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Interview Bengali English (India)

A beacon and an inspiration: Filmmaker Sangeeta Datta on Rituparno Ghosh's legacy

Bird Of Dusk, filmmaker Sangeeta Datta's tribute to Rituparno Ghosh opened the Kazhcha-NIV Indie Film Festival. Datta speaks about hitherto unknown aspects of Ghosh's personality and his formidable legacy.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Filmmaker Sangeeta Datta’s Bird Of Dusk is a heartfelt documentary that offers an insight into the career and private life of legendary director Rituparno Ghosh, whose untimely death left the world of cinema bereft of a luminous talent.

The film reveals hitherto unknown aspects of Ghosh by featuring conversations with prominent actors and filmmakers who collaborated with him.

Recalling their experiences with him, they reveal the friendship and deep bond shared with the filmmaker, despite some wrinkles in the relationships.

The film also explores the artiste’s relationship with Kolkata and a personal crusade to find their non-gender-specific identity. The film has been screened at several festivals across the world and was the opening film at the Kazhcha-NIV Indie Film Festival.

On the sidelines of the festival, Sangeeta Datta spoke to Cinestaan.com about her journey in making the film about her close friend and collaborator. Excerpts:

You have had a long relationship with Rituparno and worked on his films. How difficult was it for you to separate your personal feelings while making a documentary about such a public, well-known and much loved person?

I think you have used two words which are key to my definition of anything creative. I don’t believe in divorcing the public from the private. I think whatever is private opens up to the public and then people can respond to it the way they want to.

Over here, my own special friendship with Rito was a creative relationship. It was a relationship where we were collaborating on six wonderful scripts, which had a lot to do with the history of Bengali cinema, so for me, I’m not going to have another friend in my life who will give me that stimulating work or thinking.

So when I came to make this film, I didn’t say it was the definitive story about Rituparno, it is my story about Rituparno. And my choice was to keep the narrative fluid, just the way he was looking at life in a very fluid fashion and even the whole gender discussion that we had or the claim to identity which is often boxed within gender categories. He was trying to break away from that and look at life in a much more philosophical and fluid manner.

So that’s why the river plays a big metaphorical part, the manner in which he hearkens back to a lot of old Indian traditions. Many of our discussions were about this, about the third sex, what androgyny meant. With all that in mind, it’s very much a personal story and it is eked out from conversations with people with whom I am close, with whom he was close. They might have had differences, but a sort of fondness overrides all of that.

There was no self-censoring apart from the fact that I was not going to feed into the curiosity about whether Rito wears a saree at home. I was not going to go into that at all.

You knew him so closely and in the film there are so many recollections about his personal life, relationships with people and work. Was there something revelatory for you about him that came up when you made the film?

A lot was familiar because Rito was a storyteller and he used me like a confession box. So there are a lot of things he would come and tell me, but what was revelatory was the sort of manipulation he was doing with the media. When he did a film like Shubho Mahurat (2003), when he was bringing Rakhee and Sharmilaji [Tagore] back, the manner in which she [Tagore] felt short-changed because she did not get the main credit of the film, which was given to Rakhee, so there was a certain breach of trust.

With Nandita Das much more so, because he had asked her for Chokher Bali (2003) and when he got another producer, he asked Aishwarya [Rai] and didn’t even tell her [Das].

Everything was happening so rapidly and he didn’t even tell her, which I think is just inexcusable, but this girl can still talk in such a loving manner about Rito and say that I understand the pressures under which he worked. So I think all that tells you a lot about a person.

Maybe there are certain things which were manipulative. I think because of a very repressed adolescence there were certain problems with his personality. He loved the media, loved being a diva. All of that came out of a certain deprivation in his life.

He loved objects, he was a hoarder. Anything he liked had to be with him. I felt that because human relationships were breaking down in his life, so, often, he had to create relationships with objects. So these things were revelatory to me — breaking trust, which some people have spoken about in a very candid manner.

What was also revelatory was the manner in which a big Bollywood star like Arjun Rampal talked about what he learnt about acting, of inhabiting a character, and you think this guy has been an actor for 20 years, did he have to wait till The Last Lear (2008) to learn this about acting? 

But there is also this incredible tenderness with which people talk about Ghosh, even someone like Das, whom he didn’t quite treat in a proper manner. Despite all that, people have spoken about him as a friend with a lot of warmth.

Which is not at all manipulated from my side. That warmth is coming from them and I felt that across the board, the warmth and the tenderness and the love with which they were looking at this person whom they all miss and who, perhaps, has contributed in a big way to their lives.

His span of knowledge was very wide and he was very well informed. What people didn’t know was that they thought he was this fashion icon who was spending his life dressing up. That’s not the point. He had great discipline and while the world slept, he would be up in the morning doing his writing and his reading.

There was great discipline, without which I don’t think you can create foundations of knowledge or the sort of encyclopaedia of culture that he had become at the end. There wasn’t anything put on. 

What is the kind of response you have received for your film, because Rituparno has been such an influential public figure?

The response was much more than I had expected. It has been one whole year of festival travels. To be able to take it to the London festival, where right from his first films, he had become a regular fix. Whether it was a Bengali audience or an Indian audience or an international audience, a lot of people came with information and knowledge of his work and what moved me the most was the younger people, who are now students of film, who felt inspired to go back and look at his body of work again. That moved me a lot because I worked with young people also in the film.

The version that you see is the shorter version. The longer version is getting released in Kolkata where, at the end, we have a series of interviews with this actor whom we see through the film reading and rehearsing, a fashion designer, a writer and an editor. So we have six or seven young people talking at the end about how he had opened up doors for all of them, particularly the gay community, where boys were saying we could tell our parents who we are because of him.

He has been a beacon and an inspiration, not just in the LGBTQ community, that is certainly there, but his legacy in intellectual work of vigour really needed to be talked about.

Related topics

Kazhcha Indie Film Festival