“[Rituparno] Ghosh arrived at a time when Bengali cinema was going through a dark phase.” The book, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, gender and art. edited by Sangeeta Datta, Kaustav Bagchi and Rohit K Dasgupta, extensively delves into Ghosh’s films. It studies , the way in which his films ushered in a new movement in Bengali cinema and the singular and titular role Ghosh played in once again drawing audiences who had turned their back on Bengali films.
Datta and Ghosh’s association cut across many years. Ghosh was a close friend of Datta’s. She, in turn, had worked as an associate director on on six of his films. She not only co-edited a book on him but also, directed a documentary on him – The Birds of Dusk. The film, Datta says, was her way of coming to her terms with his death. “I missed him a lot and as if to compensate for that I made the film.”
The documentary, that has already premiered in London and New York and will be shown in Chicago and San Francisco, puts the director along with his subjects in front of the camera. Shot over a year, the documentary has several actors, and technicians Ghosh worked with, speak about him, from showering praise on him to sometimes voicing their petulance. However, the fondness they still have for him is unmistakable.
The film is due to release in early December this year. On Ghosh’s birth anniversary, Datta spoke to indianexpress.com about his contribution to Bengali cinema, the gaping hole left behind by his untimely demise and his relevance.
In the book, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, gender and art that has been edited by you is mentioned that Rituparno Ghosh arrived at a time when there was a vacuum in Bengali cinema. What do you think Ghosh did differently from his peers at that time?
I have co-edited the book published by Routledge. When Rituparno started making films, Bengali cinema was in doldrums. Content had shifted from literary tastes to cheap remakes of Hindi and Tamil commercial films. Viewers had turned away from big screen cinema to television. Ritu’s films immediately connected to the middle- class who returned to the single theatres and established him as the inheritor of Satyajit Ray’s legacy. Aparna Sen’s feminist films were a huge influence on his work as well. His early work was also feminist in its politics and explored female subjects.
Most of his films revolved around people from the urban middle- class. Do you think he also shed light on the inner demons they were battling against?
Ritu’s choice of milieu was the familiar middle- class, the context to which he belonged. The family chamber dramas were shot indoors, often two-handers and explored the psychology of relationships. Mother and daughter clash in Unishey April till there is a confrontation and resolution. It’s the same with Ashookh, where a troubled actress has to repair her relationship with her father. In Dahan, he rips apart the middle class mask of propriety to expose the hypocrisy of people and addresses and the taboo issues of marital rape. Those films were very politically inflected, Bermanesque in the politics of gender.
Among other tropes, loneliness is a theme that comes up time and again in his films. Do you think he used it to explore sexuality in his films?
Ritu’s own predicament as a closet gay artist led to him crouching behind his female protagonists in his early cinema. The idea of ambitious, sexually active women and men was explored in his early films. Only in his last trilogy he stepped out to address sexuality and the idea of gender fluidity and fights against gender boxing. His own position as a lonely artist led him to repeatedly explore loneliness and the inner world of individuals. Basically there is a relentless search for love and longing and a huge empathy for the outsider character, in terms of class and gender. He evolved to become a humanist and a bold and elegant fighter for the gender cause.
Looking back, do you think Ghosh ushered in a new wave in Bengali cinema?
It is not an overstatement to say he single-handedly brought the middle- class audience back to the theatres. Because he was prolific and he had a new film out every year, this created a cultural expectation and a market which rapidly spread from Kolkata to the rest of India India and abroad where the Bengali diaspora loved his films and celebrated a writer- director in Ray’s template. Along with Aparna Sen, Ritu certainly brought the narrative focus back to middle class family contexts and with a younger sensibility. He had a hugely talented cast in his films, many from Ray’s stable, and this validated his work. He also gained a steady international reputation with Berlin and London Festivals regularly showcasing his work.
You have recently directed a documentary on him, Bird of Dusk. What aspect of the filmmaker did you explore in that?
Ritu was a very close friend and work associate from the time of Chokher Bali. I was associated director in six of his projects, particularly the second phase when his canvas and budgets grew bigger and invited Mumbai stars to work in the Bengal industry. He was prolific and made 20 films in 20 years. He was certainly the best screenplay writer the industry saw. He edited a Sunday magazine and also grew to become a fashion icon. So I have explored him as a towering Bengali cultural icon. I have used his own writing from First Person, archival material, interviewed cast and crew and international curators. I thought what emerged most strongly was the intimate relation between an artist and his city, Kolkata, which is my beloved city too.
How important or relevant does Ghosh remain even after his death?
Rituparno has left a huge legacy as a cultural icon for the next generation. His films, his writing, his TV shows, his aesthetics and his distinct style sense are all very inspirational for younger people. Finally, his coming out and claiming freedom “ to be who you want to be” is a liberty call for not just the LGBTQ community, but for all those who wish to live on their own terms. To the next generation, Rituparno Ghosh is a legend.