THIS STORY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON JUNE 9, 2013.
I have waited in queues in front of Nandan before. I bring on my genteel Bengali self during these occasions, for I’m surrounded by genteel Bengalis waiting to catch a film at Kolkata’s hub for arthouse cinema. On May 30, the queue was more or less the same. It was also very different.
In front of me was a middle-aged woman in a purple tant sari. She carried a polythene bag with a thick rajanigandha garland in it. Behind me, a transgender man in a white tank top clutched a bunch of red roses. The woman looked like she had taken a detour from her morning expedition to the local market. The transgender man looked a little self-conscious. The queue of people waiting for a last glimpse of filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh was a coiled snake, engulfing the length of the road.
“Don’t jump the queue please. At least have some respect for the man who we are here to honour,” said the woman to a young man trying to wriggle his way ahead of us. Rituparno Ghosh would have disapproved too. In press conferences, when he would bring the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and Preity Zinta in front of the Kolkata media, he would take it upon himself to ensure discipline. “Tora chup kor! Keo kichu shuntey parchey na! (Will you shut up? They can’t hear you over the din!)” he would scold. I remember being cut to size by him not many years ago for asking an insensitive question during an interview. I remember the anger in his voice, the bile in my stomach. I couldn’t wait to walk out of the office and tell the world I hate Rituparno Ghosh.
There was a person behind the school-teacher-meets-diva persona. Many were lucky enough to make acquaintance with that person, but for most, Rituparno Ghosh resided in our collective consciousness. He occupied an uncomfortable place, an unyielding, unrelenting figure we could never really ignore.
Ghosh shaped my morality. He burst my bubbles. I can’t remember the number of times I revisited that scene of Dahan (1995) where the aging grandmother (played by Suchitra Mitra) tells her granddaughter why she didn’t feel the need to congratulate her for defending a girl from her molesters. “As a human being, that’s the least you could have done. Do we live in such a dreadful society that we have to laud basic humanity?” she asks. He also defined our aesthetics. It goes without saying that Ghosh decided what good taste in modern Bengal should be: raw silk sarees, teakwood tables, ceramic pottery and tissue curtains.
In his early films like Unishe April (1994) and Dahan (1995), he successfully spoke to the Bengali middle-class society. He asked us many questions, answered most of them and he took us to difficult places. Like the scenes in both the films where he shows his lead male characters take a leak. The sound of urine passing, the jiggle of the hip and then the pulling up of zippers, everything is recorded voyeuristically. Why did he have to show this, asked many. In retrospect, having observed the way his career panned out, one can conclude that he was constructing, for the lack of a better term, the “gay gaze”.
By early 2000s, when he had established himself as the voice of modern Bengali cinema, many of us wondered why Rituparno Ghosh was not making a homosexual love story. We all knew that he was an effeminate gay man. Though he never really addressed his sexual orientation openly, he never made any effort to hide it either. So what was stopping him? But weren’t his early films about forbidden desires too? Their sensibilities and protagonists rang true to any gay man or woman. In Bariwali (2000), insecure, middle-aged Bonolata yearns for filmmaker Deepankar, who has many attractive women in his life. It’s an impossible crush really. He knows she is attracted to him, he indulges her a bit, and then all but abandons her. Bonolata could very well have been a gay man attracted to a straight man. Mallika, the spirited reporter of Shubho Mahurat, could have been a gay man too. She brazenly admits to the two men she is attracted to that she doesn’t understand why she can’t have them both. Her desire and the playful way of expressing it is not really straight-laced. Ghosh could completely immerse himself in the inner chambers of
his female protagonist’s life. The way the camera captured her tying her sari, folding her anchal. It’s not a voyeuristic gaze. Rituparno, it seemed, vicariously lived through his leading ladies.
The lead player of his 1999 film Ashukh, Rohini, is actually a predecessor to the protagonist of his celebrated gay love story, Chitrangada (2012). Like Rohini, Rudra (Chitrangada) is a victim of his own stardom. He too has lost his lover to a much younger competitor. Both Rohini and Rudra are grappling with their own personal demons, which manifest themselves as troubled relationships that fester. Probably, that is why many of us found films like Chitrangada so redundant. He had told us these stories before. He had navigated us through these very emotions more than a decade before Aarekti Premer Golpo (2010), a film directed by Kaushik Ganguly where Ghosh played both the jatra actor Chapal Bhaduri, who would play women characters on stage, and a gay filmmaker.
If his early films like Dahan, Bariwali, Shubho Mahurat, Titli and Utsab were perfect examples of his understanding of the middle-class Bengali milieu, his later films, namely Naukadubi, The Last Lear and Chitrangada seemed incredibly insular. His obsession with aesthetics overshadowed everything else.
Coming out is a redundant term when it comes to Rituparno Ghosh. He would, perhaps, have been offended if anyone suggested that he needed to come out. I remember watching him take the dais at the opening of Dialogues, a Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) film festival last year. It was for the first time that he was publicly attending an LGBT event. “Better late than never,” many scoffed. And then something happened. Rituparno Ghosh, the forever unfettered diva, looked overwhelmed. He said something about how important this event was for him and then broke into tears.
I was transported back to the moment when I watched Rituparno haul up a stand-up comedian for mimicking him. “Have you ever thought that whenever you mimic me, so many effeminate men in Kolkata, in Bengal feel ashamed, feel humiliated?” he had asked. He had argued for naari-shulabh purush (effeminate men) through astute editorials in influential Bengali dailies, making middle-class Bengal spend at least a few moments in self-introspection. And here he was, amidst those very effeminate men he was fighting for, all staring at him with a little awe and a little envy in their eyes. How could he not have been moved to tears?