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.
In this segment, I’m going to include some of the feedback I’ve received from friends and readers — some of them activists working on the ground both in India and here in the U.S. I’m also including my anecdotal comments side by side to make it a meaningful conversation. I hope I get more ideas and suggestions from you in the coming days.
I’m not including names of the writers here only because I have not asked for their permission to use their thoughts they sent to my Facebook page. I don’t think it matters who wrote which comment: all of them are thoughtful. I want to keep writing about an all-inclusive, comprehensive set of proactive and reactive measures to stop this epidemic.
Friend #1 wrote:
Commodification of women has to stop and artists, poets, advertisers, movie makers need to become educators in a way, exerting their power to demonstrate responsibility in the portrayal of women, children, men’s bodies as commodities on one hand whereas the right positive education through removing and rectifying stereotyping in text books (we had started some of that work ) from childhood and mindful education to adolescents esp. boys to understand the fragility of women’s bodies and the natural difference of creation between men and women – posters, banners,punishment etc can go on – but to bring change our society needs to inculcate care as against violence -there are no shortcuts I’m afraid but the task though large is very much do-able.
In fact much of the doings of the women’s movement in the years gone by are responsible for creating this generation of young protesters who are not afraid to voice themselves and claim the streets
Friend #2 wrote:
Partha- I am answering your question above on how to stop violence against women- we need to institutionalize the empowerment of women everywhere. When society as a whole frowns upon it rather than condones it, we will see it diminish.
She wrote again:
Society in India has institutionalized the abuse and marginalization of women there, Partha, and violence against women is no new thing- it has been with us throughout all of written history. We need to change the rules as well as follow the advice that others have given here.
Politically and especially ECONOMICALLY empower women- then you will see things change. Let’s start economically empowering women by acknowledging that a woman’s very real job of being a mother and running a household is not ‘private’ work that is worthy of no economic compensation. It is, as Oprah has stated many times, the most important job on earth, and in a world that depends on the monetary system for survival, it is a job that is deserving of dignified pay. We need to start acknowledging that ‘women’s work’ is real work and that it should no longer pay slave wages. Then, maybe the men of the world will stop treating us as slaves.
Friend #1 wrote here:
Let us try to break out of the paradigm of weighing everything through economic value , the woman’s role in society can never ever be compensated – let us think of happiness as the paradigm to be achieved as an example.
Let women not have to measure upto the man’s yardstick but reverse the paradigm – tilt the scales for a while before equalizing.
Friend #3 sent her thoughts:
Making short video clips of the different aspects of disrespect and its implication and reaching them out to the mass through MMS, television, community radio and also through NGO workers who has penetration in remote rural areas can be an option. Also I feel on personal level there should be more dialogue between the have and havenots. Lack of communication creates indifference and carelessness.
Friend #4 sent in his comments:
Start questioning and acting to change the cultural aspects that couches patriarchy at home. Second (if you allow) we need to take up community watch – ensure the beat cops/other cops/bureaucracy works by supporting those who need… this needs a strong community togetherness…
Finally, Friend #5 added in:
Passing and enforcing laws to protect girls and women is an important step. But the fact is education and culture must be addressed, worldwide, regarding the status of children, girls in particular and women to make the deeper and long-term change we all (writing here) desperately want. Politics, law and policy making are more immediate and central to more fundamental change. in my opinion.
In relation to some of the comments above demanding cultural shift in attitude toward women, I quote these lines from an American TV sitcom The Honeymooners (alas, U.S. media do not make such blue-collar, real-life shows anymore. Alice is the homemaker in the middle of the picture above. Her husband Ralph is the big man. He is a blue-collar worker.)
Alice: Let me tell you something. There’s an old, old saying Ralph. “Man works from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.”
Ralph: (In a snooty voice) Good gosh!
Alice: You men just think you own this planet.
Ralph: Yeah but you women get your revenge. You marry us.
[From: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, The Honeymooners, Season 5, Episode 4.]
Guess what, I still have the Obama-2008 bumber sticker stuck on my old American car.
We all thought you were going to use your enormously powerful position to drive this country and virtually the entire world back to the direction of the ordinary working people and families, promote economic equality, hold the corporate criminals accountable and bring them to justice. We thought your leadership would stop global warfare and bloodshed, and bring some peace to mankind especially after the horrors of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft.
I am very sorry and dejected to tell you that you have not fulfilled our hopes, dreams and aspirations. You have let us down.
Of course, at that time very few people thought you could lose; and I wrote the article even before that scandalous and racist “47 percent” Romney speech Mother Jones magazine broke: speech at a $50,000 per plate fundraising dinner Romney had in Florida ($50,000 is the average annual income for an American family; in many Third World countries, it’s the annual income for an entire city, perhaps). When that exposé came out, hardly anybody thought you could ever lose; in fact, even diehard Republicans thought Romney threw the elections straight in your lap; the Florida speech was so devastatingly damaging for him and the Republican Party. But who knows, maybe, that episode had made you overconfident, and you took the first presidential debate casually with no preparation whatsoever; your election prospects since then took a nose dive. Boy, how quickly things turn!
You took that debate with your now-familiar demeanor: you took your audience — your supporters and sympathizers and onlookers across the country — for granted. That non-performance in the debate was really symptomatic of your four years of non-performance. That abject failure to rise up and overpower your fierce, well-oiled opponents and their media with measured documents and reasons was symptomatic of your four years of abject failure to rise up and do the right thing at the most critical moment.
You’re going to be paying a hefty price for that non-performance. And you’re going to drag us all down with you, by your non-performance and lackluster presidency. Your elite circle of advisors — dubious and ill-reputed political insiders who are really part of the now-infamous 1 percent, exposed because of Occupy Wall Street’s resistance and challenge — have ill-advised you. You believed in them, and took us for granted. Your drones killed many innocent people overseas; your political actions killed hopes and dreams of many here in the U.S.
President Obama, let me be clear. I would be very sad and disheartened if you get a shock defeat in this election. I would get a chill in my bones if someone like Romney whose racism and hypocrisy is now exposed becomes the president of America. I know he’s going to start another devastating war in Iran: the war industries and Karl Rove are working hard for his victory. I would be frozen to death if a social and economic extremist like Ryan with his Tea Party Glenn Beck doctrine becomes the vice president of this country. I know he is going to kill off the last remnant of the New Deal, including Medicare and Social Security as well as collective bargaining and such precious rights of the working people of America. His party will probably overturn Roe v Wade too, destroying women’s precious reproductive rights. Corporate America, NRA and Koch Brothers as well as organized bigoted groups are working hard for his victory.
Even though I have serious, major issues with your presidency and every single day, I feel cheated by the promises you and your administration didn’t keep, just because I NEVER want a racist and a bigot become the world’s top leaders, I would want you to win.
The only problem is that deep inside, I feel you are not going to win. And you can blame nobody other than yourself for this looming, historic defeat. Your likely loss would be the final letdown of the billions of people — particularly the young generation here in America and peace and democracy soldiers all across the world — who believed so much in your message of hope. They believed in YOU!
You let them all down. How terrible this letdown has been!
I came up with a list of questions that I think media — big media, corporate media, multinational media, mentor media — should ask Romney and Ryan. But I have a feeling they won’t do it.
So, I guess the onus is on us. Let’s do it ourselves.
(Update on September 18: Especially after today’s breaking news that progressive publication Mother Jones exposed Romney’s gravely disparaging comments that 47% Americans love to live on government entitlements and don’t pay any taxes, mainstream media such as New York Times are jumping all over it, and conveniently ignoring many other issues. Hence, it’s even more important to address these issues now. The political debate is getting shifted from economy to race, etc., and while race is extremely important, this election should be primarily about the economy and the 1%. We must not let vested interests to shift the debate from the economy.)
American media’s coverage of the Republican National Convention was as usual shallow, superficial and sentimental. Just like the previous conventions I’ve seen since Reagan, corporate media didn’t provide any serious analysis on any serious subjects. Its big-name journalists and experts did not show any critical thinking at all. It was all glossing over, spinning, twisting and distorting.
Question: Why is it always that way? Answer: Either they are stupid or they’re not doing their job on purpose. I think it’s the latter because these otherwise well-dressed and articulate (and definitely well-paid) people and their [very well-paid] bosses do not want to lose their tons of ad dollars and traditional viewers that might switch channels once real debates, controversies or unpopular, unpleasant narratives are brought in. It’s like, if someone on TV presents serious research data that among ALL the developed countries, USA has the highest income inequality and also highest social and health problems because of the grotesque divide (these are all facts — look it up here), most people would not like to hear it. They have been brainwashed for decades. They would switch channels.
It’s pathetic to see how American media have totally degenerated especially since Reagan. There is no hard-hitting journalism at all! There is no real analysis that matters to real people and their real lives. The whole RNC 24/7 coverage was, just like before, done almost in a vacuum — as if, it was a fantasy world out there! I have a feeling the Democratic convention will be this way too.
I also have a feeling we’ll see another pathetic repeat of the above when time comes for the so-called presidential debate with similar hoopla and meaningless moderation. I have a feeling it’s going to be another exercise of naiveté, glossing over, window dressing and scratching the surface — with exclusion of critically important issues.
Maybe, Karl Rove and Koch Brothers, among others, are watching over these media establishments. That’s why they’re so afraid to ask the right questions!
However, if I were one of these big-name media personalities with big privilege to work with these politicians, I’d ask them some straight-shoot questions. But because I do not have that privilege and I have no other power than writing them down in this blog for my friends, readers and sympathizers — now surprisingly from many near and far corners of the world — I’m writing them down here. My hope is that you find these questions worthy of asking; and in case you are one of those privileged journalists with access to these big-name politicians, please see if you can ask some of these questions — and get some meaningful answers that everybody can understand.
So, without further ado, here’s my short wish list. I know, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan, you are extremely important and busy. Therefore, I’ll only ask you about a handful of topics. I’ll save the others for later.
Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan, either of you can answer them. Considering you are planning to be commanders in charge of not just America, but de facto of the world, consider people like me all over the world are eagerly waiting for your honest, thoughtful and straightforward answers. Don’t haze it. Don’t faze it.
Thank you for your time, Honorable Sirs.
Question 1. Trickle-down economic policies have failed us the middle majority, working people. Giving tons of money and power to the rich at the top of the pyramid didn’t work. It has caused enormous income inequality, and the middle class has suffered greatly. What is your plan to change the course of our economic policy and actions?
Question 2. You propose more tax cuts for the rich — individuals and corporations. And, in fact, richest corporations now Supreme Court-validated as individuals — such as General Electric — do not pay any taxes. Don’t you think it’s unfair that we the ordinary, low-income people are paying about 33% federal income taxes (some say, to pay back to Federal Reserve which is a private, all-powerful entity that nobody really knows); yet, the richest corporations are not paying any taxes? For that matter, you said you paid only 15% income taxes yourself. Isn’t that outrageous discrimination against us who make so little?
Question 4. Bush-Cheney’s brutal genocide in Iraq and Afghanistan has destroyed world peace, bled American taxpayers (i.e., us) to death, caused a catastrophic budget deficit, and tarnished the American image (whatever was left) worldwide. Now you’re drum beating another war as soon as you come to power — perhaps against Iran (or is it Syria?). How do you think that would promote either peace or economic prosperity — two things you frequently talk about?
Question 5. Rachel Corrie, a young American woman, in 2003 stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer to protest against Israeli government’s demolition of houses of Palestinian civilians. The bulldozer crushed her to death. You blasted Chinese government’s human rights violation when its tanks threatened to kill Chinese protesters at Tienanmen Square a few years ago. Do you think you can show the same resolution to protest against the action of the Israeli government when they killed Rachel Corrie?
Question 6. At the RNC in Tampa, you and your party’s top leaders such as Chris Christie have championed the cause of the American workers and families who are going through a horrendous time because of high unemployment that some compares with the situation during the Great Depression. Especially younger people, according to some research, have 30 percent joblessness, which is a record in American history. The economic situation our young people are in is simply horrible — check these facts. Are you going to create new jobs within America by supporting traditional job bases such as manufacturing and construction, and stop U.S. corporations’ massive outsourcing of these jobs to China, India and other countries? Are you going to take on Wal-Mart or Apple and their massive outsourcing?
Question 7. Multinational, U.S.-based companies such as Monsanto, Union Carbide, Coca Cola, Chevron and Disney (among many
others) have caused havoc in many other countries because of their ways of doing business. For example, over the past decade, 200,000 Indian farmers (yes, you’ve heard it right!) have committed suicide — the largest in human history — because of Monsanto’s permanent seed replacement with their own genetically engineered products and false promises of crop yield. Union Carbide’s infamous toxic gas leak in Bhopal in 1984 had killed thousand of poor workers and their families; women who suffered are still delivering crippled babies. Are you going to bring these companies to justice and compensate the victims for the disasters they went through?
Question 8. It seems both of you and your colleagues such as Chris Christie, Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal — and of course, Scott Walker — have fiercely anti-labor-union position. Can you please tell us if you’re in power, are you going to destroy organized labor once and for all? Are you going to take away their non-violent weapons such as collective bargaining?
Question 9. Are you going to overturn Roe vs. Wade and bring American women back to the coat-hanger alley days, with help from a partisan Supreme Court?
Question 10. Are you going to follow the dictates of your party’s “mainstream voice” Tea Party and abolish the separation between the church and state? Are you going to mandate Biblical prayers in U.S. public schools?
Question 11. Are you going to destroy Social Security and Medicare? Yes or no?