The Passing of Rituparno Ghosh

Image

I just got some bad news from Calcutta. Noted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh suddenly died this morning. He was 49.

In some ways, Ghosh reminded us of Fassbinder. In their separate social contexts and possibilities, they both challenged the “normal” society and the larger limitations of humanity. Both had a “libertine” lifestyle. Both probably died of strange, out-of-the-ordinary reasons — prematurely.

Both Fassbinder and Ghosh were exceptionally talented and extremely hard-working. Both cut a new genre of powerful, artistic movies.

Art critic, film professor Dilip Basu at University of California at Santa Cruz wrote me: “He was an idealist/realist, and an iconoclast.”

Prof. Basu is right. Ghosh carried forward the bright torch of Bengali liberal intelligentsia, a torch passed on by the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and more recently, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghose. All these noted movie makers, Ray and Ghatak being the two globally-famous names, showed us how progressive thoughts and anti-status-quo intellectualism and politics can thrive — even in an extremely conservative and patriarchal society. Yes, they can survive an onslaught of MTV, Beyoncé, Spielberg, Titanic and Jolie.

Or, in the Indian context, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and Amir Khan.

Fassbinder (1945-1982)
Fassbinder (1945-1982)

The Bengali poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals have created an indelible path of free and futuristic thinking. Indian filmmakers and playwrights such as Ray, Ghatak and Ghosh as well as Badal Sarkar, Shyam Benegal, Girish Kasaravalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, M. S. Sathyu and Ketan Mehta vigorously put up a strong resistance against the quicksand kitsch of Bollywood. Millions of Indians and Bengalis are proud they have refused to be a part of the Bollywood imbecility. They drew inspiration from the vibrant, alternative, pro-real-life, anti-fantasy genre. They needed the inspiration now more urgently than ever before.

Ghosh’s sudden, untimely departure is thus truly difficult to grasp today.

Professor Basu wrote me: “A Bollywood friend told me once, ‘If you are looking for real innovation, you will not find it here as much as in Kolkata [Calcutta]. Where is a Rituparna Ghosh in Mumbai?'” For those who do not know, Bollywood movies are all made in Mumbai (previously Bombay — thus the name Bollywood: Bombay-Hollywood).

There was never a Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak in Mumbai Bollywood. There was never a Rituparno Ghosh or Aparna Sen in Bollywood Mumbai either. Especially if you think about the exquisite art Rituparno Ghosh held in his frames.

Many smiled at him. Many more laughed.
Many smiled at him. Many more laughed.

Especially, Ghosh was indeed an iconoclast. For India’s extreme, and often violent male chauvinistic society, his coming out as a gay/transgender was itself a revolutionary act. Some say, his sexual orientation and fiercely individualistic lifestyle made him a lonely man.

A Calcutta critic Yajnaseni Chakraborty wrote today: “…the jibes at the way he dressed and talked, the personal attacks on his films and those he acted in, the insensitivity of a society he was trying to change and educate, the seeming disloyalty of those he considered friends, and his inability to really, truly, trust anybody. Beneath his nonchalant facade, the hurt and the loneliness dug deep.”

I was not so much for his almost exhibitionist, somewhat bizarre lifestyle. In fact, as a movie enthusiast, I was not even one of his biggest fans. I never liked the way he filmed Tagore’s Chokher Bali (Eyesore) and cast Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai as the lead, feminist character (Bollywood is polar opposite to women’s equality, in case you didn’t notice; and the Bachchan-Rai family has been one of the lead torchbearers of this anti-feminism street swear). I strongly disliked the way Ghosh distorted Tarashankar Banerjee’s novel Antar Mahal (Heart Quarters). I always thought Rituparno, in a zeal to break down any social norms, customs and traditions, took it too far too quickly, and did not do justice either to the original authors or to the core messages they wanted to pass on to us. His cinematography took over his body of work, not only from a film-language point of view, but also from a social message point of view. His much-pronounced individualism thus unfortunately alienated me from some of his otherwise memorable creations.

Indian Rituparno Ghosh, at the end, perhaps gave in to Western Ayn Rand’ism. Or, perhaps, to Fassbinder’ism.

But I still want to remember him as one of our greatest artists and filmmakers; Ghosh brought the Bengali-Indian audience back to Bengali-Indian cinema from kitschy-glitzy-variety Bollywood. I want to remember his movie Dahan (Crossfire), where Ghosh took on the rampant street violence on women in India as well as the cowardice of Bengali middle class failing to prevent it. He took it head-on. I want to remember how he used our beloved Tagore singer Suchitra Mitra as a major actress on the movie and brought the best out of her. I would want to remember Chokher Bali, not for the film interpretation as much, but for the celestial music Ghosh’s music director Debojyoti Mishra created for the movie. I would close my eyes and just listen to the music for its entire two hours — non-stop.

Mastery in art. Captured in the frame.
Mastery in art. Captured in the frame.

Again, I was not a major fan of Rituparno Ghosh the filmmaker. But even without blinking for once, I would rank him as one of the most important artists — a cultural icon — of our time, who defied kitsch-for-entertainment, and had opted for intelligence and humanism — the essence of Bengali-Indian identity.

Or, rather, the way I have always considered our Bengali-Indian identity. Or, for that matter, my present Bengali-Indian-American identity.

Rituparno Ghosh and his art are going to be dearly missed.

Sadly Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

###

Everybody knows, Nobody cares. Nobody dares. Nothing changes.
Dahan by Rituparna Ghosh. Everybody knows, Nobody cares. Nobody dares. Nothing changes.

Meet Your Own Renaissance Man

Here He Comes! That's Him, That's Him!

Ahem. Announcement. Loudspeaker. Drumroll. Would you please meet your own Renaissance Man?

Would you please consider standing up and greet your one and only Renaissance Man…like…the only one you’ve known in your personal, private world? That’s the purpose of the words “your” and “own.”

Is it too much of an expectation from him? Is it too much of a demand? At least…a dream…maybe?

I know other than you, nobody knows him. He is not big. He is not tall. He is not rich. He is not famous. He’s not white. He’s not black. He can’t run fast. He can’t shoot guns. He can’t climb mountains…he can’t move mountains…he can’t even climb a tree. He’s not an agile swimmer; he can barely float. He’s not a heavyweight lifter; his knees gave out because of a series of cricket and soccer-football injuries. His left ear has been ringing bad in winter since seventh grade when a North Calcutta thug punched him hard. His rib cage aches from time to time even since in eighth grade a school teacher beat him up black and blue.

He does not come from a prosperous family; he doesn’t have any pedigree. He doesn’t belong to the elite class so that people truly hate him. He doesn’t even belong to the proletariat class so that people truly empathize him. He is not widely traveled. He has not read all the books an averagely intelligent person should read…not even all the available English translations of famous writers…not even enough English literature in English. He’s not a polyglot; he’s only managed to speak, read and write a couple of simple dialects. He is not even that fluent in languages he’s picked up. In fact, if you make him angry or nervous, he starts fumbling and mumbling even speaking the handful of new words he painstakingly learned. You can hear him stammer…that is…if you can get close to him. But It’s difficult to get close to him because he’s often rude and arrogant and defensive and egotistical and unyielding. He is not an easy man. Common perception is that he’s a difficult man.

But he still believes he is your personal, one-and-only Renaissance Man. Therefore, would you please rise up and delight him with a standing ovation? Here he comes…confetti, claps, table thumping and loud cheers…major jostling for a close-up look…media frenzy…paparazzi shots…black limousine…red carpet…limelight…flashlight…floodlight…fill-in light…deep focus…soft silhouettes, pretty, young, tall female companions in sexy evening dresses…

Well…um…actually…they’re not there with him…yet. But you’re a sensitive, imaginative person, aren’t you? You can imagine it all! Can’t you?

Please do. It’s big fun that way…to imagine…paint a mental picture!

Now, why in the world does he consider himself to be a Renaissance Man? I mean, given what we just heard about him and drew a mental picture, what makes him think that he belongs to that rare, elite, powerful group of people with dexterity in diverse arrays of life?

Well, the last time I heard, the only reason is that some of his friends and family members pumped his balloon too much, and ballooned his bubble. Just the same way they ballooned the stock market bubble before it all crashed. I’m now very apprehensive and worried that this man’s ballooned bubble is ’bout to bust…before we can believe him.

We also heard that one of his friends actually called him a Renaissance Man in front of him. A facebook friend (can you believe…a facebook friend…ha!) called him a role model. I heard another person wrote on his wall that she got the ability to see through the woods because of his writing, and his analysis. That person since left his facebook…for some unknown reasons. However, stupid and naîve he is, it was enough for him to believe that he was indeed one. I mean, how can you take your friends…real or virtual-world friends…so seriously…however smart or honest those friend are? I mean, don’t you think you need to look in the mirror yourself first before you start believing in yourself?

I always check in the mirror. If I know I’m short, I wouldn’t think I could do things a tall man can do. If I see myself to be a poor and powerless man, I would never dream of going beyond the box, cross the line, come too close to the elite and powerful, and consider myself (even remotely) to be one of their own. Like they say in old Indian-colonial-British English, I am a burnt cow. I’ve seen the fire way too many times. I am a dreading cow. I cower.

Enough digression already. Are you still reading?

I actually had a chance to speak with this man. I have to be honest. Remember, this blog I promised would be all about honesty and heartfelt feelings…without hiding a thing? So, this is what I found out…and I must say this guy has reasons to believe his friend was right. In all fairness, at least he deserves to dream that he could be one…one of those days.

Now, crossing over the elitism gap…well, that’s a story we’ll leave up to the political movers and shakers…and social scientists.

I sat down with him with my note pad, and here’s my scribbles. We spoke for about ten or fifteen short minutes.

Did I say I was impressed? I didn’t? Well…I did…sort of…in my confusing-confounding way.

Listen…you read to read twice what I wrote, okay? Yes. Let me confess: I was impressed with what he had to say about himself, his life, his work, and his mission. In fact, it was in plain English even I could understand.

I’d strongly ask you to have a talk with him — one on one — maybe, over a cup of Darjeeling tea. You’ll find out.

He has reasons to believe he is one of a kind. Grab him…come close to him. He’ll be yours. He’s ready to be yours.

Meet and greet your own Renaissance Man.

Would you?

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Talk Over a Cup of Tea