The Intimate Poet
It is difficult to have the courage of intellect in an India which prizes mediocrity in public life. It is even more difficult to have the courage of emotions in a world of plasticity. Rituparno Ghosh who died on May 30 at the age of 49 had both in spades. Whether it was acting as the transgender documentary filmmaker in his first film as actor, Arekti Premer Golpo ( 2010), or picturising the ugliness of Jackie Shroff’s heaving body on the genteel Soha Ali Khan in Antarmahal ( 2005), he was never one to shy away from the rawness of sexuality. Surprising, given how he began, as the troubadour of middle class ( but never middle of the road) Bengali women. The bitterness between a mother and daughter in the first film that brought him to the attention of a wider audience, Unishe April ( 1994), or the delicate relationship between a father and daughter in Noukadubi ( 2010), where he interpreted Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, are unparalleled. Debasree Roy and Aparna Sen have never seemed more real onscreen than in Unishe April and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has never seemed so stripped of artifice as in Raincoat ( 2004).
But like all influential filmmakers, Ghosh’s impact has always been beyond his cinema. In his case, personal was always political. He walked in the footsteps of great filmmakers from Bengal who made cinema that was intimate in its canvas and yet global in its power. Ghosh’s cinema mirrored his soul, sometimes in all its confusion and at other times in all its passion. Whether it is Q’s Gandu or Kaushik Ganguly’s Laptop, Ghosh’s movies opened that door for others to storm through. He was a presence on television, a force in print as editor of a Sunday magazine, a friend sometimes and foe at other times to almost everyone of note in contemporary Bengali cinema.
More than anything else, he was unafraid of criticism, though he didn’t always have the patience to convert his carpers. He frankly didn’t have the time, so immersed was he in creating cinema. He loved to experiment, making the striking black and white Dosar ( 2006) where Konkona Sen Sharma plays a wife betrayed by the cad of a husband, Prasenjit Chatterjee, she has to care for. Or the forceful if somewhat pedantic The Last Lear ( 2007), in English, with Amitabh Bachchan as a fading actor.
And the attention to detail! Whether it was the drape of a sari on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Chokher Bali ( 2003) or the way Soha Ali Khan wore her bindi in Antarmahal, he had a hand in it. Like Satyajit Ray, for whom a film was a complete creative enterprise, from the story board to the music score, as Raima Sen describes it, he was a “one- man show”. From body language to the language of literature, Ghosh had such a grasp of every aspect of cinema that he never shot too much, and more importantly for his several happy producers, did not spend too much.
Perhaps few male directors understood women better. No surprise then that whenever a Bollywood actress looked for artistic credibility, Ghosh was the first stop. He was always in process of writing a movie, directing it, or more recently, acting in it, like his last film, Chitrangada ( 2012). Fittingly, he died while neck- deep in a new movie, a Byomkesh Bakshi thriller, Satyanewshi, starring director Sujoy Ghosh. Ghosh was human. He would fight with friends, sometimes driving them to frustration, like Prasenjit Chatterjee. He would quarrel with the city of Kolkata for not always understanding his lifestyle choices. And he would be in permanent argument with society at large which didn’t know which slot to put him in: Gay or straight, arty or mainstream, star struck or story driven, brave or self- indulgent.
The shambling, increasingly weirdly dressed director who would go up to receive a National Award for almost every film he directed, was such a fixture at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi that it’s unimaginable that he is no more. Who will now make Raima Sen, whose mother he worked with in his first film, Hirer Angti ( 1994) and whom he considered to be the daughter he never had, look as if she had descended from the pages of a Tagore novel? Who will ever capture the earthy sexuality of Prasenjit Chatterjee? And who will now make those precious little gems, whose subtle glitter would leave our eyes moist and our minds dazzled?