Home / Industry / Media /  Rituparno Ghosh, a film-maker who pushed the envelope, dies at 49

Kolkata/Mumbai: Bengali director, producer, writer and actor Rituparno Ghosh navigated a singular and fascinating spectrum of filmmaking concerns over a career of 21 years, beginning with respectful conformity and ending with blatant trangressiveness.

Ghosh passed away in his sleep at 7.30am on Thursday. According to a Press Trust of India report, the 49-year-old Kolkata native was suffering from pancreatitis and died of a heart attack. He is survived by his brother, Indranil Ghosh, who is a film production designer.

Rituparno Ghosh, who had 19 features, a short film and four acting credits to his name, had wrapped up the shoot of the thriller Satyanweshi, based on Sharadindu Chattopadhya’s novel Chorabali St and featuring Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh as the popular detective Byomkesh Bakshi, on May 28. A tweet from that day on his Twitter handle @RITUPARNOGHOSH read, “Wrapped up the shoot of Satyanewshi, a crime thriller in the molten glow of the pensive falling afternoon."

Ghosh’s early films explored Bengali middle class aspirations and desires, followed by a second phase of bilingual dramas featuring Hindi movie celebrities as star vehicles. In the third, interrupted leg of his film-making journey, he was in the midst of openly pushing the envelope on the representation of sexuality on the screen by playing gay or transsexual characters in movies directed by him and his peers.

Ghosh started off with relationship dramas, which endeared him to the middle class audiences who form the bulk of his fan base, said Moinak Biswas, Associate Professor for Film Studies at Jadavpur University. “He is a very crucial figure in the 1990s and continued to be until the very end," Biswas said. “There was a real slump in the Bengali industry in the 1980s in terms of the urban middle classes turning away from movie theatres. Terribly kitschy, lowbrow stuff was coming out of Tollygunge (the Kolkata film industry). Rituparno was single-handedly responsible in winning this audience back. It’s natural, therefore, that the stories he chose and the themes he took up had to do with urban middle classes, with domestic traumas, relationships between parents and partners."

In the 2000s, the man who brought middle-class Bengali audiences back into cinemas began to tease the rug out from under their feet. Ghosh changed his personal appearance—he shaved off his hair and dressed in androgynous clothing—and he began making and appearing in movies that explored homosexuality. In 2011, Ghosh played gay filmmakers in Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo and Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March. His own movie Chitrangada, which was released last year, reworked Tagore’s dance drama about the romance between the warrior prince Arjuna and Chitrangada, the Manipuri princess who dresses like a man to protect her land. “Rituparno slowly and gradually gave his audiences a dose of transgressive material," Biswas said.

Chitrangada was among the films screened at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Festival, held in Mumbai from 22-26 May. Festival director Sridhar Rangayan said Arekti Premer Golpo, Memories in March and Chitrangada “question issues of identity and sexuality in a very Indian way, and talk about contemporary issues within a mainstream framework". Not everybody was convinced or impressed. Ghosh’s non-masculine demeanour earned him the ridicule of Mir, a popular comedian on Bengali entertainment channels. Ghosh, who hosted the celebrity chat shows Ebong Rituparno on ETV Bangla and later Ghosh and Company on Star Jalsha, invited Mir as a guest on an episode on Ghosh and Company in 2009, in which he elegantly skewered the mimic.

Ghosh was born on 31 August, 1963. He graduated in Economics from Jadavpur University and worked for a few years as an advertising copywriter and commercial filmmaker. In 1992, he made his debut with a children’s film, Hirer Angti, based on a novel by Shishirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Ghosh would dip into literature faithfully and freely over the next few years. His breakthrough film, Unishe April (1994), owed more to Ingmar Bergman than to any writer, but there were other adaptations, such as Dahan (1998), based on Suchitra Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name, Shubho Mahurat (2003), a detective drama drawn from Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Chokher Bali (2003), taken from the Rabindranath Tagore novel, Raincoat (2004), inspired by O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, and Noukadubi (2012), another Tagore-inspired melodrama. He repeated actors in several of his films, among them Prosenjit Chatterjee, Raima Sen and Jisshu Sengupta, and nearly all his films were shot by Aveek Mukhopadhyay and edited by Arghakamal Mitra.

“For me, he was as much a friend as a filmmaker," Mitra said. “One would expect a person of his stature to be of a very serious disposition but he was extremely fun loving, had an irreverent streak and a sharp wit. As a member of his crew, one has to earn his trust. Once that was achieved, he would give absolute freedom and space to others to flourish."

The commercial success and critical acclaim that poured in for Ghosh in Bengal but also from the rest of India – his films won 12 National awards in various categories, including best direction for Unishe April, Utsab and Abhohoman – also galvanised the local film industry and influenced such filmmakers as Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Srijit Mukherji and Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, Biswas observed. “He almost single-handedly brought glory back to Bengali cinema after the downward curve witnessed since the passing of Ray," added filmmaker Suman Mukhopadhyay. “Not only did he bring back viewers to cinema halls in Bengal, but also attracted a pan-India audience. He is no doubt Bengal’s biggest contemporary cinema icon since Ray-Ghatak-Sen."

Despite his transgressions and unconventionalities, Ghosh remained focused on his middle class constituency. He ran the Bengali film magazine Anandalok in the early 2000s and edited a Sunday cultural supplement called Robbar for the daily newspaper Pratidin in the late 2000s, where he wrote a popular belle-lettrist journal. He was also the creative brain behind the fictional television show Gaaner Opare, a musical that ran from 2010 to 2011 on Star Jalsha and paid tribute to Rabindranath Tagore.

Ghosh wasn’t interested in formal experimentation, and placed more than faith than required in the limited acting skills of personable actors. His experiments with his self and identity became an antidote to his increasingly formulaic approach to filmmaking. “Over the last few years, he was slowly coming to terms with his identity as an individual and his own sexuality," Mitra said. “That reflected in his films and also in the films where he chose to act and script. The change in the way he dressed and carried himself in public was also very natural and not done with the intention for the world to see or get shocked. It took a lot of courage surely."

In an interview with Mint before the release of Arekti Premer Golp, Ghosh said, “I think the thrill of filmmaking is when the audience will be partly annoyed, some will be indifferent, others enthusiastic and yet others who can completely identity themselves with a film. A filmmaker often knows that his film might displease some people and even after than when a film like Arekti Premer Golpo is made it shows a certain amount of commendable courage. It is also quite expected that the element of scandal my presence in the film brings is also lending to the film an additional importance. Our society is in a process of evolution and there are many questions coming from it. One has to confront those questions gracefully."

(Somak Ghosal contributed to this story)

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