Rituparno Ghosh – filmmaker & actor who pushed the boundaries for the nascent Indian queer cinema movement. KASHISH festival director Sridhar Rangayan pays tribute
Chitrangada – The Crowning Wish, was the Closing Film last year at KASHISH 2013. The theater was jam packed and the screening ended at around 1am. The audience coming out of the theater looked stunned. Many of them mentioned what an amazing film it was - ‘visually exciting’, ‘pushing the boundaries’ were some of the phrases used by them to describe the film. Several people thanked me for managing to get this film and screening it at KASHISH. They seemed overwhelmed. It was May 26, 2013!
Three days later I was woken up at 8 am by the insistent ringing of my phone. A journalist friend was at the other end asking for my response on a sudden event – Rituparno Ghosh was no more. He had suffered a cardiac arrest at a hospital in Kolkata. I was speechless and at a loss for words.
I had first met Rituparno Ghosh in Berlin in February 2010. I was a Jury member at Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) for the Teddy Awards which recognizes and awards the best films on LGBT themes at Berlinale. Just Another Love Story (Arekti Premer Golpo) directed by Kaushik Ganguly where Rituparno played a transgendered filmmaker with a bisexual lover was one of the films competing for the prestigious award. I watched the film with my fellow jury members and I didn’t know how to react after the film. My fellow jury members were quite impressed by the film, but felt it was a bit slow and self-indulgent. I didn’t cast my vote because I felt it would be biased. For me, it was really special coming from India – a honest and sensitive portrayal of a transgender person. I knew Rituparno had undergone abdominoplasty and breast implants operations to transform himself not just for the role, but also because that is what he wanted to be in real life too – a woman. The film didn’t win the Teddy award, but Rituparno was invited to speak at the closing night ceremony. He was on the stage in his flowing robe and resplendent turban – an androgynous person who was not afraid to stand up there, comfortable as who he felt like.
We were on the same flight back from Berlin and I had the opportunity to have a word with him at the Berlin airport and also on the flight. He was courteous and polite, but aloof. He spoke little, spoke softly. I was keen on screening Just Another Love Story at our first edition of KASHISH which was to take place in just two months in April 2010. I invited him to come to the festival. But then the producer / director never sent the film and Rituparno never came to our festival.
Despite repeated attempts, in the next two editions of KASHISH we still couldn’t get that film, nor could we manage to get Memories In March.
It was in February 2012, exactly three years later, I was part of an Indian delegation to Sicily, and one of my fellow delegates was the co-producer of Rituparno’s films. We talked about his films and about Rituparno. Luckily this time we managed to get his latest film Chitrangada to screen at our festival. Unfortunately Rituparno couldn’t attend as he was wrapping up his feature Satyanweshi, based on Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi. I was of course a bit miffed, but little did I know that he had very little time to complete his film and he didn’t want any distractions before he succumbed to his ailments.
There has been much written about Rituparno Ghosh being one of the few openly out homosexual people in Indian cinema and about him exploring his transsexuality in his films and on screen for other filmmakers. But for me the biggest contribution has been his triad of films questioning gender and sexual expressions – Just Another Love Story, Memories In March and Chitrangada (all three in which he acted and the last one directed by him). As an actor he brought great depth and understanding to his characters as a transgender person (Just Another Love Story), as a gay man (Memories in March) and as a transsexual person (Chitrangada) – each of them will remain etched in cinematic history forever. More importantly these three films are the beacon of light in the nascent queer cinema movement in India because not only were they amazing films, but they were also commercially successful in West Bengal.
But my favourite film of his would definitely be Antarmahal where as a filmmaker he turns the ‘gay gaze’ on Abhishek Bacchan, voyeuristically ‘desiring’ him (seen through the eyes of Soha Ali Khan and Rupa Gangulay of course). The film for me is definitely iconic for its homo-eroticism, this time not lusted for by another character, but someone behind the camera!
For a filmmaker whose body of work is unparalleled, who had made such hugely successful films that were feted with numerous awards, such as Unishe April, Dahan, Utsab, Tiitli, Bariwali Shubo Muhurat, Choker Bali, Raincoat and Last Lear to step out of his comfort zone, to be part of three films that pushed beyond conventional boundaries was a great act of courage. Rituparno was a filmmaker with a vision, an artist who painted on celluloid. He was a person who ‘dared to dream!’.
---- * KASHISH will pay tribute to this legend with a screening of his film/s and discussion at the 5th edition of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival and it resonates with the festival’s theme ‘Dare To Dream’.