It is so vivid even today. About 12 years ago, he invited this writer and his brother Iqbal, living in Houston, to a posh Kolkata restaurant for dinner. “Utsav”, his directional venture with us had already hit the headlines. A Tagore bhakt, he now had his eyes on “Chokher Bali”. But the film needed tedious spade work, from screen writing to Vishwa Bharati's permission. That meant a substantial amount of time and so “Titli' -- the story of a mother, daughter and a film star popped in as a 'stop gap' production. It was to be shot and completed in four weeks. He gave us the storyline and both of us gladly agreed without going through the finer details.
A joyous director now ordered for a big sized 'khaja' like dessert but dipped in ice cream -- two scoops, one pink and the other white. “Despite my high diabetes, I am going to have this; and when I reach Los Angeles next week, I am going to shut myself up for three days and only sleep,” said Ghosh. Somewhere there was a catch, I presumed. Later, we came to know he needed that isolation to finalise his “Chokher Bali” script and the official formalities to approach Madhuri Dixit (later replaced by Aishwarya Rai) to accept “Binodini's” role. That was Rituparno Ghosh.
Following the footsteps of the giant, Satyajit Ray, Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013) who crossed the border to eternity a few weeks back, charted a new wave in Bengali cinema with his films capturing the imagination of the audience at a time when the Bengali film industry was at its lowest ebb. The decades 1992-2013, where Ghosh belonged is of pivotal importance in both the economic and artistic history of modern Bengali cinema. Ghosh's works during this period inspired a new generation of young and highly talented directors many of whose first films grew out of Ghosh's film culture.
Like Ray before his career in film, he had worked in an advertising agency and was quite a success. When Ray left in 1992 for his eternal abode Ghosh's, “Hirer Aangti” had already hit the screen. It was as if Ray in his own hand gave him his torch to bear. A novel written by the popular writer of the time, Shirshendhu Mukhopadhyay was chosen, just as Ray chose the famed writer of his era, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay for his “Pather Panchali”. The film essentially for children was about inheritance and conjuring tricks. Veteran actor, Basanta Choudhury was in the lead with Moon Moon Sen adding a bit of glamour; that was enough to begin with and Ray then in the hospital would have praised it, had he the opportunity to see it.
Then came “Unishe April” in 1994 based on Ingrid Bergman's “Autumn Sonata”, followed by “Dahan”, “Utsav” and “Titli”. Outstanding touches of human emotions dealing problems for others to see, rectify and learn. No one of our generation with the camera understood the sensitivity and sensibility of the Bengali middle class and its womenfolk more than Ghosh. And the screen projection was always masterly. His screen writing took his films to new heights.
Take for example, “Dahan” which was based on the true story of two women, one molested in a Kolkata street and another, the witness to it who came forward to bring the criminals to court, only to be defeated by the society of which we are a part.
Recall, the scene of a “damned” Indrani Halder in a taxi sheepishly approached by the victim's father to say, “Aamar meyeta parlo na ma, ore upor tumi raag korona, shobai to tomar moto hoina. Hoito amaderi dosh, amrai okay shey bhabey toiri korte parini” (my daughter could not do it; not everyone is like you. Perhaps it is our fault; we failed to raise her that way) and then follow the exchange of dialogues for the next 20 minutes in the film, with the famed singer, Suchitra Mitra who also features in the film.
Try “Utsav” dealing with the decadence of a large family. Can one forget the scene where Mamata Shankar confronts Madhabi Mukherjee (and others) when the family considers selling the house to the very man whom they earlier rejected! Or choose, “Titli”, the mother-daughter interaction with a film hero and the circumstances under which the daughter comes to know that her “hero” was once in love with her mother; amazing thought out scenes! Only Ritu had the intellect to shoot these. His films glorified women, their feelings and sufferings; he knew the female psyche very well.
After playing with the Bengali middle class society's aspirations and desires from an angle that was untouched before, he moved into glamour and glitter. Who wouldn't like that in show biz, at least for a while! So stepped in Ajay Devgan (Raincoat), Aishwariya Roy (Chokher Bali) Amitabh Bachan and Preity Zinta (The Last Lear), Bipasha Bose (Shob Choritra Kalponik), Jackie Shroff (Antarmahal), Monisha Koirala (Khela) in his films. The casting became more brand- oriented but Ghosh stuck to his forte--the many nuances of complex human relationships. His foray into Hindi films was with “Raincoat” while his maiden English film was, “The Last Lear”. Here again, he showed his class. He got national awards for both. In total, he bagged 12 in 21 years in various categories.
His brilliant story-telling reflected contemporary society as never before. But his closing years were different. He focused on his own lifestyle, the fact of being in between. In the process, he got involved in films dealing with the third sex, a genre even his mentor, Ray did not deal with and on this occasion, sometimes as an actor par excellence as in Kaushik Ganguly's “Arekti Premer Golpo” and then again in “Memories in March” by Sanjoy Nag or as a director-actor in “Chitrangada”. This public exposure of his life pattern made him lose friends, resulting also in a lot of speculation about him including that of gender reassignment. But he was never bothered. On the other hand, he considered himself privileged for what he was.
He was mimicked in the TV for his way of living which of course he confronted successfully as for the first time he brought in front of the middle-class Bengali households, the issues of sexuality and beyond. Proud of his gender fluidity, his rationale was, he had the choice to put on a saree or a pajama kurta depending on the situation just as a woman does in today's world. To him, the concept of 'unisex' was monopolized by women; bindya, earrings, necklaces have been a part of our sartorial history and tradition but strangely these have been labeled as something feminine.
It is not that all his films were outstanding. But then which artiste's work has been unique all through. Just as our Humayun Ahmed in Bangladesh led the way to the habit of reading books, in the world of Bangla cinema, Ghosh got the audience back to the theatres.
Well read and sophisticated, he had the uncanny power to extract the best out of his actors. His films bore the unmistakable signature of a single director's individual stylistic or thematic preoccupations without reflecting any coherent group style; an auteur, a renaissance man. He left us suddenly in the lurch without completing his own story; but the film industry (West Bengal and Bangladesh) will always remember him for his contribution to films in the post- Ray era.
The writer is a music connoisseur and associated with research in science and technology.