“When you mimic me are you mimicking me or are you mimicking an effeminate man?” asked Rituparno Ghosh on a Bengali television talk show in 2008. His nonplussed guest, the comedian Mir, replied he meant no harm through his mimicry. “Have you ever thought that whenever you mimic me, so many effeminate men in Kolkata, in Bengal, feel ashamed, feel humiliated?” retorted the filmmaker.
In Rituparno Ghosh’s death, we lost someone who embraced his sexual minority not with an activist zeal but an almost matter-of-fact brazenness by just being who he was, with his Sunset Boulevard turbans, his flowing outfits, the kajal-rimmed eyes, the dangling ear rings. It was not a campy drag queen performance. That would have been just a Dame Edna act. It was Rituparno being Rituparno—erudite and articulate, just in a gender-bending salwar-achkan.
On screen, the overtly queer roles came towards the end of his too-short career. In Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), Rituparno plays a jatra actor who played women on stage and a gay filmmaker making a film about the actor. In Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March, he is a gay man facing his dead lover’s mother. In his last released film, Chitrangada: The Crowning Glory, he plays a choreographer struggling with his gender identity.
But in his Tagore drama Noukadubi, he went one step further by dubbing the widowed mother in his own voice. It’s as if Rituparno Ghosh was quietly transforming himself into a woman in front of his audience’s eyes and despite occasional snickers about Ritu-di, his very middle-class audience, conservative and well-schooled, obsessed about appearances and status quo, largely played along politely.
Rituparno, always hyper-aesthetic, knew how to seduce them with a particularly well-chosen Rabindrasangeet in a film, and then hit them with the sexual politics—not just homosexual but also heterosexual, like marital rape in Dahan.
Now we learn about his ongoing hormone therapy but in his lifetime Rituparno pooh-poohed all binaries—male-female, hetero-homo. At a time when rising acceptance of alternative sexuality in India (especially in the media) has meant increasingly hard-coded labels—lesbian, gay, MSM, bisexual, transgender—Rituparno blurred all the boundaries with his androgyny. “It is for me to decide whether I will stand in the queue for men or for women or neither of the two,” he once said.
We can only marvel at his audacity to be who he was right here among us. Perhaps Rituparno Ghosh was meant to be Bengali—a language whose pronouns have no gender, whose verbs don’t reveal the sex of the subject.
As I watched his body being taken to the crematorium, the sombre gun salute, the gushing tributes about “irreparable loss”, I heard one television guest slip and call him “she” and apologise. Rituparno was unsettling gender even in death, right there in our living rooms.
Perhaps Rituparno Ghosh was having the last laugh. At the crematorium, after all, the incinerators are not labelled His and Hers.
(This story appears in the 28 June, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)