Rituparna Ghosh was a maverick film director who heralded a new age in the Bengali avant garde cinema. Ritu, as he is known in his close circles, revived the sombreness of the classical renascent Bengali culture. His dense and detailed style of cinema and especially his classical timbre revived an interest in the culture and aesthetics of Bengal. Armed with the weapon of a Tagorean culture, Rituparna waged a war upon the popular cinema and popular culture of his times and established his new politics that seemed to create an elite set of cinema viewers. This cultural warfare marked Ritu’s style of film making, the cut of his clothes, the design of his jewellery, the décor of his sets, the colours of his frames and the depth of his visuals. Though his cinema is avant- garde in form because he exploited new styles and angles of film making, Ritu derived his material from the legendary past of Renascent Bengal.
His admiration for classical style and his internalization of Tagore made him pursue a rather different style of dress and speech. Initially his effeminacy was carefully cultivated in order to convey a state of cultural refinement but slowly he became the icon of trans- sexuality. He presented himself as a hermaphrodite against a certain crassness that defined masculinity in his times. Intellectually he seemed not only to question the various notions we uncritically accept in our cultural socializations but he even went deeper into reinterpreting many motifs of the Bengali culture of famous novels and religious texts. He usually wrote his own stories in which he delved deep into human minds by putting bits and pieces of remote information together in a logical and consistent whole. No wonder then Agatha Christie’s detective, Miss Marple was his self-image! Each of his films seems to probe very acutely into what lay behind events and episodes that seem so predictable, commonplace and patterned. Just as in Miss Marple’s village where life never seemed to move at all and yet were spaces of simmering crimes, Ritu’s world too is apparently still, routine and clichéd underneath which lay strong currents of sexual politics and emotional manipulations where the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed would often exchange places.
Home is very central to Ritu’s motifs. He stylizes the home in great details. It is said that he revived the Bengali aesthetics of interior decoration just as he stylized jewellery and the saree. In fact, in the television talk show, Ghosh and Company that Ritu hosted he used his own sitting room as the studio to set standards of home décor. Ritu’s cinema was as much about style as it was about stories told rather differently. The home was where Ritu’s style found their ultimate expression. Ritu was all about decorating the home and just as he would dress himself up with eye liners and turbans and long alkhallas and achkans, he also used chest of drawers, book cases, lamp shades, designer dining sets, heavily upholstered sofa sets and expensive wall covers to deck up the interiors; these were his statements about his cultural tastes and status.
The family was sacred to Ritu; it was the space into which people returned and retired, where the sick would be nursed and the hurt would be consoled; it was where the child would be nurtured and the elderly would be cared for. He could detect even the slightest disturbance to the equanimity of this sacred space. Ritu’s films were status quoists; they were about securing the peace of the home and he could mercilessly strip anyone who he felt could be a threat to the peace of this home. Home is also the safe refuge for a young mind like him who found the competitive and harsh culture of his times to be too loud and definitive for his comfort. The home is also the haven where the genius is honed.
Although he is wary of macho men, Ritu is sceptical also of strong women. He feels that strong women, like egoistic men are detrimental to the peace of the home. He feels that strong women should have the grace of the victor rather than wear the gawkiness of the victim. He blames the confident and capable women of disturbing domestic peace and invariably upholds the emasculated male as the repository of good sense. As a story teller, Ritu is not the one to be overwhelmed by feminist discourses; instead he finds feminism to be a great lie of civilization, one which can do more harm than good, one which is more rigid that creative, more ideological than pragmatic. Despite this, his ideal is Miss Marple, the homebird, the post-menopausal, one who is a great housekeeper but lives all by herself helped by maids and one who is beyond usual demands made upon her by social relationships. And because of her being utterly ensconced within the society and largely unnoticed except in a charitable way because of her age and slight infirmity, she can get an unabashed view of the truth in which humans are not what they seem. Ritu’s characters are complex, mired within their fixations and notions, trapped in self-obsessions and untrue socializations. Such characters Ritu explores just as Miss Marple does through close surveillances in order to draw studied inferences.
In many ways Ritu is post gender; he does not believe that men and women can really ever be gendered. Instead they are fluid across gender, often changing roles. Human relations are not about negotiating across gender roles as feminism makes them out to be; instead they are about helping each other grow into realising their fuller potential. Relationships in which one partner looks towards the other for assurance is a failed relationship and women do this more because they look upon themselves as victims. Beautiful and talented women often look towards their love interests as their mirrors that would always assure that they are the most beautiful persons in the world. Should a man claim his existence as an individual instead of a mirror, the grand dames would sulk and be peeved. Men are quiet doormats in Ritu’s films while women are acerbic, sarcastic and abrupt.
A recurrent motif of Ritu’s films is death. The obsession with death is perhaps a Tagorean influence on him but it is also the inner most anxiety in nuclear families in which we live extremely isolated lives, disconnected with a wider network of kins. Also death becomes an anxiety to those who can no longer live up to the standards of their earlier generations. Death seems to worry Ritu and hence he raises it to a sublime affair; it is the ultimate peace, the final rest. It is the grandest equilibrium.In those films where there is no death, indispositions in health closer to death are portrayed. Death creates a distance which increases our abilities to reflect upon those who leave us and rediscover them anew now that our conflicts with them are transcended.
Rituparna started his work as a copyrighter in an advertising firm and then was the editor of a film gossip magazine, Anandalok. Both these strains have prominently marked the treatment in his films. He uses gossip to disentangle complexities that underlie human characters, their failings and their secret selves. He uses advertisement montages to attract a niche audience to the theatres for whom the lifestyle portrayed through his cinema becomes the aspirations of the upper middle class intelligentsia of the Bengalis. His films gave his audiences a culture, a lifestyle and which was his politics. His television talk show, Ghosh and Company, in more than one way was an extension of his films where he used the same gossipy style of the quintessential Bengali adda. In a manner, he reinstated the “drawing room” culture of the Bengali society, something that went amiss for many years all through the decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ritu’s cultural statement was so loud and clear that every celebrity in Bengal wanted to be a part of his projects to earn the legitimizing Rituparna tag.
Rituparna was a self-taught film maker. His father, Sunil Ghosh was a documentary film maker and it is possible that he was born into the craft of cinema. But Ritu drew heavily from Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen using their compositions, the angles of their camera, their way of setting up scenes, the density of texture and their rhythm. What is interesting is that Ritu makes no attempts to hide the fact that he has borrowed heavily from the works of these maestros and this is because Ritu reinterprets many of their films and extends the scope of their narratives. A very good example of this is Utsab in which Ritu reinterprets Ray’s film Sakha Prasakha and Antarmahal is a revisitation of Ray’s Devi. Similarly Ritu’s film, Bariwali is a punch of Mrinal Sen’s Akaaler Sandhane and Khandhar but the auteur director goes far beyond the vistas that Sen had set up.
A major lack that kept Rituparna away from winning his accolades as a master director was his utter inability to handle pace in cinema. His cinema was unable to follow events; they merely followed situations and while they could create the borders of a Universe, they could generate no energy for activity in the viewer. However, because his characters lacked an inner energy and were not driven by larger goals of life, or by aspirations to achieve statuses higher than where they lived, and the film narratives were driven more by the director’s will than by the logic of events, Ritu, like all the auteur directors was seen as the ‘author’ of his cinema. His stars were mere actors in his films. Even the mighty Bengali superstar, Prasenjit who would spit fire with his aggressive dialogues and powerful fights became an emasculated man, heavily laden with his sentiments and emotions, more comfortable to stay at home than to conquer the worlds. This flayer of demons and slayer of Gorgons lay helplessly stripped of his ego and bereft of his wilfulness in the face of the irate exasperations of his lady love. Aishwary Rai too was reduced to playing characters rather than herself in Ritu’s films viz; Raincoat and Chokher Bali.
Yet, Ritu started his career as a film maker by directing a popular film. His first film, Hirer Angti, was based on a children’s novel of the same name by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Ritu made all the right moves composing his shots mainly as Satyajit Ray would, using similar camera angles and lighting and in some places he worked also like Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen especially in the scenes with the gangs of the dacoits. Unfortunately the film was a massive failure and Ritu, taking Sandip Ray’s (Satyajit Ray’s son) advice that one must always study one’s failures in order to go ahead in life seemed to have learnt that making commercial cinema with universal appeal was not his forte. Ritu perhaps understood three things from this failure; one is to never attempt making movies on others’ stories, two, not to attempt a commercial cinema and three, that he lacked a major ingredient of cinema and which is pace. Ritu simply had no conception of pace or of rhythm. He thus concentrated on art house and stylistic cinema which was the main reason why he revived lifestyle and eventually raised it into his own brand of politics. Ritu wrote his own stories and while he still used Ray and Sen’s misc-en-scen he heavily started reinterpreting them.
While Tagore was always in his mind and Ray was his role model, Ritu was inspired by Abanindranath Tagore. Abanindranath wrote children’s novels but the prose was so picturesque and poetic that they made audio visual frames automatically. The sterling line in the opening paragraph of Abanindranath’s novel, Shakuntala described the clear and still waters of the river, Malini and this set off in the minds of Ritu, then only a boy of seven, images that rhymed with the stillness of the river. Ritu was seven because Shakuntala was a rapid reader for class II in the West Board of Madhyamik Education. It is my surmise that Ritu had a refined sensitivity which pushed him into reading poetry of Tagore and novels of Abanindranath. He appears to be little interested in the stock of children’s novels of his times like Satyajit Ray, Shashthipada Chattopadhyay, Sibram Chakaraborty, Narayan Gangopadhyay and others. He seems to be steeped in the yester years of Bengali culture and this perhaps alienated him from his peers. The accent, the demeanour, the stance, the body language, the gaze and the sensibilities and aesthetics that Ritu developed were distinctly of a Tagorean era, mistakenly read as being effeminate.
While Ritu succeeded as an avant garde film maker, he could never reconcile with the failure of his first film, Hirer Angti. He understood that though he was a competent art house director, he missed out on the knowledge of commercial cinema. He can be seen trying to understand the formula of the commercial cinema in his interviews with various personalities from commercial cinema when he hosted the talk show, Ghosh and Company. I wonder whether he ever understood the crux of the popular cinema; popular cinema is about aspiring and achieving individuals while Ritu’s concern was with individuals trying to accommodate with one another within the confinement of their homestead. Ritu’s films much like him never left home.
Ritu’s stay at home attitude, search for Tagorean aesthetics, involvement in the classical Bengali culture and his love for the soft and innocent pictures of Abanindranath Tagore alienated him his peers in an age of growing competition and consequently of masculinity. The jibes, leers and the snide remarks which his manners attracted from his peers may have continued in his professional field as well. This made Ritu pose as a gay, work for gay rights and even attempt feminine roles in Arekti Premer Golpo and Chitrangada. Ritu’s being as a gay person and his search for a sexual partner could have been a search for a companion which unfortunately he never got. He was too involved in the pursuit of his genius to spare time for marriage and family and though the institution of the family was sacred to him, he did better at being a child to his parents, yet another motif that seemed to mark many of his films. Ritu found no friend and the donning of sexuality was perhaps his way of luring people into being friends with him. The disguise of a homosexual was perhaps the saddest of all episodes of Ritu’s life.
Ritu directed a major television serial which he produced with the actor and superstar, Prasenjit Chatterjee, Gaaner Opare. The serial was running narrative to create situations for the play of various Tagore songs. The aim of the serial was not the story but the songs, pretty much the reason why Ritu also made his film Nouka Dubi. Ritu’s Tagore obsession can be seen in the use of his poetry, background scores, the use of songs, and cinematic representations of two novels and one play, namely Chokher Bali, Noukadubi and Chitrangada. Ritu, inspired by Tagore, also learnt to write Brajabuli, and wrote lyrics in the language! He wrote the lyrics in Brajabuli for his film Raincoat and also for Sanjay Nag’s film, Memories in March, and he acted in a lead role in the last mentioned.
While he lived, Ritu steadily cultivated a group of influential friends. His talents took him places but he realized that until and unless he had friends in high places, he would not get the stage he requires to express himself. He carefully cultivated celebrities and Aparna Sen was the main person who Ritu befriended. Through her Ritu found his first few steps to enter into the film world. Ritu walked straight into Aparna’s heart by tapping the innermost recesses of her heart in which lay betrayals of the men she loved. Unishe April and Titli are also Aparna Sen’s stories of her pain just as the Last Lear is the story of Amitabh Bachchan’s dark and deeply held secret. Ritu found an immediate invitation into the lives of these celebrities by his empathy. Indeed, the character, Rangapishi, played by Rakhee in Ritu’s film Shubho Maraharat, based on Agatha Christie’s novel, The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side, plays up to the culprit and extracts a confession just as the way in which Ritu could have anyone and everyone open up to him. This was the secret behind his plum post as the editor of Anandalok.
Despite these manipulations, Ritu’s film making talents can never be gainsaid. He understood clearly that he was not the one made for popular cinema in which protagonists fight with the wider world and overcome their constraints through a flow of energy transforming their lives and the objective realities facing them. Ritu wished to rule the world from the confines of his home, seated firmly in his position from where, like a conductor in an orchestra he would guide and nudge the world to fall in line with his will. Art house cinema is all about maintaining the equilibrium of the status quo and this, Ritu understood very well. The masters who he internalized, namely Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, were award winning directors and they made art house cinema. For Ritu, art house cinema seemed to better suit his style which derived heavily from the above mentioned master directors. Reflected upon, in another way, Ritu, together with his style and film making styles ensured that he cracked the formula of winning film awards and praise from cine critics. Thereafter, the fact that he could never make a popular film on the lines of Tapan Sinha did not worry him. Aparna Sen seems to have influenced Ritu the most among his contemporaries. Ritu developed his style so close to Aparna Sen that films like Unishe April and Titli are often mistaken as the latter’s works. Interestingly, these are also films in which Aparna Sen played the lead role and Ritu may well have move towards her style in an effort to explore her essence. Like Aparna Sen and every other auteur director, Rituparna’s style evolved out of his world view.
Ritu was not only unabashed about imitating the masters but he seemed to insist that the viewer’s notice these parallels. This was because he was as if competing with the masters, showing off to them that he indeed could make better films. Mrinal Sen says in his tribute to Rituparna after the latter’s death that it seemed to him that Ritu was trying to beat him at his craft. Ritu adopted the craft of the masters out of which he developed his own film making style as an art. He drastically reinterpreted Ray’s film, Sakha Prasakha and Devi and dug out the forgotten tale of Binodini and her mentor Girish Ghosh and pasted it on Satyajit Ray’s affair with the actress playing Charulata, Madhabi Mukherjee in Abohoman. Ritu challenged Ray in his cinematic rendition of Tagore. Just as Ray had created Charulata, Ritu creates Chokher Bali and Noukadubi. Ray had made a film out of the famous Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi created by Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Ritu’s latest and as yet unreleased film, Satyanweshi is again a story around the detective. Ritu did compete with Ray. However there was a major difference; Ray normally used novels written by others while Ritu mainly wrote his stories himself. In his story writing, Ritu seems to be most influenced by Suchitra Bhattacharya, a strong feminist writer who Ritu again twists and tweaks to give it a flavour not very kind to women. In the last, Ritu seems to have really internalized Tagore because his novel Chokher Bali is extremely unkind to intelligent women.
Ritu’s quarrel with Mrinal Sen was on a different plane altogether. Mrinal Sen was steeped in his political ideology and this Ritu felt stood in the way of his analysing reality in its microstructure. Ritu teared through Sen’s macro vision which placed characters as pawns in Sen’s ideological matrix while he slowly, with the deftness of a chiropractor prized out deeply hidden nuances from the minds of men and women and laid them bare on the screen. Ritu’s contribution lies in discovering types of women; there is a self-involved artist and a neglected child in Unishe April, a successful career woman who lacks emotional intelligence in Asukh, a set of overreactive ideologues in Utsab, a naïve idealist and a smart victim in Dahan and so on. Undoubtedly, Ritu, like Tagore creates categories out of women rather than of men; his films often are known for the women players.
Ritu is more likely to be the one who worked with stars rather than launching new stars. In his films, he was the star. Like many of the important characters in his films who remained unseen on screen, Ritu was the great presence who remained behind the scenes but clutching every moment of the film in his tight grip, never letting characters take on lives of their own. While this confirms his position as the auteur, Ritu’s films, unlike those of Ray’s could not create characters that would become icons within the timeless cultural stock of Bengal.
One wonders how would the generation next recall Rituparna Ghosh and his films; to the best of my guesses made from the study of opinions and comments floating around in the social media, Ritu will be noticed more for his bold sexuality especially his homosexuality than his much deeper understanding of asexuality. Looked at carefully, Ritu’s ideological stand seems to veer around platonic relationships where the sexuality of the respective partners do not matter. This is why Kaberi, of Dosor forgives her unabashedly infidel husband and sinks back into marriage; or in Shob Choritro Kalponi Ritu extols a marriage in which the wife, Radhika is attached both to her lover and her husband while in Abohoman, the Aniket does not seem to spoil his marriage with Deepti despite his flings with Sikha. Ritu just tramples upon sex, moves it aside and goes in search of a spirit higher than the impulses contained just in the body. This is why he seeks Tagore so deeply, not only in his films but also in his own life, where Ritu, unable and unwilling to fall into the masculinity of his times, retreats into a shell, emerging out of it in public in the disguise of a transgender. Ritu was no transgender, he was also not a feminist; he was completely a man with partiality towards men, those men whose sensitivity had marginalized in a world of competitive and gross males. Ritu’s eloquence also helped him to distract his viewers. He used his enormous command over the Bengali language and measured and chewy accent upon the Tagorean timbre of his voice to say how empathetically he tried to understand his women making us believe that he was a feminist.
Ritu went to college to study economics; one infers that he wanted to be in employment or write competitive examinations. This, as his own film Chitrangada says, he did to please his parents. But it was a subject that would have led him to professions without any sensitivity towards the arts and music. The choice of a career as a film maker was perhaps to remain in a profession where his proclivities towards cultural refinement would have been satisfied. There was yet another reason which I surmise must have been the case; directing a film is a definite way of defining the cultural rules and standards of a society and Ritu, himself marginalized by a crassly masculinizing society decided to set the rules of the game by which he would set such norms that the leering and jeering society would be defeated in his hands. This he did and very successfully because Rituparna led the new film movement in which the Bengali film aesthetics were rediscovered and rejuvenated and a whole new language of film making could be established. No film is a better example of this new language than Shob Choritro Kalponik.
Unlike Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen, Rituparna has been vocal outside of his film sets. He has designed clothes, jewellery, recited poetry, hosted talk shows and written long letters and commented on cinema. In all of these activities Ritu has been more like a school teacher correcting accents, criticising dress sense, disapproving attitudes and deriding the use of short forms of names, like Ash for Aishwarya. He writes a letter to the actress saying that were he to be her, he would never have conceded to writing his name in the corrupt form. In every possible way, Ritu insisted on his classicality and ticked those off who did not measure up to his standards. He seems to have used his talk show, Ghosh and Company to the core to spread his cultural superiority upon his guests and through them on the viewers at large. He even would give large and heavy coffee table books to his guests much like the prizes for academic performances in school!
One is tempted to raise a question, what would it have been to live life as Rituparna Ghosh? It was a life of glitter and gloss and glamour but beyond the party, when guests would leave, the home was empty. As much as Ritu would stuff his home with antiques and paintings and pile up his books on table tops rather than use book cases just in the way Satyajit Ray would keep his coffee table editions one upon the other, at the end of the day heavy sighs and silent tears rather than the sound of laughter would fill his private space. Ritu never thought he was good enough for the world of men, choosing to operate from outside its frames rather than participate in it, which explains why he would often instruct his music director of many films, Debojyoti Misra to make the background score in a manner that it only plays without requiring any active listening. This non participation in life did not permit him to marry and have a family of his own and yet at the same time his yearning for company. He perhaps thought that friendship with women might create its own problems and which is why he looked for male company. His greatest tragedy is that he tried to ensure friendship with men by arousing in them a sexual need for him; this was his great undoing, a tragedy which he confesses in his film Chitrangada. Ritu, like the protagonist, Rudra, decides to revert back to his moorings, abandoning his attempts at changing his sex. Ritu, like Rudra too wants to go back home where his mother has refurnished his room with new curtains except that by that time both his parents were dead, and a return to them could only be through his.