By Amitava Nag
May has a very special connotation in the Bengali psyche. It is in this very month when two of Bengal’s brightest stars of the cultural sky were born – Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. It is on a rainy day in the end of the same month two years back when Bengal lost its most versatile film-maker of contemporary times. It was a romantic rainy day in 2013 unlike the sweltering summer this year and I was driving to my office when the news of Rituparno Ghosh’s untimely death hit me quite hard, like many others. Two years later and the initial shock evaporated by now what does Rituparno Ghosh’s cinema mean to me?
Bengali cinema was in tatters following two major setbacks – the death of Uttam Kumar in 1980 and the demise of Satyajit Ray in 1992. Interestingly enough, Rituparno’s films just filled this void to start with. There were the likes of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghosh or Aparna Sen – however, the middle-class educated and intelligent Bengali was slowly turning away from cinema in general.
In parallel there was a rising of another type of Bengali films which was targeted and marketed for the less cerebral section of the audience, primarily in the rural belt though not always. The phenomenon of Prasenjit surfaced from this trend as well as Chiranjit who had a shorter stay with fame though. To Rituparno Ghosh’s credit he brought a section of the Bengali audience back to the cinema halls – to me this is his greatest contribution to Bengali cinema and any history of it will remain largely incomplete unless this due tribute is paid to him.
Rituparno often commented he wanted to make films made in the Bengali language but for an Indian audience – one of the reasons he took stars of the Bombay film industry quite often and at times made films in Hindi (Raincoat) or even English (The Last Lear). This is unique of him since not even Satyajit Ray (apart from occasionally taking Sharmila Tagore and one Hindi film in Shatranj Ke Khilari) ever reached out to the Bombay stars in a conscious bid to make his films more acceptable outside of Bengal. In this effort and with moderate success, Rituparno not only broadened the horizons of Bengali cinema but has given the entire fulcrum of ‘regional’ cinema a whole new dynamics – the debate, problems and the future of which is beyond the scope of discussion for this article.
If we now analyse the filmic career of Ghosh, he started off with films which were largely indoors with loads of dialogues and a complete disregard for silence – something I never liked then, and even now. However he was intelligent in controlling his budget in keeping his cinema mostly static in the initial years – he was probably trying to gain faith of his producers and ensured that he is not being extravagant and in the process missing out being able to make the films at all! And in having a lot of verbal communication in the indoor setting he just sparked off the side of Bengali psyche which quintessentially loves to remain indoors and unexplored.
In a strange way Rituparno’s positioning in the Bengali cultural space has similarities and parallel with two most revered Bengali film-makers of all times – Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. If Satyajit gave masculinity to the body of Bengali cinema, Rituparno without doubt added feminity to it. This feminity is of the mind – which many female film-makers with a patriarchal bent can never think of bringing forth.
In this regard he is closer to Ritwik Ghatak in the fact that Ritwik with his life-style and propaganda was equally stomped down by the Bengali middle-class ‘bhadralok’ albeit in a different context altogether. If Rituparno’s sexuality and his ‘living one’s life’ the way he wanted was something that the mass couldn’t digest, it was Ritwik’s alcoholism and his big-mouth which rarely suited the educated. In both cases the person was more the point in discussion and not the oeuvre he left behind – utterly unfortunate and a bitter reality. Interestingly enough for both their last films have elements of autobiography and would remain hallmarks in their own career and in understanding them within their creative space. With Jukti Takko Aar Goppo Ritwik opened up a new window of personal cinema where the creator gets juxtaposed with his creation and his visions – extremely political and rooted within critical cinematic flaws and shortcomings. Nonetheless, this last film is one which has a didactical influence in understanding Ritwik’s nuances and his dichotomies.
This feeling of loss of the self for the other is grounded in Rituparno’s experience of Tagore – something which he could use to tap the Bengali mind with élan. Both Ghatak and Ghosh experimented with their body but in different ways – and used their ‘body’ as the canvas of their denial of the system and their own revolt against the society. Tragically for both it was their very body which did a renegade and both died soon after making the films in discussion above – Ritwik at the age of 51 and Ritu at 49!
In the final analyses there are a few in Rituparno Ghosh’s cinema oeuvre which expanded the medium of cinema and championed the creator’s vision and beliefs. The others died with a damp whimper. Rituparno Ghosh probably will remain an ‘enfant terrible’ of contemporary Indian cinema – less for his creations but more for his ‘self’.