A meticulous screenwriter-director whose films blended the classical literary traditions of his native Bengal with a new-age sensibility and craft that transcended the confines of region, Rituparno Ghosh was one of the most provocative voices of contemporary Indian cinema.
In a tragically brief but hugely eventful career, Ghosh made light of many divides through the means of his immaculately crafted films and on the strength of his own unique identity: art and commerce, regional and national, heterosexual and gay.
He was a rare Kolkata-based Bengali filmmaker who found ready acceptance among the biggest stars of mainstream Mumbai cinema.
He directed Aishwarya Rai (in Chokher Bali: A Passion Play and Raincoat), Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta (in The Last Lear), Abhishek Bachchan (in Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber), Sharmila Tagore and Raakhee (in Shubho Mahurat), Ajay Devgn (in Raincoat), Mithun Chakraborty (in Titli) and Bipasha Basu (in Shob Choritro Kalponik).
More importantly, Ghosh was peerlessly gutsy in the manner in which he addressed issues of alternative sexuality in a series of three films made within a year of each other — Kaushik Ganguly’s Just Another Love Story (2011), Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March (2011) and Chitrangada — The Crowning Wish (2012).
He played pivotal onscreen and off-screen roles in all three. He also directed the last named film, an adaptation, in a modern context, of a Rabindranath Tagore dance drama that was drawn from the mythic tale of a princess who is brought up like a ‘male’ warrior by her father because she is heir to the throne.
The transition from a celebrated director to an actor of substance would have been unremarkable but for the thematic nonconformity of the three films and, of course, the sheer daring and empathy that Ghosh brought to bear upon the four characters he essayed in the three films.
In Memories in March, he played the part of a closet homosexual who opts to stay in his socially acceptable shell. In Just Another Love Story, he essayed the roles of two homosexual men separated by several decades — one a gay filmmaker and the other the younger avatar of an ageing real-life cross-dressing jatra actor (Chapal Bhaduri, who played himself in the film).
In Chitrangada — The Crowning Wish, Ghosh was a choreographer readying for a performance of the Tagore work even as he struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality and the confused feelings of his parents.
In less than two decades, Ghosh made nearly 20 films, the last being the incomplete Satyanweshi (Seeker of Truth), his take on an adventure of the fictional sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi that he finished shooting days before his death.
Born on August 31, 1963, Ghosh studied economics at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. He learnt the ropes from his documentary filmmaker-father, Sunil Ghosh, before branching out on his own in the world of advertising.
Ghosh’s directorial debut was the nondescript children’s film Hirer Angti (The Diamond Ring), made in the early 1990s but released only in 1994. It was with the Bergmanesque Unishe April (April 19) that he burst on the scene.
The National Award-winning film, featuring Aparna Sen and Debashree Roy as a dancer-mother and her estranged daughter, also fetched the latter the Best Actress Rajat Kamal in 1995.
Ghosh quickly built a reputation as a director blessed with an ability to extract outstanding performances from actresses.
The leading ladies and supporting actresses of his next two films — Dahan (Rituparna Sengupta and Indrani Haldar) and Bariwali (Kirron Kher and Sudipta Chakraborty) — all won National Awards for their performances.
More recently, Ghosh’s 2010 film, Abohomaan (The Eternal), believed to be but not officially acknowledged as the story of Satyajit Ray’s troubled mentoring of Mahanagar and Charulata star Madhabi Mukherjee, won Ananya Chatterjee the best actress National Award.
Ghosh’s career began only a few years after Ray’s death and he was seen by some as a worthy inheritor of the heavy mantle of the master. He did give a fresh lease of life to quality Bengali cinema, which had found itself in the doldrums for several years as directors of the post-Ray generation struggled to break the stranglehold of the feckless mainstream movie industry.
On the flip side, some of Ghosh’s talk-heavy films were dismissed by critics as lacking in cinematic depth. So, even as he inspired a new generation of Bengali directors to put refined, urbane stories on the big screen, it was felt that he was instrumental in injecting a certain degree of verbosity into Kolkata’s off-mainstream cinema.
But when an opportunity presented itself, the productive Ghosh, always an exceptionally gifted screenwriter, proved his mettle as a craftsman. He came up with compelling films such as the black-and-white Dosar (The Companion) and the profoundly lyrical Shob Choritra Kalponik (All Characters Are Imaginary).
Ghosh left a deep imprint with everything he did as a man and a filmmaker. There has never been, and is unlikely to be, anyone quite like him in Indian cinema.
(Saibal Chatterjee is a New Delhi-based independent film critic who has personally known and followed Rituparno since the early years of the filmmaker's career.)