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Rituparno Ghosh and the enduring influence of Tagore

Ahead of Ghosh's birth anniversary on 31 August, a look at how he drew inspiration from Bengal's greatest author and poet throughout his career

Rituparno Ghosh on the sets of his Tagore documentary 'Jeevan Smriti'
Rituparno Ghosh on the sets of his Tagore documentary 'Jeevan Smriti'

The life of film-maker Rituparno Ghosh was described by critic Ranjan Bandopadhyay as a triangle, with him on one point and the Mahabharat and Rabindranath Tagore forming the other two. That is maybe the most perfect description of his mindspace. Ever since he was a toddler, Ghosh was obsessed with the stories and characters of Mahabharat. And Tagore was his spiritual guide, who pervaded every aspect of his being.

The great trinity of Bengali cinema—Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen—have all used Tagore explicitly in their cinema. Whether with his compositions, his fiction work or his politics, Tagore has been a looming presence in the sensibility of these film-makers. Ghosh was born in a Calcutta (now Kolkata) throbbing with cultural intensity. His parents were both avid readers, and their residence on Prince Anwar Shah Road housed a library where a collection of Tagore’s works held pride of place. His father insisted that the spines of those books be lined up perfectly at all times, which was something of a challenge considering how frequently they were being pulled off the shelves.

And it wasn’t just the act of reading those books. It was also an aural experience. His mother put him to sleep by reading from Sanchayita (a compendium of Tagore’s poetry). This had a profound impact on Rituparno. Sahaj Path, Tagore’s Bengali primer meant for children, was his constant companion as a child.

But it was many years later, during the early days of his career in advertising, that Ghosh first had this uncanny feeling of Tagore reading his thoughts to him. He was reading Jiban Smriti, a memoir Tagore had written when he was in his 50s. Young Robi, soft-spoken and delicate, was the brunt of his classmates’ rude jibes. He refused to return to school after that, and was educated at home. When he wandered into college, the boys mocked him as a “baiji", the Bengali epithet for a courtesan, because he wore his hair long and spoke softly. This humiliation cut deep, and made him look inwards for inspiration. And this quality endeared Tagore to Ghosh.

Ghosh debuted with Hirer Angti (1992). It was a children’s film, but he found space for a grownup moment: two stray lines of Guru guru ghana megha garaje, a song from Tagore’s dance-drama Chitrangada. It was a particular favourite of Ghosh’s, and he would come back to it later in life. Though Hirer Angti didn’t see a proper release, Rituparno’s second film, Unishe April (1994), was a major box-office draw in West Bengal.

Ghosh’s third film, Dahan (1997), is as resonant today as it was 23 years ago. Adapted from Suchitra Bhattacharya’s eponymous novel, it was based on the harrowing experience of a woman molested in full public view, in the presence of her husband. Even in a hard-hitting material as this, Ritu places Tagore. Tagore songs keep playing on the radio, and legendary Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s music) performer Suchitra Mitra plays an important part in the film. Ashukh (1999) had its genesis in a Tagore poem called Hariye jawa (“Getting Lost") about a father and a daughter. The film explores the relationship between an actor and her father when her mother is taken ill.

Rituparno Ghosh adapted and found inspiration in Tagore's work all his life
Rituparno Ghosh adapted and found inspiration in Tagore's work all his life

This was a period of incredible prolificacy for Ghosh. As Ashukh did the rounds of film festivals, he shot Bariwali (2000), starring Kirron Kher and Chiranjit Chattopadhyay. The film is about a lonely dowager reluctantly letting out her house to a maverick director to shoot an adaptation of Tagore’s novel Chokher Bali—another obsession of Ghosh’s. Utsab (2000) featured the Rabindrasangeet Amala dhabala paale legechhe. An amazing aura is created via the music and Ghosh’s deft handling of it. Shubho Mahurat (2003), an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, had another Tagore song, Jibono moroner shimana chharaye.

Ghosh’s first attempt at directly adapting a Tagore work was Chokher Bali (2003). He cast Aishwarya Rai in the lead as Binodini, a decision that expanded the film's reach to pan-India audiences. Dubbed and released in Hindi under the same title, it's probably his most widely known work. Ghosh later adapted Tagore’s novel Noukadubi, in 2011, but it wasn’t as successful.

Tagore’s family was bursting at the seams with literary geniuses and creators. His nephew Abanindranath Tagore was an artist and founder of the Bengal school of art. Abanindranath wrote books for children, one of which was called Nalok, a Buddhist tale of a monk-child. Ghosh was deeply influenced by Nalok and this made him conceive Khela (2008), a quaint little film about a director obsessed with making an adaptation of the book. And like all his films, it also featured a Rabindrasangeet, Chhaya ghonaichhe bone bone.

In the 16th century, there was such a massive influence of the Maithili language on the Bengali psyche that an artificial language sprung out of it, a mix of Maithili and archaic Bengali, called Brajabuli. Tagore wrote a collection of songs in the language called Bhanushingha Thakurer Padabali. These songs (along with remnants of Vaishnava culture in Bengal) influenced Ghosh. In his Abohoman (2010), about a film-maker obsessed with his muse, he depicts her dancing to the tune of Gahana kusuma kunja majhe/ Madhura madhura banshi baaje, which was from Bhanushingha Thakurer Padabali. Ghosh had learnt the Brajabuli language so well that he used it to write the song Bahu manaratha sancho abhisaare for Memories In March (2010). He also wrote Mathura nagar pati kahe tum Gokul jao and two other songs from Raincoat (2004)—his only Hindi film—in the Maithili dialect.

Rituparno’s gender-fluid identity—which he embraced, flaunted and later dealt with in his cinema—fused with his intense love of Tagore when he chose to adapt Chitrangada. Tagore based his dance-drama on a portion of the Mahabharat when Pandava prince Arjun meets and falls in love with Chitrangada, the warrior princess who was raised by her father as a son. In Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012), Rudra Chatterjee (Ghosh) has been trying to choreograph Tagore’s play, with him playing Chitrangada. He engages in a whirlwind romance with Partha, a drummer in his troupe. Rudra decides to undergo a sex reassignment surgery which would enable them to adopt a child. But things don’t go as planned.

Ghosh also got the opportunity to take his Tagore fixation to its logical conclusion. Like his mentor Satyajit Ray, Ghosh got to make a documentary on Tagore. He called it Jeevan Smriti, after Tagore’s memoir. Ghosh researched deeply and widely, and wrote a script that encapsulated his vision of the life of a man who was his north star. But he soon realised this was inadequate. The only way to do it was to treat it as a process of discovery rather than just tell Tagore’s life story. He kept opening doors, peeking into rooms as Tagore’s story progressed.

Jeevan Smriti was released only after Ghosh’s death in 2013. Ironically, Ghosh died when he was 49, the age when Tagore wrote his magnum opus Geetanjali, which won him a Nobel Prize for literature.

Amborish Roychoudhury is a Mumbai-based writer, blogger, podcaster and the author of 'In a Cult of their Own'.

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