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“I don’t believe in dullness,” Rituparno Ghosh once told me during an interview, tossing his head back dramatically. Then, with a disarming smile: “Every moment in life is infused with a hidden vitality. The language of cinema is to articulate that.” Indeed, the language of Rituparno Ghosh’s cinema—its every pause and every silence even—spoke in lieu of a thousand words to wring out the vitality latent not just in life’s moments, but in that of death too. While Rituparno’s sensitive portrayal of life on celluloid has turned him into an icon of Bengali cinema, some of the most memorable moments from his movies are those that explore loss, loneliness, transience. “Life is perennially juxtaposed with and viewed in the context of death,” he said. And so, in his death, he has left behind a body of work in which the most diehard critic would be hard pressed to find a single dull moment, whatever their other flaws may be.
Rituparno began his career in advertising. His first movie, a children’s film named Hirer Angti (the Diamond Ring), won critical acclaim. But it was his second, Unishey April (Nineteenth April), released in the same year (1994), which catapulted him to fame. A critical and commercial success, it also won him the national award for best feature film. Rituparno’s journey—a solo beacon of quality for years when Bengali cinema (barring an arthouse trickle in the tradition of the trio of Ray, Ghatak and Sen) had sunk to crass commercialism—had begun. Unishey April, shot entirely indoors, was a dialogue between a mother and a daughter (Aparna Sen and Debashree Roy). After a long time, a low-budget arthouse film was a box office hit in Calcutta. Since then, Rituparno delivered—or ‘gifted’, as one critic said—one film after another, experimenting with myriad forms and genres, including suspense thrillers like Shubho Mahurat.
Though he never looked back (except perhaps to delve into Bengal’s rich literary past for inspiration (Chokher Bali, starring Aishwarya Rai and Prosenjit, was based on Tagore’s novel), the journey forward was far from smooth. While Rituparno Ghosh—never shy of breaking taboo—was the first to depict sexuality and erotica in Bengali cinema ‘as it really is’, stripping it of the mystery it was shrouded in, it earned him controversy, even contempt. He was cruelly parodied as ‘Ritu-Porno’ in film circles. Not that he was not aware of it. A television journalist once asked Rituda to react to this nickname. He looked hurt and changed the subject. Though deeply sensitive, Rituda had the rare ability to view things from others’ point of view, his friends say. He has been ridiculed for his eccentric and flamboyant style of attire (he often wore clothes, make-up and jewellery traditionally worn by women) and mimicked for his effeminate manner of speaking. For instance, he famously fell out with popular stand-up comic Mir for caricaturing him, though they made up later. “He was too kind to hold a grudge for long,” says Mir.
Those who knew him closely speak of his warmth. He addressed everyone as ‘tui’—the Bengali informal ‘you’—and openly admitted to his distrust and discomfort for the formal ‘aapni’ or even the warmer ‘tumi’. However, ridicule and criticism did not deter him, and his exploration of sexuality became bolder with every new film. In his third film, Dohon (1997), he questioned rape—marital rape and rape laws. His subsequent films, from Antarmahal to Doshor, exposed sexual politics and power structures inside patriarchal Bengali bedrooms, bringing in themes as wide as extramarital affairs to voyeurism.
But it was Rituparno’s later films, like Chitrangada—which he admitted was autobiographical—in which he seemed to finally, and perhaps literally, ‘come out’. The film is about the inner and outer conflict of the protagonist (played by himself) who felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. It exuded relief and a sense of closure that his earlier films—invariably capturing an inner struggle to break free, but never really being resolved within their span—did not. Before Chitrangada, Rituparno had acted in Ekti Premer Golpo directed by Kaushik Ganguly and Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March. He told me that though he was initially reluctant to act, he was drawn irresistibly to the characters and identified with their struggle. Perhaps a process of baring his soul had begun with these movies.
Rituparno Ghosh tweeted that he had wrapped up shooting for his last film on May 26. But that the editing and dubbing was incomplete. Did he ever have an inkling that he had completed his artistic journey with the searing Chitrangada? We will never know.