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Rituparno Ghosh, pioneering director who addressed issues of gender and sexuality – Birth anniversary special

Ghosh, born on this day (31 August) in 1963, explored unabashedly and with compassion issues hidden behind the curtains of bhadralok families, the hypocrisy of gender politics, and unaddressed issues of sexuality and freedom of expression.

Roushni Sarkar

Filmmaker, lyricist, writer and anchor Rituparno Ghosh is a cultural icon in Bengal. He made his debut as a filmmaker at a time when Bengali cinema was going through a void, emerging as one of the most conscious, bold and sensitive storytellers of Indian cinema.

Ghosh undoubtedly had a target audience that comprised the urban middle class, but he managed to explore a lot within this milieu and threw challenges one after the other with films that disturbed his audience, evoked empathy and spread awareness.

Ghosh was also one of the few filmmakers who achieved commercial success even as he delivered thought-provoking, content-driven films. Not only did he receive as many as a dozen National awards in his film career of 20 years, but his films were also shown at prestigious festivals around the world and he was regularly invited to discuss cinema and the issues he put forward through his creations. He remains one of most studied Indian filmmakers after Satyajit Ray.

Issues deliberately hidden behind the curtains of bhadralok (literally, 'gentlefolk', referring to the educated, genteel, upper-caste) families, the hypocrisy of gender politics, unaddressed issues of sexuality and freedom of expression were unabashedly pronounced and explored by Rituparno Ghosh with clarity of vision and compassion that carried his signature as an artiste.

Ghosh's directorial debut, Hirer Angti (1992), got rave reviews, but the filmmaker burst into the limelight with Unishe April (1994), for which he won his first National award as Best Director.

Following up with films like Dahan (1997), Bariwali (2000), Utsab (2000), Shubho Mahurat (2003), Antarmahal (2005), Shob Choritro Kalponik (2009), Abohomaan (2009) and Chitrangada (2012), Ghosh explored the darkest corners of human psychology and attempted to question the hetero-patriarchal system with fresh perspectives that gave birth to an atmosphere of reflexivity.

He was one of the few artistes who did not confine his ideas to his directorial ventures. He always made it a point to project his thoughts even when it came to hosting talk shows or editing magazines and became an embodiment of the messages he wanted to deliver when he acted in Kaushik Ganguly’s Aarekti Premer Golpo (2010), Sanjoy Nag’s Memories In March (2011), and his own Chitrangada.

As he appeared in double transgender roles as the younger self of Jatra artiste Chapal Bhaduri and documentary filmmaker Abhiroop Sen in Aarekti Premer Golpo, as Ornub who loses his boyfriend in a car accident in Memories In March, and as choreographer Rudra who gets into a passionate relationship with percussionist Partha (Jisshu Sengupta) in Chitrangada, he also began to transform his public persona. His cross-dressing and discussion about homosexuality at public fora generated controversies regarding his sexual orientation.

Sangeeta Dutta, Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit K Dasgupta make an interesting observation in this regard in their book, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art: “Ghosh’s queer films arrived at a significant moment in the cultural history of the LGBTQ movement in India. For example, Aarekti Premer Golpo went on the floors and was released subsequent to the reading down of section 377 of the IPC [Indian Penal Code] in a momentous verdict given by the Delhi high court in July 2009.” (The judgment was reversed four years later by the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing a challenge to its verdict.)

Regarding his performance in Aarekti Premer Golpo, Ghosh said in an interview with The Times of India newspaper, “One reason why I did this role is because I knew any other actor would make a spoof out of it. You can’t play gay if you have no empathy for homosexuality. Indraneil Sengupta and I have played the gay couple with such ease that those looking for tantalization will be disappointed. They will find us disappointingly normal."

Bakshi and Parjanya Sen deliberately use the determiner ‘hir' and the pronoun 'zie' to refer to Ghosh in their article titled A Room of Hir Own. According to the scholars, Ghosh’s take on sexuality cannot be judged by only these three films. “In a very interesting way, Ghosh used hir earlier films to play out hir sexual queerness, from behind the scene. Long before zie appeared on the screen as an actor portraying unambiguous queer characters, Ghosh was present in many of hir films as an ‘absent’ performer, by lending hir voice to several female actors; but zie barely ever claimed credit for that. Therefore, for Ghosh, hir films have always been a medium of liberating hirself, both at the narrative and at the performative level, years before zie actually ‘came out’.”

In Unishe April, Ghosh presented a complex relationship between Aditi (Debasree Roy) and her mother Sarojini (Aparna Sen), an award-winning dancer. Aditi is unable to forgive her mother, who always prioritized her career over her duties as a mother. Ghosh brought out the nuances of Sarojini's character and tried to explain that not fulfilling her maternal duties does not necessarily make Sarojini an evil person.

In Antarmahal, Ghosh disclosed the inner courtiers of a feudal household where women are perceived only as bearers of male offspring. The expression of female sexuality on the face of repressive patriarchy made a jarring impact on the audience.

Wimal Dissanayake in his essay, Rituparno Ghosh and the Pursuit of Freedom, pointed out, “A central theme informed and guided his work — the quest of freedom. He was always concerned about the lack of freedom that characterized the lives of women in India and elsewhere and later he began to explore issues of homosexual relations and transgender desires as articulations and effects of freedom.”

In Bariwali, Ghosh gave a hint of the discomfort in established sexual orientations through the repressed desires of Banalata (Rupa Ganguly) and the old servant Prasanna’s appearance in a dream sequence in an effeminate avatar, indulging in rituals normally performed by women.

In Chokher Bali (2003), he deliberately focused the camera upon the male body in amorous sequences between Mahendra (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and Ashalata (Raima Sen) or Binodini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan).

“Both Aarekti Premer Golpo and Chitrangada deploy the popular trope of the heterosexual love triangle, with the exception that in these two films there are a ‘bisexual’ man, a woman and another man who seems to be performing the role of the quintessential ‘other woman’. At a performative level, this femaleness is mapped on to a biologically identified male body,” Bakshi and Sen wrote.

The scholars added, “None of these three characters, that is, Abhiroop, Ornab and Rudra, could gain a life of their own; rather, all three have become mere extensions of Ghosh’s real-life personality in the popular imagination, for by the time these films appeared, Ghosh had already become a queer icon.”

Aarekti Premer Golpo also showed how class politics operates at a very basic level when it comes to giving a voice to homosexual people and portrayed the inescapable trap of the definitions of sexuality set by society.

Chitrangada, on the other hand, attempted to normalize the fact that people with homosexual tendencies are very much part of the bhadralok household. In the film, Ghosh infuses his passionate empathy towards the issue as he shows Rudra to be ready to go under the surgeon's knife to become a woman so that he can adopt a child with Partha.

Apart from being vocal in films, Ghosh once attacked popular anchor, RJ and actor Mir Afsar Ali in his talk show Ghosh & Company for mimicking him. He raised the question whether Afsar Ali was aware that he was hurting the sentiments of thousands of effeminate people for whom Ghosh was a representative.

As editor of Robbar, Ghosh endorsed the serialization of Swapnomoy Chakraborty’s novel Holdey Golaap. According to Bakshi, Dasgupta and Datta, “The novel delineates the realities of those queer people who have never been represented in Ghosh’s films. Unlike Ghosh’s films, the novel addresses the grim realities of lower-caste kothis and hijras, both urban and non-urban. Perhaps what Ghosh could not do in his films was to a certain degree compensated by this novel written under his editorial supervision.”