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Actor, auteur and the bhadralok’s fearless agent provocateur

Rituparno Ghosh’s films might have been derided by some as “middle-class”, but he was exceptional in the sensitivity and attentiveness with which he depicted domesticity, relationships and gender politics, writes Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta  1st Jun 2013

Rituparno Ghosh with Deepti Naval in a still from Memories of March

ituparno Ghosh's cinematic oeuvre — he made a remarkable 19 features and one short in a career of 21 years, as well as totting up four acting credits – was never credited with greatness. Serious film aficionados, in Bengal and outside, were in any case unwilling to grant that label easily to any Bengali filmmaker after the end of the Ray-Ghatak-Sen era. Also, his films, at least until the mid-2000s, were perceived as being middle class, and thus somehow automatically middlebrow. Later, of course, there was his so-called "lobh" (greed) for Bollywood, casting Aishwarya Rai in Chokher Bali, Abhishek Bacchan in Antarmahal, Amitabh in The Last Lear and even Bipasha in Shob Charitro Kalpanik, a fact which made his artistic credentials suspect (with some reason), while giving him unprecedented leverage in the national media. There was also the additional criticism that his films weren't 'cinematic', that they seemed like 'filmed plays'. In a telephone interview I did with him in 2008, he responded to this criticism with typical fair-mindedness: neither delusional nor self-deprecatory, outspoken but not defensive. "People have this simplistic idea that if you shoot outdoors it becomes cinema, and if you stay indoors, it's a play. By that criteria, only Kurosawa is cinema, not Bergman. I'm not saying I'm Bergman, or that Raincoat is great cinema, but I do find it a little undemocratic to not acknowledge my kind of cinema as an equally legitimate form."

Thinking about his films now, I feel as if the closed-door chamber dramas, the 'talky' films set in middle-class Bengali milieus that he made with such consummate ease, share more with television than theatre. Rituparno never actually made films for television (though he hosted two popular chat shows on Bengali channels: Ebong Rituparno on ETV Bangla and later Ghosh and Company on Star Jalsha), and in fact the one thing his films have been credited with is bringing back middle class Bengali audiences to theatres in an era when the lowbrow kitsch on offer had driven them away. But unlike a lot of filmmakers, Rituparno never turned his nose up at the television format. In the 2008 interview with me, he spoke twice of being grateful to Doordarshan, crediting its wide-ranging Hindi and Bangla programming for his not having grown up "judgemental about cinema", and for opening up Ray's repertoire to him in a way that it had not been available before.

But it seems to me that television for Rituparno was not just about access to cinema, but about a viewing experience, a sensibility. In a recent interview, he has said "television facilitates a more intimate viewing, and a more intimate connection with the characters". It was watching Jalsaghar on television that foregrounded for him the decaying zamindar's relationship to his mansion, and became the kernel that led to Unishe April's central focus on an ageing dancer (Aparna Sen) and her house. (The daughter (Debashree Roy) "came much later", and though the film was read as an adaptation of Bergman's Autumn Sonata, Rituparno always said he had not watched it then and never managed to watch it later because "a sort of mental block developed".)

The truly remarkable thing about Rituparno's films for me has always been his ability to create layers of empathy, to see why people are where they are, and not to mock them for it.

It was no accident that so many of Ghosh's films unfold within the four walls of a house. The large zamindari mansion appears over and over, a crumbling hard-to-maintain remnant in Bariwali (The Lady of the House), a just-surviving symbolic thing that might still come in useful by being mortgaged in Utsab (The Festival), a stifling patriarchal space in its supposed glory days in Antarmahal. But the space of the home is something he was attentive to in every film, and attentive in a way that few men are: the gulf between the interior and the exterior, the joys of domesticity as well as its possibility for suffocation — these are themes that Ghosh seemed effortlessly to understand and gravitate to. Perhaps they came to him along with the women he created on screen, whose relationships to space he was able to delineate with such precision and sensitivity. I think of Rituparna Sengupta's Romi in Dahan, discovering to her dismay how vast the social distance was between her Anglophone parental home in Sunny Park and her in-laws' home on Golf Club Road, finding that one "accident" means that she is no longer to go beyond her balcony, that her right to the city has been taken away. Or of Mamata Shankar in Utsab, listening anxiously for the sounds of conversation between her son and her niece, constantly watching out for the casual slide into intimacy that the secret spaces of the ancestral house she knows can enable. Or even Aishwarya Rai in Raincoat, somehow managing to be half-convincing as the stuck-at-home housewife, with Rituparno's ever-attentive detailing — a bra-strap peeking out from Rai's sari blouse — creating the sense of somehow domestic deshabille.

s a filmmaker in India today, Rituparno was remarkable for having written every single one of his films (barring the few that he adapted from Tagore – Chokher Bali, the rather lovely Noukadubi, or from other people's novels, like Dahan), and for me it was his writing, his ability to capture conversation – especially conversations between women, unfailingly attentive to the nuances of generation, class and educational divides — that made the best of his films such a joy.

Several obituaries now have described Rituparno as having travelled from respectful conformism to blatant transgressiveness, and certainly in recent years, he made a deliberate attempt to open up the questions of gender and sexuality that he had allowed to remain dormant earlier, not just as a filmmaker (Chitrangada) and actor (Aar Ekti Premer Golpo, Memories in March) but also in his stunning personal appearances in female attire. These films often seemed self-indulgent, especially because one knew he was playing some version of himself, but perhaps it was a phase he had to work through. But sex had always been a presence in his films, challenging a deep-rooted Bengali middle class hypocrisy where sex and money must never be mentioned, though everyone knows they're operating everything behind the scenes. Sex as negotiation tactic (Dahan), as patriarchal imposition (Antarmahal), as youthful frisson or remembered yearning or security (Utsab), sex as bridge or breakdown (Dosar), even sex as thoughtless indiscriminate surrender to your body: sex in Rituparno's films was never "just sex". And yet it was not soppily covered over by romance, it was allowed to be messy and dangerous and spilling beyond the boundaries of propriety. The presence of real sex — even if heterosexual — made his films non-conformist long before this last phase.

The truly remarkable thing about Rituparno's films for me has always been his ability to create layers of empathy, to see why people are where they are, and not to mock them for it. Even a Dahan, with its clear narrative contrast between different kinds of women, cannot become in Rituparno's hands a linear, liberation narrative like Dor. There is a lucid call for the pleasures of going it alone, but there is also an understanding that everyone makes compromises, and that sometimes compromises are the only way to live and love.

His non-judgemental style could extend even to crime. "In an ordinary detective story, it is the hunter and the hunted – there's no relationship between them except of wit," he once said. "But how can you be so unemotional about a person you are practically obsessed with?" For long my favourite Rituparno film was Shubho Mahurat, an Agatha Christie adaptation with a superbly twinkly Rakhee as a Bengali Miss Marple. I'm glad there's a Byomkesh Bakshi film to look forward to.

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