The fluid world inhabited by Rituparno Ghosh
A new documentary on Ghosh is a reminder of why defying norms of gendered behaviour is still a radical idea in India
Sangeeta Datta’s Bird Of Dusk opens with a sensorial sequence of Kolkata at night—noises, colours, movements and stillness. Watching the montage roll over, we get a glimpse of the beauty and melancholia trapped in this urban sensorium. The gaze could well have been film-maker Rituparno Ghosh’s, the subject of Datta’s documentary. Kolkata was Ghosh’s muse, home and battleground. It was the city that embraced his gender—man, woman and what emerges when these identities meld into each other—was the first in India to host a gay pride, attended by 15 people, back in 1991. We see Nandan theatre as well as Navina cinema, cradles of Ghosh’s film education, a few times. We also see a Muharram procession in front of Navina, part of Ghosh’s Kolkata memory axis, which he writes about in his book First Person—over the years, he noticed the same horse trudging to his own end.
Ghosh was 49 when he died in 2013, without any friends by his side. In the last few years, he lived alone after the death of his parents in his ancestral home in the city in which he set his 20 films. He had alienated close friends and colleagues while growing paranoid about his own gender, which, many say, was because he wanted desperately to become a woman—he became obsessed with himself. He is reported to have undergone surgeries like breast implants and abdominoplasty. The turmoil also reflected in his acting to which he turned in the last few years of his life—Chitranganda (2012), based on a story from the Mahabharat, in which he plays the role of a choreographer struggling with his gender identity, and Arekti Premer Golpo (2010), in which he plays the role of a gay film-maker. He had lost the distance between himself and his art.
Bird Of Dusk has footage from Ghosh’s TV interviews (he loved the media and used it aggressively to publicize his work), friends such as film-maker and actor Aparna Sen, actors Sharmila Tagore, Konkona Sensharma, Soumitra Chatterjee and others who worked with him closely.
Datta is the perfect person to make a film about Ghosh. Ghosh and Datta were close friends at Jadavpur University where Ghosh studied economics and Datta, English. “He was an avid reader, a complete film buff, shy in his early years and preferred one-to-one conversations. I saw him getting bullied and teased by other boys groups simply because he did not match with expected “male" or macho codes of masculinity. He lived with his parents and grandmother and shared middle-class family values like me. We were both much inspired by literature, cinema and theatre and were part of the university film society and literary groups. He could sketch brilliantly and was a wizard with words, enjoyed writing to meter and rhyme," Datta says. She was associate director in five of Ghosh’s films: Chokher Bali, Raincoat, Antarmahal, The Last Lear and the Tagore documentary Jeeban Smriti. After Ghosh’s death, she edited a book on his work, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender And Art (2015). “Soon after, I felt a great sense of urgency to make the documentary on Ritu and his prolific filmography, and also about his stand on gender and alternate sexuality and the courage he showed to fight on issues of identity and the marginalized." Datta keeps her own voice away from the straightforward narrative of the film, anchoring it largely around Ghosh’s writings published in First Person. Her voice comes through in the way she captures him through evocative images as a character rooted in Kolkata and a gender-agnostic world view. We see the contradictions in Ghosh—in Datta’s words, “flamboyant, variable, contradictory, a recluse and media hungry," who had loyal friends and the worst of enemies.
Kolkata continues to nurture his legacy. The Robbar (Sunday) magazine that he edited continues to be published; the gender-fluid fashion he carried off with aplomb is not uncommon anymore and young film-makers in Kolkata are returning to psychological chamber dramas, which was Ghosh’s Satyajit Ray-inspired signature—Mayurakshi (2017) by Ghosh’s protégé Atanu Ghosh is seen as a legacy piece. In 2013, after his death, Kolkata’s LGBTQ+ community marched at the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk with a poster of Ghosh.
Bird Of Dusk is a fresh evaluation of Ghosh’s life and work and why it matters in film history—it includes details of the film-maker’s box office credo. In 2001, the competition between his film Titli and Karan Johar’s blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham was “neck to neck", and that’s an achievement because Kolkata is a city that loves Bollywood.
Aparna Sen recalls in Bird Of Dusk how she had asked Ghosh to think about a sex change surgery. He said he would rather be “the third gender". He came out as gay in the early 2000s and used the media for conversations on LGBTQ+ experiences and rights. Some of the best parts in Datta’s film are archival footage of Ghosh talking about learning how to pack a cinematic frame, his disbelief in absolutes, painful trappings of the body and need for inclusion of gender, sexuality and minority communities into the political and social mainstream. Ghosh would have probably found new agency and energy in an India where homosexuality is not a crime and a third gender legally exists. But the film reminds us why defying categories of gender and normative behaviour and finding unconditional acceptance for it is still such a radical idea in India. A song Datta uses as a refrain in the film, Bonomali Tumi Poor Jonome Hoyo Radha (Krishna, you be born as Radha in your next life), encapsulates the extreme empathy which Rituparno Ghosh evoked with his life and work.
Bird Of Dusk will be screened at Kazhcha NIV-Indie Film Fest 2018, Trivandrum, on 7 December, and at the Malta Indian Film Festival on 14 December. The West Bengal government is releasing the film in January.