“Rituporna Ghosh shobai jane- chhobi banaye boro der jonne. Shey chhobi te shobai gombhir chinta kore, chokha chokha kothaye jhogra kore, kothaye kothaye kanna kaati kore, chitkar kore ba nirobe, koshto paaye ba koshto daye. Kothao kono jhol moley haashi mukh nei, jhor jhore praan jurono hullor nei…”
In 2008, when legendary filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh was all set to release his fourteenth film, Khela (Game), he came out with this promotional poem. Titled Amar Chuti, Ghosh in the poem, in his usual eloquent style, aptly capture the ethos of the world created by him. These lines provide a self-commentary on his work where the auteur says everyone knows the kind of films Rituparno Ghosh makes – they are on serious issues, the characters are somber. They fight in sharp, sophisticated language, howl or weep in silence often over little things. There is never an air of overt exuberance about them. By 2008, Ghosh had made enough number of films to understand his own tendencies in style, characterisation and the specific audience they appealed to. The world he created was unique to the Bengal of the 1990s – its demeanour and aesthetics reeking of a newfound aspiration and desire to turn away from the age-old Leftist tendencies. Rituparno Ghosh, in every sense, altered the Bengali film industry by making cinema for the new Bengal of the 1990s.
Frequently considered to be the one who filled in the shoes of Satyajit Ray after the latter passed away in 1992, Rituparno Ghosh’s contribution to Bengali cinema at the turn of the century was revolutionary. Born in Kolkata in 1961 and educated in the top institutions of the city, Ghosh had been known for his expressive writing skills way before he stepped into the film industry. It was in 1992 that he made his debut in films with ‘Hirer Angti’ (diamond ring), based on a novel by Shirshendhu Mukhopadhyay. In the ensuing two decades, he ruled over the Bengali film industry, cultivating a new sense of taste in his films, raising issues of gender and sexuality unique to a newly developing urbane class in Kolkata and in the process setting the stage for a kind of cinema that blended the sensibilities of art film with the craft of commercial film-making. This day five years ago, when Ghosh passed away, he left behind a body of work that continues to inspire and educate generations of movie makers that have, since then, followed his footsteps.
In sync with a changing Bengal
In 1977 when Jyoti Basu became the chief minister of Bengal, he ushered in a historic era of Left politics in West Bengal, one that would continue to hold power for the next 34 years. But if the 1970s marked the moment when parliamentary Left took birth and stood promising in Bengal, the 1990s was the decade when we first saw the signs of Leftism fading. Responding to the liberalisation of the economy at the center under the Narasimha Rao-led government, urban West Bengal of the 1990s was on one hand increasingly showing signs of getting weary of the restrictions imposed by Left politics, and on the other hand clearly being more wishful of benefits of a liberalised economy. In a matter of two decades, Left would be ousted from power in Bengal, rather powerfully. But it was the limbo in which the state found itself at the turn of the century that manifested in an emerging culture of materialistic aspirations.
We can safely say that cinema is a reflection of the society in which we live, and societal attitude is a direct product of the political processes that govern them. The time at which Bengal showed its first signs of getting weary of Left politics was also the moment when its most famed filmmaker Satyajit Ray passed away. “Although Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta tried to carry forward the legacy of ‘intellectual’ cinema represented by Ray and Mrinal Sen, they made films far in-between having little bearing on the commercial market,” write researchers Sangeeta Dutta, Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit K. Dasgupta in their article, “The world of Rituparno Ghosh: Texts, contexts and transgressions.” The Bengali film industry in itself was undergoing extreme financial trouble at this point in time, resulting in poor quality films being produced. It was at this point in time that Rituparno Ghosh arrived in the Bengali cinema scene.
“With several years of experience in advertising, Ghosh was adept at pinpointing the pulse of his target audience. Quite effortlessly, he tapped the sensibilities of the educated urban audience reviving through his films, not only Ray’s intellectualism and art of storytelling, but also the simplicity and candour of commercial Bengali cinema,” write Dutta, Bakshi and Dasgupta. Be it in Unishey April (1994), Dahan (1998), Asukh (1999) or Utsab (2000), Ghosh repeatedly addressed a bourgeois living room culture. In his period drama films or the ones based on the works of Tagore on the other hand, like Chokher Bali (2003), Antarmahal (2005) or Noukadubi (2011), he invoked nostalgia by reflecting upon the feudal opulence of yesteryears. “Ghosh managed to start a new dialogue with the urban middle class, a segment that was itself on the increase throughout the first decade of liberalisation,” writes professor of English Literature, Sayandeb Chowdhury in his article: “The endangered city in Rituparno Ghosh’s early cinema of confinement.” “While an upper middle class always existed in Bengal, this was an emerging nouveau riche class, who also wants to get the best of new India. That class identifies with Rituparno’s films very strongly,” says Prasanta Chakravarty, a professor of English literature.
Rituparno Ghosh and the gendered issues of new Bengal
While addressing the emerging aspirational class of new Bengal, however, it is gender and sexuality that have always been at the forefront of any of Ghosh’s films. Though issues of gender had previously been addressed by several other Bengali filmmakers, Ghosh once again made an intervention here by initiating conversations on topics like intimacy, sexual desires, women’s agency and the marginalised identity of the third gender. These rather unexplored areas in Bengali cinema was once again reflective of the same emerging class that Ghosh was addressing. Writing about this newly emerging class of urbanities, Professor Prasanta Chakravarty and Brinda Bose writes, “they were upbeat about the development of the city and new lifestyles but also acutely conscious of the nuances of sexual politics, rights discourses and imagination.”
But one cannot deny that Ghosh also chose to deal with these issues as a result of his own politics with gender and sexuality. In almost every film of his, he made a scathing critique of hetero-patriarchy, urging his audience to scrap beneath the facade of ‘happy marriages’ and romantic relationships. If in Chokher Bali he chose to reflect upon sexual desire and agency of women as well as the pangs of jealousy they experienced, in Antarmahal he decided to demonstrate the realities of a decadent feudal world and the stifling conditions in which women lived within its inner chambers- devoid of any sexual agency and treated as mere child rearing machines for their male counterparts. In Unnishe April on the other hand, he explored the influence of patriarchy on the relationship of a mother and daughter as the latter refuses to come to terms with her mother’s choice of profession as a dancer.
In his later films, however, Ghosh’s politics of gender becomes more bold and palpable than ever before. While he was known to have struggled with his own gender identity for a long time, in the years immediately preceding his death he emerged with a new look, that of a cross-dresser. The new look of Ghosh went hand in hand with a robustly vocal attitude about his identity as a queer. Ghosh’s sudden shift to a vociferous advocate of queer politics coincided with his relentless exploration of the third gender. Representation of the third gender and its lack thereof became a regular feature in the films he directed and acted in the latter part of his career.‘Arekti premer golpo (2010), ‘Memories of March (2010),’ and ‘Chitrangada: the Crowning wish (2012)’ are all films in which he actively explored queer politics, earning himself the epithet ‘champion of the third sex.’ Incidentally, Ghosh’s active engagement with queer politics occurred at a time when gender politics in India was undergoing a remarkable change with the reading down of Section 377 in 2009, ushering in an era of conversations on queer issues of a kind unheard of before. Ghosh’s contribution to this conversation through his films was significant.
When Ghosh passed away on May 30, 2013, the film industry across India mourned the loss of one of its most influential filmmakers. While the Bengali film industry is yet to find a replacement for the lost jewel, Ghosh had evidently laid out the path for contemporary Bengali filmmakers in devising for the new kind of cinematography and art of storytelling.