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A memorable oeuvre
Whether it was a bored hausfrau or a conflicted transsexual, Rituparno Ghosh's stories and protagonists never failed to grip the viewer with their honesty and courage.
The problem with evaluating the oeuvre of a multifaceted filmmaker like Rituparno Ghosh is finding an answer to the question - what exactly was his greatest legacy? Here are some thoughts. . .
Redefining the narrative space
Credit goes to Ghosh for moving the focus of Kolkata movies from the socio-political concerns of the earlier generation of Bengali auteurs such as Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen to a more intimate celebration of the personal.
Ghosh's first films, his initial odes to the Kolkata film industry, with the exception of Dahan (1997), had always fashioned themselves around a familiar professional backdrop, the performing arts - cinema, theatre or the point of their intersection as seen in Unishe April (1994), Bariwali (1999), Shubho Mahurat (2003), The Last Lear (2007), Sab Charitro Kalponik (2008), Abohoman (2010). Are these movies on movie making, which were intimate but often uncomfortable critiques, his greatest legacy to a genre (with the exception of Kaagaz Ke Phool and Harischandrachi Factory)?
Incisive exploration of the female psyche
His empathetic exploration of lonely female characters in films like Dahan, Bariwali and Antarmahal added considerably to Bengali cinema's effort to delve into identity issues among women. This genre is exemplified by films like Ray's Charulata and Aparna Sen's Paroma.
But Ghosh took the league further with his portrayal of wasted housewives in decaying rich homes in films such as Chokher Bali, Antarmahal and Noukadubi. He also dealt very well with female sexuality in these films. Ghosh's heroines were rarely ashamed of acknowledging their natural urges.
I personally consider Antarmahal his most passionate statement, apart from being his most underrated film. It spoke robustly of mature passion. It also remains Ghosh's most unapologetic take on marital sex and he didn't shy away from a frank, real and un-aesthetic depiction of on-screen sex. Antarmahal invites you to explore some fascinating emotional foibles, creating pockets of tangible rasas - shringara (love), bibhatsa (disgust), hasya (comic) and ultimately karuna (tragic). Shringara and karuna incidentally have been the most recurrent rasas in Ghosh's oeuvre of films.
Assertive films on alternate sexuality
The idea of 'romance' however ventured into an altogether unexplored gender zone in his later films which tackled alternate sexual relationships with almost a reformist's zeal. These films worked seriously, sensitively and assertively towards a social cause and were made with little concern for personal reputation. He didn't even shy away from enacting gay roles in Kaushik Ganguly's Areykti Premer Galpo (2011), Shankar Nag's Memories in March (2011) and in his most personal performance, Chitrangada. The last perhaps came closest to being a celluloid autobiography given the many rumours of him dabbling with the idea of a sex change. In these films, he replaced the overt passion in his stories with female protagonists with something more muted. This made the repressed alternate sexuality of his protagonists more acceptable in the popular space. Yet his doomed characters have disturbed us convincingly enough to shake us out of our expectations of entertainment in films. Ghosh's films on the LGBT community perhaps pitch him as India's pioneer auteur in that genre.
Getting Bollywood talent to the East
Mainstream Indian cinema will of course remember him for once again waking Bollywood to the creative merits of working in Bengali cinema. He got the biggest number of Hindi cinema stars (Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgn, Bipasha Basu, Arjun Rampal, Preity Zinta, Manisha Koirala) to the East since the 1950s and '60s. Was it only Ghosh's consistent ability to extract memorable performances, sometimes the best in an actor's career - Kirron Kher (Bariwali), Rakhee (Shubho Mahurat), Aishwarya Rai (Raincoat), Bipasha Basu (Sab Charitro Kalponik), Preity Zinta (The Last Lear), Riya Sen (Kashmakash) or Deepti Naval (Memories in March) - that had made him such a favourite with the biggest stars of Bollywood?
To be fair to the director, he also gave many Bengali actors some of their career best acts - Prosenjit Chatterjee (Dosar), Soumitra Chatterjee (Asukh), Deboshree Roy (Unishe April), Indrani Haldar and Rituprana Sengupta (Dahan), Aparna Sen and Konkona SenSharma (Titli), Deepankar De and Ananya Chatterjee (Abohoman), Jisshu Sengupta (Chitrangada) and Rupa Ganguly (Antarmahal).
The filmmaker, who also enjoyed dropping names, had not long ago hinted at remaking Devi Chaudhurani with Katrina Kaif. This came as a shock to his Bengali fans, many of who are still coming to terms with Aishwarya Rai's Binodini in Chokher Bali. But knowing his way with impossibilities anything could have been possible.
Ghosh's life on and off screen was always gripping. A gritty biopic on the man in the true tradition of a Rituparno Ghosh film would perhaps be the best tribute we could pay him.
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