What my experience assisting Rituparno Ghosh taught me about film,and film-making excellence
For many months,I had been sending Rituparno Ghosh samples of my photographic work and amateurish short films. This was in 2002,when I was in the United States doing a PhD in economics but spending an unhealthy proportion of my time thinking about cinema. I was an early fan of Rituparno and of Unishe April in particular,which had struck me as an altogether unique and thrilling film. Finally,he relented and let me join the Chokher Bali crew as an assistant director.
All pre-production meetings took place in his South Calcutta house,cluttered with antiques,curios and innumerable photographs of himself. It was a magical form of collaboration ideas crystallised out of overlapping conversations punctuated with incessant jokes in that living room thick with cigarette and dhuno smoke.
This intimacy that I came to cherish was the very thing that made my early days daunting. I slowly learned to keep up with arcane details of Bengali culture,to switch from aapni to tumi,to learn to mock and be mocked. The first day I entered his house,Rituda asked me if I had stitched my own bag. I replied with an indeterminate head-shake suggesting that I had. Now I have lost the opportunity to tell him the truth that it was bought at the Gap.
This attention to detail,a characteristic of the best filmmakers,was always present in Rituda. He had an unparalleled command over the meaning of casual expressions and gestures. My best hours were spent standing next to the cameraman,shirking my tasks to observe Rituda in action.
He might start by telling Aishwarya Rai,Ash,its looking too heroine-heroine. He would then act out an entire scene from the perspective of each character,flying through the set in perfect rhythm. In the process,he would draw attention to seemingly trivial details. When wiping a tear,for example,it makes a dramatic difference whether the palm or the back of the hand is used.
Ritudas instinct for gesture also made him an excellent manager. He knew how to calm frayed nerves and whom to appease during the inevitable shouting matches among crew members. He understood the power of rarely raising ones voice,so that when one did it would be effective.
Though I returned to complete my PhD and enter an academic career,my appreciation of cinema matured deeply over my year working with Rituda. Every contemporary viewer knows that hours of labour lie behind a simple scene on the screen. What is harder to imagine is the adrenaline that flows,even through the tedium.
The viewer of Chokher Bali,when looking at snakes in the cemetery,cannot be expected to know how hard we tried and failed to make them copulate on that late winter day in 2003. When observing the sympathetic face of a nun in the darkness of a hut,the viewer is unaware that we first tried to cast a male British diplomat in that role because of his glorious cheeks. We even went so far as to put him in a nuns habit before he sensibly realised that this would be a step backward for British diplomacy.
Chokher Bali turned out to be a brilliant,if uneven,film. It marked a turning point in Rituparno Ghoshs filmography,which evolved into a growing critique of societal restrictions and a plea for tolerance. In Chokher Bali,the main character,Binodini,is handled with remarkable frankness her post-widowhood sexual impulses are understandable and even noble.
Ritudas legacy will not just be cinematic but also cultural and intellectual. In a world where activists are all too often silenced on charges of stridency,he managed to pull it off. He was a mainstream filmmaker introducing the country to decidedly non-mainstream themes. He was generous and savvy,drawing his audience in without rancour,so that before we knew it his unassailable logic had chipped away at our narrow notions of gender and sexuality.
Even when he wasnt directing a film,Rituda couldnt rein in his directorial instincts. One day in Benaras,we went to the Vishwanath temple to observe the arati. In the chaos that is familiar to anyone who has visited the temple,Rituda began to intervene in the ritual. He rearranged prayer props. He asked for the lights to be dimmed. He told the priests their hand movements were all wrong. Amazingly,everyone complied.
One of the most remarkable individuals of our time,Rituparno Ghosh will be sorely missed by those who knew him and those who didnt.
The writer teaches economics at Hunter College,New York