In a little over a decade, Rituparno Ghosh has established himself as one of the best directors in contemporary Indian cinema. Though he has largely worked in Bengali, his native language, with stories and themes that are rooted in Bengali culture, his films have broken geographical and linguistic barriers by reaching national and international film festivals.
Having graduated with Economics from Jadavpur University, son of documentary filmmaker Sunil Ghosh, Rituparno chose a career in advertising. After having made around 400 ad shorts, Ghosh shifted focus to feature films. Though his first film Hirer Angti (The Diamond Ring), made in 1992, a children’s film won an international award, it failed to get a public release in theatres. However, the film was later shown several times over at small festivals for children’s films and also on the small screen. The film looks like a product directed, put together rather – by an amateur trying his hand in a new medium. It is slip-shod and half-heartedly handled. He broke through majorly with his second film, however, Unishe April (1994). Unishe April went on to win the Swarna Kamal or the National Award for Best Film as well as Best Actress for Debashree Roy.
“The idea for Unishe April grew within me much before Hirer Angti itself. Lack of proper distribution and marketing affected the response to Hirer Angti. So I was determined that my next feature film would have a ready market. I first thought of making Unishe April in Hindi, with Waheeda Rehman and Shabana Azmi playing mother and daughter respectively. But the idea did not work out and NFDC rejected the script so we were back to square one. Then Rina-di (Aparna Sen) introduced me to her friend Renu Ray who pitched in to help. Aparna, Renu-di and myself formed Spandan Films and decided to take care of the distribution. It turned out to be wise step when the film won the award,” he adds. With Unishe April Ghosh liberated the censored and distorted image of the screen mother from the taboos and constraints of patriarchal culture to place it as a subject of psychological study and sociological inspiration for a feminist reading. The mother-daughter relationship has formed the sub-text in many Indian films within the format of cinematic melodrama. But this is for the first time perhaps, in the history of Indian cinema that the director has used the narrative as the vehicle for diagnosing a mother-daughter schism in ideological terms. He has done it with a certain amount of objective distance since he does not identify with the gender-identity of his two central characters.
Since Unishe April, the discerning Indian audience began to discover how deeply a male filmmaker could probe into the depths of the psyche of a woman. Through all his feature films since Unishe April, the loneliness of a woman has been his forte. However varied in their manifestations his women might be, never mind the differences in their relationships with others, or even the sociological backdrop they belong to, the bottom line is the same – they are lonely souls who find loneliness unavoidable against the backdrop of patriarchy. It is as if he has ‘naturalised’ loneliness as an integral part of the woman’s mindset. Whether it is the successful danseuse Suhasini or her daughter Aditi, or, whether they happen to be the two young women in Dahan (1997), Jhinuk and Romita, or Jhinuk’s grandmother who chooses to live in an old people’s home, they are basically alone and the entire narrative moves towards a climactic closure where they come to terms with their loneliness. This portrayal of loneliness as a concrete reality gains in strength and in intensity by the open endings of Dahan and Asookh (1999). Rohini of Asookh finds herself totally alone despite her doting parents, a caring lover and all the satellite paraphernalia attached to her star status. The psychological loneliness, where Tagore, his poetry and his songs are her only ‘friends’, leads to a sense of emotional insecurity within her. The fluctuation ends when the film does. But Ghosh succeeds in portraying the cinematic vision of her loneliness. The cinematographic technique of darkness dominating the screen, of slats of light thinning out the darkness, adds to the intensity and the drama of Rohini’s loneliness.
A unique element in a Rituparno Ghosh script is its distinct structure, which changes with every film he directs. Unishe April opened with the shocking scene of an untimely and sudden death. Whispers and hushed tones underscored the grief of a little girl in shock, till we were surprised to discover that the entire unfolding was in flashback. The narrative of Dahan is sandwiched between letters penned by one of the two main female characters to her sister away in Canada. Asookh explores the cinematographic space with a structured narrative that moves in and out of film shoots, the make-up room of the film-star heroine, and the dark, brooding ambience of her bedroom as the camera closes in again and again on her loneliness, her deep emotional insecurity, and her sense of alienation. In Bariwali (1999), he brings Bonolota down to repair a fuse gone wrong. Dipankar, the film director steps in to help her out. The film closes on the same note. The film team has left, the fuse has gone kaput once again and Bonolota clambers downstairs to repair it herself, having come to terms with her loneliness all over again. In Dosor (2006), it begins with a car crash, a traumatic accident that is out of the frame but is expressed through the sound track and from the faces of the crowd gathered to watch. It ends rather tamely, with the estranged husband and wife coming to terms for a new beginning.
It is in Utsab (2000), that one finds Rituparno in total control. Whether it is Madhabi Mukherjee as the matriarch or the deconstructed Prosenjit as the younger son-in-law, each one lives the role he/she is called upon to play. Rituparna Sengupta excels as the younger daughter while Ratul Shankar sparkles in a wonderful debut and Arpita furthers the promise she revealed in Asookh. Rituparno exploits every nook and corner, steps and dark corridors of the mansion through the generous use of mid-shots, long-shots, close-ups and tight close-ups with Abhik Mukherjee’s fluid camera. He fleshes out every single character in the film – even the visually absent ones. He stresses the positive side of each character, making each resolution all that more credible and smooth. Dialogue, one of his strongest points, is picked straight out of real life sans circumlocution, sans melodramatic embroidery, sans frills and with generous doses of humour.
Based on his own story, Titli (2002) offers the usual Rituparno fare of a filial relationship in conflict being resolved in the end. But the ambience is unusual. For the first time in his career, Rituparno moves his script beyond the confines of the four walls to shoot it almost completely on location among the scenic landscape of Kurseong winding its way through the hilly terrain of North Bengal down towards the Bagdogra airport. Small touches, like the small flashbacks in grainy black-and-white, Titli faking a headache and feeling closer to her father than her mother, those huge life-size posters of Rohit plastered across the walls of her room, her wanting to marry him, sauntering off to buy his favourite brand of cigarettes, are typical Rituparno stuff, blurring the lines between celluloid and real life seamlessly.
These films produce a self-consciousness of both films and film-making, a kind of commentary not only on films per se, but also on film-making/film-acting, as choreographed on film, through carefully choreographed mise-en-scene, through imaginatively lit production design where the entire backdrop, plus the music and the sound motifs form a part of the cast and, through metaphorical music, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense dialogue with elaborately designed pauses, and eloquent silences.
“Chokher Bali (2003) was been a long-time dream-come-true for me. I love to make films on subjects I understand the most. I feel I understand the inner feelings of women, their passion, agony and sufferings.” He does not mind that he unwittingly opened up another Pandora’s Box with his celluloid adaptation of the Tagore novel. “Binodini is one of the most complex characters Tagore has etched. Since this was an adaptation from an original work of literature, there is nothing new I could do with the story or the script. But of course my treatment was different. It was the delicate interplay of relationships that touched me. The story offered a vast matrix of relationships, which, I, as director, could play around with in a myriad different ways. Chokher Bali struck me as a very original text to begin with. It deals with the fragility of loyalty within marriage. Maybe, if you pick on this lack of faith, you may find that one common link between Chokher Bali and Bariwali. The ‘period’ flavour I could invest the film with was another attraction. Tagore’s original story did not have any time-reference. The characters seem to be hanging in limbo. The film offered me the chance of preparing the ‘period’ for the film. In Charulata (1964) and Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), Ray created the historical context for the film turning the ‘period’ into a ‘character.’ I have done the same in this film.”
Chokher Bali offers the viewer a deep insight into the condition of Hindu-Bengali widows at the turn of the century. Ghosh achieves this with the soft, subtle but firm flourishes of his directorial wand, his imaginatively structured screenplay and pithy dialogue, brilliant cinematography, music and set design, rooted in Tagore’s original novel. He has deftly brought across the sexual desires of a young widow in her sensual best, a woman who harbours no guilt whatsoever for coveting a man married to another young girl who is also her friend. Juxtaposed against the contemporary situation of widows in the country, one observes that the changes in their lives have been largely superficial, and have remained confined to the urban, educated middle and upper class society. Binodini is strong, brash and bold. But all the courage she can muster cannot save her from a tragic end. In the final analysis, she steps back from beginning life anew with Behari, who proposes marriage to her. She escapes into the unknown, never to be seen or heard of again.
Today, Rituparno Ghosh is the only filmmaker in Bengali cinema to have successfully transcended the borders of language, culture and casting to make films in Hindi and English. His prolific way of making films compared to his cautious foray into making one film only when the earlier one was complete and ready for release has perhaps changed his entire perspective on cinema and on directing films, choice of subject and starcast, and even treatment. Raincoat (2004, Hindi) starring Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai, was an unabashed plagiarization of The Gift of the Magi with suitable shifts in time, relocation, characterization, storyline and socio-cultural backdrop. Though the film began beautifully with the budding love of a young man for a beautiful girl in a UP village, it lost its way when it shifted to Kolkata in the mirage of the aristocratic apartment where two former lovers are thrown together by force of circumstance. Décor, which always forms an important character in Ghosh’s films, defined decay more than aristocracy, and this decay sort of spilled over into the two main characters, both failures as individuals in a world of competition and greed. The production design was beautiful, but the characters failed to convince and the film sank without a ripple.
Ghosh’s new film The Last Lear (2008), in English, carries his preoccupation with the cinema as a smaller world within the larger parameters of the social matrix further. The Last Lear is a celluloid statement on the confrontation between the artifices of theatre and the artifices of cinema as seen through the eyes of a retired Shakespearean theatre actor who is brought out of retirement to act in his first and perhaps, last film. A filmmaker himself, Ghosh uses this self-reflexive style to explore the psyche of people involved in films. This self-exploration, self-questioning, self-critique runs in varied manifestations, like a strong under-current in six films including The Last Lear – Asookh, Utsab, Bariwali, Shubhomuhurat (2003) and Titli. This is sometimes done as a sub-plot while the main story of the film may run on a completely different track. Yet, unlike Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (1959), or Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), for most filmmakers, the genre of a film-within-a-film is not autobiographical.
One must wait to watch his ready-for-release film Sunglass (in Bengali and Hindi) to discover newer perspectives and interpretations of this talented director called Rituparno Ghosh. Through cinema therefore, one hopes to rediscover Rituparno Ghosh, the director-as-author presenting his unique way of bringing about a fusion of the modern and the post-modern thereby raising questions on the possibility of creating a third genre of films based on classical literature on the one hand and his own scripts on the other. This may lead to a genre that effectively blends the word with the picture, yet sustains the independence of the original literary work, as well as the independence of the film which now evolves an identity of its own.