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When you are working with a filmmaker, if he’s a friend, you don’t really go through the nuances of his work, you tend to take it for granted as something that’s always there. Rituparno Ghosh’s death on May 30 a year ago stunned everyone. A year later, it leaves me wondering, much belatedly, whether I should have paid more attention to the director than to the friend. Then Shoma A. Chatterji’s readings fell into my hands.
A respected film scholar, Chatterji has analysed Rituparno’s ‘voice’ in the first critical book-length study of his work in English.
She looks at the films through a matrix of five categories—women-centric films, relationships, contemporary literature, Tagore and alternative sexuality—and then delves into each after narrating the stories in detail. Unishe April, for example, is indexed through patriarchy, feminism and Marxism, almost too many categories to seem possible and verging sometimes on hair-splitting, though to do Chatterji justice, her research has been painstakingly thorough. She points out what may not occur to many, the parallels between Unishe April and Asookh, performer mother-daughter in one case, father-performer daughter in the other.
Rituparno declared himself a ‘womanist’ to the world at large. However, while admitting that his treatment of women was capable of great sensitivity in films like Dahan, Chatterji points out that this sensitivity was shown equally towards men, as in the case of the ageing director played by Dipankar Dey in Abohoman, who comes to rely so much on his son in old age that he needs his help even to retrieve the end of the cord from inside his pyjama waist-band.
The Tagore films form a puzzling issue. Rituparno’s relationship with Tagore texts grew to be inseparable. But in exploring Tagore’s work, Rituparno, like many filmmakers, tended to alienate Tagore scholars—this despite spending hours poring over seminal texts with academics like Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and Samik Bandyopadhyay. Chatterji goes back and forth between the established texts and Rituparno’s interpretation to explain the director’s choices.
Perhaps she should have also speculated on his initial choice of Nandita Das to play Binodini in Chokher Bali, fresh from her role in Shubho Mahurat. Rituparno felt that Nandita Das would have struck a new chord with her dark attractiveness, making her doubly untouchable in a fair, married world, but later cast Aishwarya Rai, a more conservative choice that still managed to attract controversy, while spearheading a steady trickle of Bollywood actors into Tollygunge thereafter.
On the whole, Chatterji steers clear of controversy and ‘reads’, as the title says, with references to relevant texts. The fact that a great deal of research has gone into the work is evident. Telephone interviews with Rituparno, too, form part of her source material, though they later petered out as his health got the better of him.
What Chatterji does not explore fully, since it possibly does not fall into her framework, is Rituparno’s treatment of directors in his films, from Bariwaali and Khela to The Last Lear and Abohoman. For someone who was himself a director, Rituparno treats them as people obsessed by the cause of what they see as good cinema almost to the point of murder (in The Last Lear). There’s certainly a question there which he never answered, film within film or otherwise. Nor does she theorise on why his youthful films ended on a note of hope while many of the later ones remained suspended in the surreal.
If there is a tangible problem here, it’s possibly Chatterji’s lavish praise—phrases like “one of the best Indian directors” threaten to go into overdrive. And she places Rituparno on a level with Ray, Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, something which he, sadly, did not live long enough to confirm.
On a factual level, Chatterji refers to him as ‘Shourojit’, when the name he discarded was ‘Shouroneel’. When she mentions Shirshendu Mukherjee, the author who inspired many films, she cites Hirer Angti, Rituparno’s first film. However, she leaves out Pagla Saheber Kobor, which was his first choice but which failed to attract funding because of its supernatural context, something most viewers will find strange now.
Despite glitches, Chatterji has the first mover advantage in her readings. So, if the book does sometimes sound like listings, as when she enumerates Rituparno’s talents, the listings deserve respect—especially when backed by her wealth of research.