Suddenly, a very happy day turned out to be not so happy.
It was my wife’s birthday yesterday, and she was celebrating a special birthday in Kolkata with her friends and family (we don’t call it extended family there — it’s just family). She doesn’t get such an opportunity: here in New York, it is a year-after-year routine visit to a restaurant of her choice between the small few of us, followed by watching a movie, only to rush back home in a terribly cold weather. Not much fun. Back there, it‘s always different. Her aunt cooked tons of food, and friends fed her with the ceremonial “payesh,” or rice pudding Bengali style.
Then, on the same day, I got the news of Supriya Chowdhury’s death. Or, Supriya Devi, as she was later known.
Even though it may seem far too sentimental and detached: like, why would I even care about the death of a film star I never knew, and only admired her acting on the silver screen? There is a reason. The two most important movies Supriya acted were “The Cloud-Capped Star” (Bengali: Meghe Dhaka Tara), and “E-Flat” (Bengali: Komol Gandhar), both directed by legendary filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.
Note: If you want to know the riches of Bengali and Indian non-Bollywood (i.e., junk) movies, watch them. I can send you a list of such movies. They are subtitled.
These two movies, like some other movies by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta, and such directors (Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Girish Kasaravalli, M. S. Sathyu are just a few others) made me what I am today — psychologically and intellectually. It made me what I am today — a progressive, democratic, socialist who believes in equality of all kinds.
The open, liberal, and progressive, intellectual Bengali consciousness I slowly got transformed to, from a closed-minded fanaticism and patriarchy that I originally had inherited — was possible because of honestly, Bengali literature, poetry, music, and yes, movies. Coupled with reading some history.
If Ritwik Ghatak was the writer of this script, Supriya was the personified conveyer of the message.
A picture tells a thousand words. Sure. A dark-skinned (and therefore not pretty by Indian and Bengali standards), tall, strong actress whose eyes and lips oozed sensuality (and therefore not acceptable within the prejudice of Bengali and Indian mediocrity) blew me away.
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.
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.
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.
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.