A filmmaker who broke many a stereotype, Rituparno Ghosh will be remembered for giving the alternative a chance

“I am overrated because there is a lack of talent around.” When Rituparno Ghosh passed away last week, we lost a little bit of honesty in the creative spectrum. “I don’t like to intellectualise cinema too much,” he told this journalist when as a greenhorn one was trying to place him in the pantheon dominated by Ray and Ghatak. Over the years one realised that he was more like Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar, but since there is no Ray or Ghatak now his image becomes magnified.

But then, nobody can deny that Rituparno kept the flag of regional cinema flying when Bollywood was trampling everybody to submission. “In the two decades that Bollywood ruled India and the Diaspora, Rituparno Ghosh through his Bengali films gave regional cinema a status and visibility that made it a force to reckon with,” says Shohini Ghosh, seasoned scholar, who has followed Rituparno’s career closely.

Rituparno saw cinema getting demystified on the dining table, as his father was a noted documentary filmmaker. “I discovered the difference between a rush print and a final print very early. However, I could not relate to documentary films as I wanted to be a storyteller... interpreting the truth, which documentary filmmakers call distorting the truth,” he told this journalist in an interview.

Ghosh says Rituparno never had formal schooling in filmmaking and nor did he ever work as an assistant to any director. “The world of advertising was his training ground. He self-confessedly learnt about filmmaking by watching Satyajit Ray’s films. I personally feel that his early work carried the legacy of Aparna Sen’s ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ and ‘Parama’. He also loved the films of Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar, not to mention the romantic films of Uttam-Suchitra. ‘Noukadubi’ (The Boatwreck) was a tribute to these filmmakers. On the other hand, he pushed the boundaries of what is ‘cinematic’ in cinema. This investment in form was an important development in his later films and was explored most eloquently in ‘Shob Choritro Kalponik’ (All Characters are Imaginary) and ‘Chitrangada’. I regret that his untimely passing has cut short this phase of his cinematic experimentation.”

Seasoned filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, who knew Rituparno from the time he took the script of his first film “Hiren Angti” to him, says his cinema was all about honest storytelling with good craftsmanship. He gave them the ray of hope. “He brought the middle-class intelligentsia back to theatres when the common Bengali was lining up for entertainers churned out by Swapan Saha and Anjan Choudhury,” says Dasgupta.

Ghosh says it is important to note that Rituparno’s films revived the Bengali film industry economically. “His films brought audiences back to cinema halls. Rituparno had a high regard for popular appeal as long as the films were skilfully made. Apart from being a filmmaker, he was a cinephile who loved popular Hindi and Bengali films as much as European art house cinema. So for him or his audiences, ‘popular appeal’ was not a synonym for ‘compromise’.”

However, Dasgupta feels Rituparno didn’t experiment with the form as much as he could have. “Like many others, he became a victim of popular appeal. In the later years, particularly with ‘Chitrangada’, he rediscovered his voice. And I told him to stick to it. But he started making a film on Byomkesh Bakshi. I told him there are others who can do justice to Byomkesh but nobody can blend personal with the cinematic as he did in ‘Chitrangada’.”

Female characters were central to his stories and he read a woman’s mind like no other. “I would say that Rituparno had an ability to cinematically explore the nuances of intimate relationships. No other filmmaker in these two decades gave women protagonists the centrality and significance that Rituparno did. Bengali cinema in the eighties — with the exception of Aparna Sen films — was largely hero-driven, but starting with ‘Unishe April’ that male-centric equation was dramatically altered,” says Ghosh.

Dasgupta agrees that Rituparno saw a woman as more than just a body. “He himself was a woman trapped inside a male body and suffered the pain of living in a society that is judgmental.” But Rituparno never said that. In fact, he wanted to explore the ground between the two genders or the matrix of androgyny. He was as much comfortable in a kurta-pyjama as in a skirt. No wonder the walls at his residence were decorated with many interpretations of ardhanarishwara. But that doesn’t mean men got a raw deal in his films. He reinvented Prosenjit, tested Amitabh Bachchan and who can forget Anu Kapoor’s cameo in “Raincoat”.

There is a school of thought that feels that his preoccupation with homosexuality in the last few years and his inner struggles somehow limited his canvas, but Ghosh sees it differently. “The ‘inner struggle’ you speak of did not belong to Rituparno alone; it belongs to all queer people. As for the ‘preoccupation with homosexuality’, would this question be asked of Guru Dutt or Satyajit Ray, as to why ‘again and again’ they were preoccupied with heterosexuality? Making good films has nothing to do with the director’s sexual preference or that of the characters in the film.”

For the mainstream media his eye for detail didn’t go beyond the strap of Aishwarya Rai’s undergarment in “Raincoat” and Shefali Shah’s anklet in “The Last Lear”, but Rituparno had a constant urge to look for grain in the chaff. Ghosh cites an example. “During the climactic sequence in ‘Shubho Mahurat’ (which is a loose adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mirror Cracked’) the murderer arrives with a box of poisoned sweets. If you look closely at the box you will notice that it has been re-packaged because she has bought the sweets and meddled with them before taking it over to the person she wants to kill. This is an innocuous detail that many may not even notice but it’s there for those interested. The idea came from the actress Sharmila Tagore, but Rituparno embraced it because he thought that’s exactly what the character would do!” Konkona Sen once admitted to this journalist that Rituparno’s ability to listen to his actors during the course of shooting was more than her mother, Aparna Sen.“She would listen to inputs of her actors during the workshops but Ritu da was open to ideas even when the shot was ready,” she said.

Like his films, he had this ability to give space to the other point of view even if he wouldn’t agree. When one pointed out the inconsistency in Aishwarya Rai’s accent in “Raincoat”, he said it was his fault as he was not familiar with the vernacular. Similarly, when everybody was drenched in colour he gave black and white a chance in “Dosar”. “When we got colour as an option, black and white ceased to be an alternative,” he said. He would go to any length if he had a particular actor in mind. Deepti Naval told at the time of the release of “Memories in March” that he changed the Bengali portions to Hindi because her Bengali was pathetic. “He could have cast any other actor but he wanted me. So when one asked him if he brought in Hindi film actors for pan-India acceptance, he quietly asked, ‘Do I need to do this? I cast them because I see my characters in them.’”

Ghosh reminds Rituparno was not the first one to cast Hindi film actors. “Satyajit Ray worked with Waheeda Rehman and Simi Garewal. Sharmila Tagore acted in Ray’s films when she was one of the top actresses in Bombay. Mrinal Sen also worked with Bombay actors and therefore to level this charge against Rituparno alone is unfair, if not pointless.”

Dasgupta doesn’t agree but Rituparno is often credited with reinterpreting literature on celluloid. For him cinema and book literally meant the same thing — boi. “We must interpret literature according to the times we are living in. I did it in ‘Chokher Bali’ where I didn’t agree with the way Tagore ended the novel. I kept an unresolved ending. Similarly, I adapted O Henry’s story in ‘Raincoat’ differently from the novel,” he had said.

While reinterpreting the dynamics of extramarital affairs, he was never judgemental about the subject and refrained from dubbing the woman as an adulteress or the man as debauched. He was keen to explore the different facets of relationships. “Showing extramarital affairs in Indian films is no longer taboo. Where Rituparno made a path-breaking contribution is that he gave dignity, centrality and respect to queer sexualities and this he did as writer, director and actor. The courage he has displayed in doing this is unsurpassed,” says Ghosh.

To somebody who grew up on a diet of Hindi cinema, one found a bit of Guru Dutt and Sanjay Leela Bhansali in him. “I am not sure but these are two filmmakers he found interesting — for very different reasons,” says Ghosh.