s first released film. The middle-class Bengali audience started returning to the theatre. Rituparno Ghosh was the first Bengali Director who enjoyed celebrity status. Ghosh made twenty films in his two decades career and won thirteen national awards.

His spectrum of films can be classified into three distinct sections. The first deals with middle class bourgeois. In his films like Unishe April (1995), Dahan (1998), Asukh (2000), Bariwali (2000), Utsab (2001), Titli (2002), Shubho Mahurat (2003), Raincoat (2005), Dosar (2006), ShobCharitroKalponik (2009),Abohomaan (2010). One interesting fact about his films is that he explores the same relationships from different aspects, as if looking through a kaleidoscope. To elaborate, Ghosh deals with a mother-daughter relationship in his first film Unishe April where we see Adithi trying to come to terms with her father’s death on his death anniversary and her award-winning dancer mother’s nonchalance towards the memories of her father. On that fateful night, Adithi discovers her mother’s side of the story and the ice breaks. There comes a point in the story that changes the way Adithi sees her mother when Sarojini says, “ Do you think domestic violence means only beating up?”. Ghosh comes back once again to explore the mother-daughter relationship in Titli where Titli falls in love with a filmstar Rohit Roy who has once been her mother’s lover by seeing her on screen. Their encounter with Rohit Roy on their way to Bagdogra airport to receive Titli’s father brings out the past and Titli raises questions about her mother’s intentions. What is fascinating about these two films is that Aparna Sen plays the mother’s character in both. Sarojini’s lover-friend becomes Titli’s father as Deepankar De acts in both the characters. Rituparno connects one film with another with an unseen thread.

Bariwali Dealsdeals with a lonely middle-aged woman living in a Mansion alone where a talented Director Deepankar comes to shoot Chokher Bali (a film Ghosh will himself make later) and exploits her emotionally. In Utsab, Ghosh deals with a Bonedi Bari Pujo where all the children visit their widowed mother only for a few days and decide to sell the house. A factory lockdown, a probable divorce, an incestuous relationship, a past mistake and a telephone – Utsab revolves around these for five days of festivity at the end of which everything comes back to order. Raincoat is a beautiful adaptation of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”. Kaushik survives a car accident in which his mistress dies.  Dosar deals with how he tries to win back his wife’s trust. The film ends beautifully when he first begins to tell his wife about his extra-marital relationship. Ghosh constantly dealt and played with subjects like extra-marital affair, love, adultery, divorce and marriage. They all had a targeted audience. Rituparno opened the closet of middle-class Bengalis.

Rabindranath has inspired Ghosh immensely. He selects his songs so carefully and puts them in all the right places that it seems that Tagore has written those films specifically for those scenes. Chokher Bali (2003), Antarmahal (2005), Noukadubi (2010), Jibansmriti (2013) are four films that comprise the second section of his oeuvre. The first three deal with rich, aristocratic families of the past two of which are based on novels by Rabindranath Tagore. Chokher Bali earned a lot of praise as well as spite from the critics for Ghosh’s bold approach to the subject. The film deals with a widow’s love and attraction towards the husband of her friend.  Ghosh was commissioned to make a documentary on Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th Birth Anniversary by the Government of India in 2011. 

The third section loosely comprise of a queer trilogy which has Ghosh as an actor in all of them. ArektiPremerGolpo (2010) by Kaushik Ganguly tells the story of a transgender documentary filmmaker (played by Ghosh) making a documentary on the life a Jatra artist ChapalBhaduri. The film merges two different timelines of queer experience together. Sanjay Nag’s Memories in March (2010) explores a situation where a mother learns that his deceased son was a homosexual and, in a relationship with his boss. Rituporno who plays Ornub Mitra in the film asks Arati what causes her greater pain, is it her son being dead or that the departed son was gay.  The statements of these two films culminates into Ghosh’s 2012 film Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. This is a very personal work of Ghosh. Rudra Chatterjee, the protagonist is an engineer by qualification but a theatre director by his choice, much to the dismay of his father. He falls in love with a member of his group Partha. When Rudra and Partho fail to adopt a child, Rudra decides to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Chitrangada shows the immense torment that a transgender person goes through.  Chitrangada claimed a large part of Ghosh’s creative genius and Ghosh’s life was changed. 

Rituparno was a director who created poetry on screen be it in ShobCharitroKalponik or in Abohoman. His characters seem very familiar yet there is something unique about them. His films are tales of longing, fulfilment and torment. One wonders how much must have he felt to make such beautiful renditions of relationships.  It was his sensitivity that made his films such an experience. Ritupano Ghosh was 49 years  old when he was found unconscious in his bed and later declared dead by doctors on 30th May, 2013. And if you listen carefully to the whispers of Calcutta, there are still a few people who are furious at him for leaving so early, too early in fact. 

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