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The Provocative Cinema of Rituparno Ghosh

Rituparno Ghosh was a powerful storyteller, challenging us to rethink stereotypes

Published: Jun 24, 2013 06:28:37 AM IST
Updated: Jun 25, 2013 08:16:06 AM IST
The Provocative Cinema of Rituparno Ghosh
Image: Goutam Roy
Rituparno Ghosh's last release was Chitrangada in 2012, in which he cast himself opposite Jisshu Sengupta in a film

“But, my city, I know, can neither handle me nor ignore me,” filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh had said in a recent interview. From the subjects he chose to explore in his films to the way he dressed, Ghosh was always urging us to reconsider the stereotypes that we take for granted as normal.

But from the grief and shock evident in the reactions to his passing on May 30, it is obvious that for all the thorn that Ghosh may have been in convention’s side, the filmmaker was also much admired and beloved.

It was during his college years—while studying economics at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University—that Ghosh started attending film festivals, and encountered the work of Satyajit Ray. Ray’s films convinced Ghosh that he wanted to be a filmmaker. After spending a few years as a copywriter, Ghosh made his first and last children’s film, Hirer Angti, in 1994. The film was barely noticed. In the same year, Ghosh wrote and directed Unishe April. The film received rave reviews and won two national Awards. His next two films were Dahan and Bariwali, both of which won two national awards. The legend of Rituparno Ghosh was born.

There may be confusion about Ghosh’s birth date (news sources say he was 49; classmates say he was older) and the question of his gender identity flummoxed many, but there is no doubt that Ghosh marked the beginning of a renaissance in Bengali cinema. At the time when he chose to become a filmmaker, Tollywood was in disarray both in terms of earnings as well as the quality of filmmaking.

However, Ghosh’s films didn’t only stand out because of the mediocrity surrounding him. There’s no doubt he was something of an agent provocateur in both Kolkata and Indian cinema. He was a powerful storyteller with a sensitive understanding of the emotional tangles that mark human relationships. At his best, Ghosh’s writing is subtle but eloquent. His characters speak volumes without saying a word, using their body language and nuances; communicating as we tend to in real life. Films like Dosar, Shubha Mahurat and Abohaman showcased Ghosh’s gift for storytelling and won awards and critical praise. It’s largely thanks to his films that the careers of actors like Prosenjit Chatterjee in West Bengal got a new lease of life.

The success he enjoyed in Tollywood encouraged Ghosh to turn his gaze towards Bollywood, and in 2003, he decided to take on the challenge of directing a film adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chokher Bali. He cast Aishwarya Rai in the film. Rai would also star in his next film Raincoat, which also starred Ajay Devgn. Other Bollywood names who appeared in Ghosh’s films were Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Arjun Rampal and Kirron Kher.

Beautifully shot as they may have been, Ghosh’s experiment with Bollywood wasn’t the most creative phase of his career. However, he was the first Bengali director in decades to command a spot in Bollywood and this exposure helped the upcoming generation of directors in Bengal.

It was around 2008 that Ghosh’s non-cinematic life attracted the attention of the press. Ghosh had always been a flamboyant dresser, but now he appeared in a dramatically different avatar. With his bald head, kohl-lined eyes and feminine attire, Ghosh was unlike anyone Bengal (and India) had seen. Cross-dressing had been in the realms of caricature and parody in Indian society. Ghosh, however, was not treating either his wardrobe or his sexuality as a joke.

The rumour mills churned away, but there was also grudging admiration at this proud display of transgender identity. The shifting nature of emotions in heterosexual relationships had been one of the recurring motifs in many of Ghosh’s earlier films. From 2011, fluid sexuality and transgender identity informed a lot of Ghosh’s work, whether it was walking the ramp or acting or direction. When Ghosh acted in Kaushik Ganguly’s film Arekti Premer Golpo (2011) as a film director whose gender is a mystery, he also played the real-life cross-dressing danseuse and theatre performer, Chapal Bhaduri.

In an interview back then, he summed up the prejudices Indian society harbours for alternative sexual groups. “Male homosexuality has not been dealt with in Bengali cinema prior to this. While female homosexuality caters to voyeuristic inclinations of a section of the society, it becomes a little difficult for the parochial Indian society to deal with male homosexuality. More because it conjures up a vivid image of physicality and people tend not to dwell on its emotional implications,” said Ghosh.

His last release was Chitrangada in 2012, in which he cast himself opposite Jisshu Sengupta in a film that looks at the myth of Chitrangada from a modern perspective.

Ghosh had been working on a new film, titled Satyanweshi. Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh plays the popular Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi in Ghosh’s adaptation of Chorabali by Saradindu Bandopadhyay. The shooting for the film had recently been completed.

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(This story appears in the 28 June, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sachi Mohanty

    Original thinkers are vanishingly rare in this nation of 1.3 billion people. Among present-day Indian moviemakers, his movies were among the very few one could watch from beginning to end.

    on Jun 24, 2013