Many moons ago, my senior in Jadavpur University, now a eminent gender economist, was keen that Rituparna Ghosh who was a year senior to me in the class and I should become very good friends. I barely knew who he was except that he was a pretty boy, effeminate with a crop of curly hair and a nickel rimmed spectacle those which sat precariously on his nose bridge, being a bit too large for his face. I had no time to even notice this fellow busy as I was in campus politics and debates. Yet, the reason why my feminist senior insisted that we should be friends was because she felt that Ritu was a girl despite being born a boy and I was a boy despite being born a girl. In those days, contrary to my cultural legacy of the highbrow, I became a fan of Amitabh Bachchan and hence started watching Hindi films. Ritu, I now learn from his writings was out of Bollywood by miles. My interests in Amitabh Bachchan and my own surprise as t why I became a fan of a Hindi film star led me to pursue an academic career in sociology out of which I emerged with a MPhil and PhD but also with a theory of stars and the possibility of using these persona as texts for reconstruction of an era during which they lived and were loved. Ritu’s distance from Bollywood led him to revive the high culture of Ray, Sen, Tapan Sinha and in some instances even Aparna Sen and Ghatak. Then he returned, when he was older and less shy of himself to Bollywood,to Amitabh Bachchan, to whom he, I suspected was always attracted to but was too repressed to admit. In an interview I read long ago, Ritu said that one of his secret desires was to score a perfect 16 in KBC. So, he returned to touch his deep inner psychology in what turned out to be his last film, Last Lear.
Last Lear was Ritu’s thesis of Amitabh Bachchan. There was a palpable projection of himself on the star, who he imagined as one that ended his life and could now be accessed as a relic. It seems that this theatre artist long retired and is now sought again by a director who wishes to shoot a film on Shakespeare’s King Lear, a role the artist wanted to play but did not. However, the artist is injured and is bedridden after he tries to perform his stunts himself. Last Lear is a film about remembering his performance as an actor. I realized that Ritu stayed away from Amitabh because somewhere the masculinity of the image scared him; he must have thought in his mind that Amitabh if they ever met would disapprove of him. In the film Amitabh speaks poorly of homosexual men, Ritu’s self-infliction of wounds for his own guilt and inferiority complex. Now, in his matured years, with a body of extremely commendable work under his belt and Amitabh, sufficiently toned down and mellow without his scripts meet through the film, Last Lear, a role that is biographical, metaphorical and essential to the megastar of Bollywood.
Ritu captures the essence of Amitabh in his meticulous sense of ordering, his loyalties and commitments, his overpowering dominance, a tendency to bully, exactness of articulation, perfection in performance and the sheer force of personal presence. In these, he becomes like King Lear, one who is finally exiled and dies in the mercy of those who look after a maimed body long after his spirit dies. There are two women in the film too; one we may read as Jaya, because of the way the actress reacts and speaks and the other is Rekha, the actress who he mentors not merely in her craft but making her conscious that her craft needed to free her repressed emotions. Both women, suffer bad marriages when they come to him, and he provides them shelter and solace, respectively. This is the way Ritu looked at Amitabh, one past his prime, one left with little to live for except his personal habits, eccentricities, and quirks. And in this he moves into Amitabh’s personhood from his star persona. He explored the person carrying his proclivity of gossip to construct an image of the real-life Amitabh. This shows that Ritu was in awe of the man, approaching him only when he became less dangerous at the end of the journey, weakened a great deal with age, with his sharpness now coated with more grace.
Ritu has never been a philosophical person, not being able to graduate to larger world views out of what remains as personal struggle among his characters. As his classmate tells me that Ritu can never be a Ray because he is such a domesticated man, he can never get the global flavour of Ray. This mutual friend is not a film critic but has understood Ray very well. Ray used Amitabh only once and uncomfortable as he was with the star system used only Amitabh’s voice as the narrator in Shatranj Ki Khiladi. Ritu also used the very apparent and the visible parts of the actor, like Ray’s used Amitabh’s voice, Ritu used his personal habits. Both were advertising persons; they knew how to use the apparent stuff.