Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013) changed the course of Bengali cinema and paved the way for a whole new generation of film-makers to break away from the mould and give expression to their own visions. BY SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

THE film-maker Rituparno Ghosh was one of the brightest stars ever to shine in the firmament of Bengali cinema. In a career spanning just two decades, the gifted and controversial Ghosh mesmerised, dazzled, confounded, confused and delighted Bengali film-watchers who, though often left bewildered by his personality, never once doubted his genius. His death on May 30 due to a cardio-respiratory failure left a vacuum in the world of Bengali arts that is unlikely to be filled for a long time to come. He was only 49, and in spite of a prolonged illness, had lost none of his creative powers.

The city of Kolkata was united in its grief. Both West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and former Chief Minister and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee expressed “deep sadness” at Rituparno’s passing away. “Rituparno’s sudden death is a personal loss for me,” said Mamata Banerjee. The entire film world of India was shocked. The screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, who played the lead role in Rituparno’s Last Lear (2007), said, “I have no words for the grief I am feeling today. The country has lost a great artist.” The internationally acclaimed film director from Bengal Goutam Ghose told Frontline: “He was a very talented film-maker. He came from an advertising background and was very quick and smart. He always made a serious study of his subject matter and dealt with it with a lot of intelligence and sensitivity. It’s a huge loss to Bengali cinema.”

To make any assessment of the enormity of his impact on Bengali cinema, one must first place him in the context of the state of the film industry in Bengal in 1992 when Rituparno arrived on the scene. Throughout the 1980s, the Bengali film industry was dying a slow and ignominious death. Barring a few exceptions who were waging a desperate war to uphold quality and artistic integrity, most mainstream Bengali film-makers had shifted their target audience away from the educated urban middle class to the vulgar hoi polloi. One of Rituparno’s primary contribution is that he almost single-handedly rescued the Bengali film industry from the morass of mediocrity into which it had fallen, and revived the interest of the educated audience in Bengali films and managed to get them back into the movie theatres.

After graduating in economics from Jadavpur University, he had a brilliant career as a copywriter in a reputed advertisement agency. Though his first film, Hirer Angti (The Diamond Ring), which he made for the Children’s Film Society India in 1992, was a critically acclaimed though a low key affair, it was his second movie, Unishe April (19 April), in 1994 that trumpeted the arrival of an extraordinary talent in the Bengali film world. The movie beautifully explores the complexities of human relationships – in this case between a mother, a celebrated danseuse, and her neglected daughter. The film won two National Awards, one for Best Film and one for Best Actress.

At long last there was someone who could breathe life into the moribund industry and ignite the interest of its apathetic audience. It was a daunting expectation to live up to, but Rituparno was ready for the task. In film after film he continued to dazzle the audiences with his craft and vision. Like his idol Satyajit Ray, he never repeated himself.

After Unishe April came Dahan (Burning) in 1997, for which Rituparno Ghosh won the National Award for Best Script; Asukh (Malaise) in 1999, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Bombay International Film Festival and the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali; Bariwali (Landlady) in 2000, which won the NETPAC Award at the Berlin International Film Festival; Utsav (Festival), also in 2000, which won him another National Award, for Best Direction; and Titli, which won the FIPRESCI Prize again at the Bombay International Film Festival in 2002. Masterpieces followed, ranging from the whodunnit Subho Muharat based on Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side to Chokher Bali (2003) based on the Tagore novel of the same name, and Raincoat (2004), adapted from O Henry’s Gift of the Magi.

He not only changed the course of Bengali films, but, in the process, redefined the scope and potential of artists, many of them long-standing stars of the industry. His appeal transcended regional confines, and superstars from Mumbai, including Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Arjun Rampal and Jackie Shroff, considered it a privilege to act in a film directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

He was a brilliant scriptwriter with a tremendous talent for characterisation and a deep psychological understanding of humanity. He was, as Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, Professor of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, put it, the “last great craftsman of Bengali cinema”. But his greatest legacy is the way he challenged the conventional and orthodox perception and representation of sex in Bengali, and Indian, cinema. “His films put forward an alternative perception as far as gender identity is concerned. ‘Who is she?’ is what he asked and thereby challenged the existing male-centric nature of cinema. He introduced the pleasure of looking at certain hidden territory—things that were taboo in Indian cinema. He practically single-handedly changed the way sex was perceived in not just in Bengali cinema, but also in Indian movies in general,” Mukhopadhyay told Frontline.

Rituparno paved the way for a whole new generation of film-makers to break away from the mould and give expression to their own visions. In many ways he was a liberator in his field; he smashed the shackles of age-old themes, ideas and perceptions that had for long kept Bengali cinema in fetters, denying it the scope to grow. Even in the themes that were most risqué or taboo, there was no vulgarity or cheapness in its depiction. It was his genius that enabled these issues to be addressed sensitively and artistically and ease their way almost unobtrusively into mainstream cinema.

He waged an intense personal battle against prejudices relating to gender issues. In fact, many critics and viewers felt that in his later films, particularly the 2010 Aarekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), of which he was the co-director with Kaushik Ganguly, and Chitrangada (2012), his focus was less on his craft and more on the message.

If a section of his audience was alienated by his new subject matter pertaining to transgender issues and homosexuality, there was another section that looked upon him with greater respect for his courage. “When he shifted to his new subject matter some people may have liked it and some may not, but what is important is he stood by it,” said film-maker Goutam Ghose.

Rituparno himself had put it in perspective. In an article he wrote in a Bengali magazine not long before he died, he said that with Chokher Bali (2003) he had achieved the acme of popularity and was the apple of the audience’s eyes, a kind of poster boy for Bengali cinema. “Then slowly Rituparno started changing, a sense of unease crept into the collective experience of the Bengali audience when they were viewing my films with their families. Why this obsession with sex! Even if it shocked the core sensibilities of the conservative Bengali psyche, they continued watching my films,” he wrote.

However, as he continued with what he called “the unlocking of one of the most secret and forbidden chambers of the mind of the Bengali ‘bhadralok’”, namely homosexuality, the viewership started declining, even among the so-called intellectual section. However, when his last release, Chitrangada, won the National Award, the same intellectuals could not but sit up and take notice. The story revolves around a same-sex love affair between two men and deals with gender transformation by one of the lovers (played by Rituparno himself) in order that the couple could adopt a child.

Rituparno proclaimed that the award he had won for Chitrangada was the one he cherished most. His reason was: “Chitrangada gives voice to all the untold sufferings and silent aspirations of these marginal people.” Dipankar De, one of the most respected senior actors of Bengali cinema, had rightly said: “There are a good many contemporary talented directors, but Rituparno was different in that he was the only truly modern director.”

This war that Rituparno waged against gender intolerance was not just restricted to films. He practically lived the words he professed. He made no secret of his sexual identity, and even underwent medical and surgical procedures to enhance his transgender identity. His androgynous, outlandish attire, complete with a feminine head-turban, became his trademark costume, and he was one of the most aggressive and outspoken advocates of the gay rights movement.

In private, his friends and loved ones remember him as a gentle and caring human being. Towards the end of his life he became less defensive and aggressive about his sexual identity and had settled down to being comfortable with the way people perceived him. A close friend of his, Yajnaseni Chakraborty, remembered an incident that took place a few months before he died: “We went shopping together. He wanted to buy a pair of red slippers. We went to one of the shoe stores in South City Mall. And as he was browsing the shoes in the ladies’ section in his full androgynous gear, the staff of the store could not decide whether to call him ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. His reaction to their predicament was one of childish delight; that was a part of his mental make-up. He loved to baffle people like a precocious child.”

He also took immense pleasure in the most simple things of life. Yajnaseni recalls another occasion when someone presented him a sapling “and he just went mad with joy. He spent half an hour trying to find the perfect place to keep it,” she told Frontline.

In Rituparno’s case, the idiosyncrasies of his personal life and his film-making genius would often overshadow his other remarkable attributes. He was an extremely versatile person who excelled in whatever he did. He was a brilliant writer in both English and Bengali and was an outstanding journalist. In spite of his busy schedule, he found the time to edit the popular Bengali magazine Anandalok from 1994 to 2007, and later the weekly Robbar. He also had a successful career in television with hit shows such as “Ebong Rituparno”, “Gosh & Co.” and “Ganer Opare”. He, in fact, had his finger on the contemporary cultural pulse of the Bengali people. But that does not mean he turned his back on Bengal’s cultural heritage. He always acknowledged that one of his greatest inspirations was Rabindranath Tagore. His last project was an impressionistic documentary on Tagore’s life, which is yet to be screened.

Sadly, there was so much more that Rituparno had to offer and so much has been lost by his untimely death.

This article was updated.