Had Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013) made no more than his first few films, he would still have been remembered as an exceptional figure in the history of Indian, and indeed international, cinema. But what made him truly memorable were his final years, during which he succeeded in fashioning himself as a candidly in-between entity, neither fully male nor female, without losing his foothold from the Bengali middle-class imagination. The politics of his choice, and the flamboyance with which he embraced it by cross-dressing and taking hormone injections, make it problematic to ascribe a fixed gender identity to Ghosh. However, for the purposes of this essay, I have opted to stay with the one ascribed to him at birth: a decision that is merely pragmatic, not political.

To understand Ghosh’s adventure of crossing over from one gender to the other, one must go back to his repertoire, especially to the intense female protagonists in his early films, Unishe April (1994), Dahan (1998), Bariwali (2000), or Asukh (1999). Much of the public discourse around the time these films were released centred on women’s issues. Critics were mindful of the powerfully affecting roles each of the women, at the heart of these stories, had portrayed. Ghosh’s understanding of the female psyche remained sharp and sophisticated throughout his career. One of the few times he made a film with a male lead (Amitabh Bachchan in The Last Lear, 2007), the outcome was ponderous, far less convincing than his usual drawing-room dramas, with strongly defined female characters at their centre.

Aparna Sen (left) and Debashree Roy in Unishe April, Ghosh’s first National Award-winning film.

Bengali cinema, especially its art-house variety, has never lacked complex, and compelling, female characters. From the unforgettably haunting Neeta, played by Supriya Choudhury, in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) to the fearless but familiar Arati, portrayed by Madhabi Mukherjee, in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), there is a long and distinguished line of women who have played the lead in Bengali cinema with extraordinary élan. Sreela Majumdar and Mamata Shankar were cast in a series of films in the late 1970s and 1980s by Mrinal Sen. In Ek Din Pratidin (1979) and Kharij (1982), both women appeared, as mouthpieces of moral, social and economic struggles of the middle-class. Both Majumdar and Shankar became known for depicting a certain type of long-suffering womanhood who is released from the tyranny of refined oppression in an epiphanic moment.

If Utsab (2000) is assembly-line family drama unfolding during a more-than-usual dramatic season on the Bengali calendar, the Durga Puja, Titli (2002) is a reworking of the Lolita syndrome—more platonic than physical—with a clever meta-cinematic web of references woven into it. In Shubho Mahurat (2003) drawing-room drama meets whodunnit, while Chokher Bali (2003), based on Rabindranath Tagore’s classic novel of the same name, explores female desire, in the contrast between marriage and widowhood—the former with its social sanction, if not injunction, to consummate itself, and the latter with its strict embargo on any form of pleasure.

While training his camera closely on the lives of the women in these films, Ghosh also turned his directorial eye on the male characters, heightening their appeal to the straight female, or queer male, gaze. The act of sex between men and women, mostly the suggestion of it, would often feature in his films more emphatically than what the norm is in Tollywood, at the risk of cutting into a wider spectrum of audience.

Curiously, as Ghosh began to allow himself to experience, and live out, the full measure of his self-styled androgyny, a part of his personality also began to sublimate the carnality of desire. An articulation, and analysis, of this prudery can be found in a 2012 article by critic Aveek Sen (“Lushness, Suffering and a Problem with Desire", in The Telegraph, Kolkata), the focus of which is on Aarekti Premer Golpo (2010) and Chitrangada (2012), films in which Ghosh played key roles.

Ghosh directing Arpita Chatterjee on the sets of his last venture ‘Satyanweshi’, which was released after his death in 2013.

Following from Sen’s argument, Ghosh’s treatment of homosexuality in these two films not only does disservice to gay men but also to women at large. The problem, especially in Aarekti Premer Golpo, is in the association of a certain feminine quality with gay men, which is often the only, hideously blinkered, way queerness can make sense to a section of people. While the paraphernalia of androgyny, including cross-dressing and other affectations, may establish a context for the “naturalization" of queer identities, it also ends up perpetuating prejudices, if not pandering to a deep-rooted homophobia, by making queer identities visibly Other, part of a “minority". By invoking the pejorative epithet of the “effeminate" man, this reading of the film also reinforces the unfortunate perception that femininity is something to be ashamed of.

And yet, it is hard to forget what perhaps remains Ghosh’s most iconic on-screen moment, a performance par excellence executed not in a film but on television, during the series Ghosh And Company, an immensely popular chat show he hosted on Bengali entertainment channel Star Jalsa. In one episode, Ghosh took on Mir Afsar Ali, who is popularly known as Mir, a TV anchor, radio jockey and stand-up comedian famous for mimicking Ghosh, among others. “When you mimic me are you mimicking me or mimicking an effeminate man?" Ghosh asked Mir, starting out on the offensive, which Mir probably did not anticipate. “Have you ever thought that whenever you mimic me, so many effeminate men in Kolkata, in Bengal, feel ashamed, feel humiliated?" he added. Through the rest of the show Ghosh continued to systematically take apart each one of Mir’s defences and speak on behalf of sexual minorities without any hint of evangelism. To this day, the video of their exchange remains widely viewed on YouTube, just as the reactions to Ghosh’s masterful demolition of Mir’s arguments tend to vary: from apathy and empathy to fury and admiration.

No other celebrity in the history of Bengali cinema and television provoked such a range of feelings in thousands of viewers across middle-class Bengal as Ghosh did. And this he did not just by exploiting the intellectual apparatus of art-house cinema but rather by inserting himself, his life and choices, vitally into it. His journey as film-maker may not have been as exalted as Ray’s, Ghatak’s, or Sen’s, but it remains unmistakably one of its kind, more embedded in the minds of the viewers than many of the films of these illustrious forerunners.

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Delhi.