This is how fast news travels these days. The filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh died of a massive heart attack yesterday at 7.30pm in the morning (30th May) and by 8.30, before some friends of his found out, I’d already heard he was dead. All courtesy Twitter, which has a strange ability to be so personal at times and yet, it can as easily  turn a human being into a statistic or a piece of electronic gossip that bounces from device to device with a click; an action that needs almost no conscious thought to be enacted.

So within seconds, he’d gone from being the filmmaker who always reminded me of that Longfellow poem — “When she was good,/ She was very good indeed,/But when she was bad she was horrid.” — to a man who needed to remembered for the right reasons. Because all of a sudden, there’s all sorts of crap that is whispered — “If he hadn’t gone for those sex change operations, he’d be alive”; “How much money do you think he made?”; “What a beautiful flat he had!”; “Every film he made was a masterpiece”; “He was a great actor”; “Only Bengalis care about him.” Actually, the last may be somewhat accurate.

But that’s not the point. I made a huge mistake last night. Somewhat brimming with the memories of all the good things about Rituparno’s filmmaking, I watched the one film of his I hadn’t seen: Chitrangada — The Crowning Wish. I would like to now spare you a few hundred words and instead present three gifs.






I'd be the one on the left. The one on the right is probably closer to how most of Bengal and arty Indian cinema's state of mind.

I’d be the one on the left. The one on the right is probably closer to most of Bengal and arty Indian cinema’s state of mind.

Here’s the brutal truth: Rituparno Ghosh was as ambitious and greedy for glamour as he was talented. As a result, there are more bad films in his filmography than there are good ones. The ones that are good, however, really are very moving even now. For instance, Dahan was made in 1997. It was about the way people react to violence against women. When a married woman is molested publicly by some men on the street, the only one who comes to her aid is a schoolteacher. Indrani Halder played the schoolteacher who was hailed as a hero by the press and those around her. The role of her grandmother was played by Suchitra Mitra. There’s one unforgettable scene in which Halder goes up to Mitra and essentially complains about the fact that Mitra hasn’t been particularly vocal about praising Halder for having  saved that woman. Mitra says she doesn’t see why Halder deserves so much attention. It was what she should have done; it’s what any person with a decent upbringing should have done. “You haven’t done anything extraordinary,” Mitra tells Halder. “This is what I expect you would do.” And you suddenly realise, that’s true. What kind of a culture have we created where helping someone in such a situation isn’t the first instinct?

This is the strength of Rituparno’s films — they have moments that embed themselves in your mind. What’s particularly remarkable is that he usually managed to do this even in his truly rubbish films. There’d be a song, a shot, a set of dialogue in the middle of a haystack of awfulness that would prick you, and it was the most frustrating part of seeing films like RaincoatAntarmahal and The Last Lear. There were good ideas in all of Rituparno’s films but it was as though he was in too much of a rush. Before they were fully-formed in his imagination, he’d force them out on the production floors. Disappointing works would emerge and still, in certain angles, they managed to look beautiful. Take, for example, Chitrangada. The film gets more and more cringe-inducing with almost every scene, but then there’s this one little exchange between two men who are lovers:

– I love you the way you are.

-Will you love me less if I become a woman? You don’t have to love me more.

And you can’t help but wonder how much of a difference should the physical make, given how tend to define things like love and friendship as being emotional and intellectual bonds.

Gender identity has been a recurring feature in Rituparno’s last few works. Repeatedly, the hero of a film Rituparno had written/directed was a gay man who dresses effeminately, is successful and who ends up in a relationship with a younger man. Usually, the gay man is close to his mother and his heart is broken by the younger man, wittingly or unwittingly. Arekti Premer Golpo, Memories in March and Chitrangada are all this story. The first I liked, the second was bad, the third feels almost embarrassing. The problem in Chitrangada is that the relationship between the two lead actors — a choreographer and a heroin addict — is bizarre because till the end, you have no idea what makes either one of them fall in love or stay together. Then there’s the small matter of the sex change which pops up out of the blue. The choreographer decides to go for a sex change operation so that he and the heroin addict can adopt a child. Except the heroin addict doesn’t want a child. The choreographer didn’t say anything about wanting a child until the scene before he announces this decision. Nothing added up. Nothing made sense. Watch Chitrangada, and gay relationships come across as turbulent, melodramatic affairs that are full of whimsy and sex.

From Dosar

From Dosar

Contrast that spectacle to the fractured marriage in Dosar, which is perhaps my favourite film of Rituparno’s. Shot in rich black and white, the film is restrained, subtle and such a poignant portrait of a relationship that is destroyed and then cellotaped to some sort of normalcy by a husband and wife. In Dosar, a wife discovers her husband was having an affair when he’s seriously injured in a car crash. At the hospital, she learns that he wasn’t on an office tour as she had thought but with his mistress who has died in the accident. She can’t leave him because he’s too fragile and as she nurses him back to health, he tries to win her trust back.

Filled with silences and punctuated by poetry, Dosar didn’t have a single moment when you felt distanced from Kaushik and his wife, Kaberi. Prosenjit and Konkona Sen Sharma played the couple, and both of them were excellent. Dosar was the film that made me grudgingly accept that there just might be an actor hiding somewhere under Prosenjit’s chest hair and unwatchable filmography. For most of the film, Prosenjit is lying in bed, injured. He can’t move much. All he has is his face, and that too has bandages for much of the film. Yet he managed to communicate the grief, hurt, humility and whatever it was that made him willing to suffer sharp, little cruelties; as long as it meant Kaberi might give him another chance. Konkona as Kaberi was brilliant. Her anger, the bitterness, the exhaustion that comes from hating someone, the stubbornness that sets in after some time and finally, whatever it is that makes you stay — it was all there in her Kaberi. Dosar was so balanced, so caring towards both the characters. Rituparno’s love for both the husband and the wife was evident. He didn’t tip the balance too obviously in anyone’s favour. He just made you care about both these people who had hurt each other, whose hearts had been broken.

How is it that a man who can be so sensitive in his reading of a heterosexual relationship becomes so juvenile when writing a homoesexual relationship? How is it that he couldn’t see that he was incapable of putting his life on screen? How did he miss the way he was depicting himself as something ridiculous in films like Chitrangada and Memories in March? Perhaps because in case of conventional marriages he’d been an observer rather than a participant, Rituparno’s depictions of the husband-wife dynamic in its many avatars is incredibly sharp. They’re always unhappy. There’s invariably a distance between the couple, but despite the hurt and the bruising, the marriage tends to remain intact. They become companions and they support each other even though all logic suggests they should separate. Like in Dosar, you’d think the most illogical decision for a wife who is independent and feisty would be to stay on with the man who has been so callous and unfaithful to her. Yet thanks to Ritu’s storytelling and Konkona’s performance, it didn’t seem strange at all. We empathised. We felt and so we understood, and it all added up even though it shouldn’t. In Chitrangada, it should make sense that an older man wanted to hold on to a young kid who, for some reason, is a little besotted. It’s enough for Behind the Candelabra. But the performance and the direction make the whole relationship seem so utterly absurd.

That said, my parents thought Chitrangada was a masterpiece and this is quite something when you consider their attitudes towards homosexual love. Despite my having spent years trying to change her mind, my mother still thinks homosexuality is weird. (This is an improvement from “unnatural” and “perversion”, which were the words she casually flung around when talking about homosexuality some years ago.) My father is far more accepting, but that doesn’t mean he’s entirely comfortable with the idea. However, he does want to be, which is good. Both these two old folk loved Chitrangada. They found it moving and insightful. I feel like they watched some other film. Because the Chitrangada I saw verged on unwatchable and it made me almost forget the same imagination had birthed Dosar. Except that’s the truth. This is how horrid and how talented Rituparno Ghosh was.

The filmmaker I’d like to remember is the one who could make a film like Dosar and convince people like my parents of a love story like Chitrangada‘s. Rest in peace.

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