Rituparno Ghosh died young,but he was born old
That Rituparno Ghosh did a brilliant job of placing complex characters in the same frame and arriving at a life-truth was evident right from the start. The first film of his that I saw was Unishe April,just after it got a national award for best feature. To my Bollywood-weary eyes and ears,where dialogue and visuals are ratcheted up for maximum noise,the film was balm. It was about a family and knotted relationships,a mother and daughter trying to find ways to talk to each other. It was about the silences that are created between individuals,even the closest blood relations,when things sour. And it was about possibilities,of how people can heal,slowly,painfully. Aparna Sen and Debasree Roy,as that mother and daughter,were like my mother and me. Or like any mother and any daughter,anywhere around the globe,looking for connections.
Ghosh,who died this morning at his Kolkata residence,was only 49. But he was preternaturally old. I think he was one of those people who are born old,and I dont mean this is an ageist sort of way,but in the way that leads towards wisdom. Unishe April,out in 1994,was only his second feature,but he displayed in it,and continued to display in his subsequent work,a rare understanding of human nature. He was fearless when it came to emotion : he demanded that his actors strip away the layers,throw away artifice,so that when they felt pain,we felt it too. He did not shy away from making them ugly,even as he kept his sets beautiful. Ghoshs cinema strove for beauty and reality,and if ugliness stepped in,well,that was fine,too.
Ghoshs arrival on the Bengali film scene in the early 1990s,and his instant recognition,was a sign that the archaic filmmaking style and content that had straitjacketed mainstream Bangla cinema was history. He brought modernity and urbanity in his storytelling while being completely rooted in the Bengali ethos. With the very influential Aparna Sen as enthusiastic collaborator,Ghosh began creating the sort of realistic,sombre chamber dramas that Ingmar Bergman used to: Unishe April was a tribute to Autumn Sonata,one of Bergmans loveliest,most accessible films. He followed that up with Dahan,about a couple struggling to cope with the trauma of violence,which also got a clutch of National awards.
Unlike several filmmakers who make many movies very rapidly,the prolific Ghosh never made a terrible film,even though a few of his films didnt quite spark (The Last Lear,with Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta,left me cold). I have so many favourite moments from his films,and they all almost invariably feature women. He gave Kirron Kher a wonderful part in Bariwali (she plays a middle-aged,lonely widow drowsing in her picturesque haveli,who is sweet-talked into giving a film crew permission to shoot,and left bereft). Soon,Ghosh turned his gaze towards Bollywood. Or,should we say,Bollywood reached out to him. In Raincoat,Ajay Devgn and Aishwarya Rai re-discover a near-forgotten romance,amidst the rains and the lilt of a Shubha Mudgal song. In fact,he gave us an Aishwarya carved out of her mannequin self,as a living,breathing woman,both in Chokher Bali,and Raincoat.
As he went along,one of the overriding reasons behind Ghoshs clear-eyed understanding and empathy towards women came out of the closet,so to speak. He embraced his feminine side much more openly and began wearing flowing kaftans and colourful dupattas. At a session I moderated at the India International Centre a few years ago where Ghosh was the guest,he spoke about how the suppression of his female side and complicated gender identity was first brought out in his films. I think as he grew more confident of his film-making skills and his work began being accepted and feted widely,he began losing some of the fear of appearing like a woman. His public appearances in the last few years had drawn titters from among those who think that sort of thing funny,but he had turned uncaring. He had also begun acting. His turn as a gay lover in Arekti Premer Galpo (Just Another Love Story) was terrific: the camp was done just so,so was the mincing of the steps. This was no exaggeration. This was true channelling.
In the recent,made-in-English,Memories of March,he plays another gay person,who has to reveal the secret of his dead lover to his (the lovers) mother. Deepti Naval plays the mother finely,if a little too tremulously,but Ghosh didnt put a foot wrong. The last film I saw of his was Chitrangada (2012): there was altogether too much melodrama in it,but Ghoshs character,a choreographer exploring his troubled sexual self,was consistently watchable. It wasnt his best,but it was clear that Ghosh was readying himself for the next round. That he had more to say.
He died too young.