A little girl is out on a stroll around what looks like a village pond. She’s holding up a paper windmill, but it’s still.
It’s not moving, she says with disappointment to the older man accompanying her.
Because there’s no wind, he tells her.
The little girl is sad.
The man looks at her, smiles and says, “You want wind? Let’s run.”
And they take off, laughing, running, to make the windmill spin.
— A scene from an old Rituparno Ghosh film
There is a touch of precious philosophy in this rather banal exchange that only a writer and director with a certain level of skill and control can present on screen without it becoming tackily melodramatic.
Though he often grazed the airish boundaries of camp in his films, Rituparno Ghosh, who died at the age of 49 in May 2013, was a director who, for most part of his film-making career, knew when and where to stop.
That’s one reason why “Ritu-da” is credited with bringing Bengal’s bhadralok back to the theatres after the long, depressing period that followed Satyajit Ray’s heart attack in 1983. The garish, jarring mediocrity that Bengali cinema came in the grip of much before Ray’s death in 1992, one that assaulted delicate bhadralok senses and sensibility, was nudged aside with Ghosh’s Unishe April in 1994. The film, starring Aparna Sen and Debashree Roy, won two national awards. In fact, most of Ghosh’s films — from Unishe April to Dahan in 1997, from Dosar in 2006 to Abohoman in 2010 — were celebrated not just at international film festivals, but won national awards at home, either for the director, the actors, or as best feature. The 21 films that Ghosh directed received 22 national awards.
Director Sangeeta Dutta, a close friend of “Ritu” from university days, says that she started working on Bird of Dusk as soon as she finished editing a book on him, Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art.
Her film tells the story of the man who, after watching the Apu Trilogy on television in 1975, decided that he would make films. What attracted him to Ray, among other things, he says, was that the auteur gave new definition to everyday, mundane Bengaliness.
Ghosh’s own body of work explores the interiority of characters through relationships — between the living and the dead, the philanderer and guilt, between two men, between a transgender and a man, between mother and daughter, between the victim of a sexual assault and the witness, between widows and desire, between past lovers, between ageing legends and a changing world, between a man’s body and the woman trapped inside.
The narrative of Bird of Dusk, interspersed by sweeping aerial shots of a multicultural Kolkata Ghosh grew up in and inhabited, often uses dramatisation to show us “Ritu-da” travelling through the city on the tram, on foot, while a voice over reads out lines and passages from his own writing.
We hear his thoughts, feelings — in delicate, poetic, romantic prose — about people, places, movies, life. About his mother’s death, about reading Tagore everyday in the morning. The film charts his journey from the first film to his sudden, tragic death by heart attack. It picks up each film to discuss its cinematic uniqueness as well its politics, while weaving in a parallel story of the director’s evolving self-expression about his sexuality and identity. The film meets his collaborators, friends, actors, actresses, and all of them tell the story of a man whose gentle genius touched them, taught them, and a friend they miss dearly.
Ghosh’s core crew — cinematographer Aveek Mukhopadhyay, editor Arghyakamal Mitra, music composer Debajyoti Mishra and director Kaushik Ganguly — discuss his craft of filmmaking, his eye for a very Bengali aesthetic, while international festival curators in Berlin, London and Spain speak of his appeal and position in world cinema.
They all speak of his comfort in shooting in closed, confined spaces of homes, of his advertising background to explain his artistic eye which repeatedly created and celebrated a very distinctly Bengali female form. They talk of a director who was feted and loved abroad, but whose love for Kolkata, and affinity for its cinema culture never faded.
The film’s best parts, however, are the conversations with Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Nandita Das, Arjun Rampal, Konkona Sen, Arijit Dutta and RJ Mir Afsar Ali.
They narrate personal anecdotes, adding quirky dimensions that bring Ghosh to life.
While Dutta talks of how Ghosh’s films in Kolkata theatres stood their ground against blockbusters like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Prosenjit recollects their deep friendship as well as epic fights followed by spells where they banished the other from their life, only to collaborate in the next film.
Konkona recalls the adda-like atmosphere of his film sets, while Nandita Das and Sharmila Tagore reveal a side of Ghosh that was coldly calculating and a bit cruel.
Speaking of the director whose loyalty to his caterer and driver was touching, one talks of a needless controversy generated around a film to fuel gossip, while the other talks of being left high and dry, holding the costumes of her character while the role she was all prepped up for went to a bigger Bollywood star. Ghosh’s obvious talent, coupled with some strategic moves, led to big hits and catapulted him to the national scene. And with success came the confidence to not just own his sexuality, but also to exude it.
There were hormone treatments, breast implants, surgeries… to become a cultural icon — a role that “Ritu” played with graceful aplomb, expressive, kholed eyes, but also one that overtook and eventually ruined the filmmaker in him.
For most, it’s impossible to imagine being trapped in one’s own body. To forever carry your real self inside, caged, trapped, not identifying with or liking your body.
At one level, the best work of Rituparno is not celebrated enough, and at another his later films are not criticised enough.
Sangeeta Dutta’s film briefly but bravely ventures there. Her film shows us the director who shifted from presenting vignettes of life to trying desperately to communicate to the world his own struggle and suffering with his sexuality. These activist appeals in claustrophobic settings with pretentious characters turned pathos into bathos.
Kaushik Ganguly, who directed Ghosh in Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), says that to get ready and in character of Chapal Bhaduri Ghosh would spend four hours doing make-up. And when the film was over, he recalls how Ghosh wept, saying the woman has left him, never to return.
But that woman inside him, says Ganguly, killed the filmmaker. In, perhaps, more ways than one.
Bird of Dusk opens and closes with a Baul song, Bonomali timi poro jonome hoiyo Radha (Krishna, in your next birth come as Radha). Its haunting lyrics and tune lingered in my head for days. And now, every time I begin to hum it, it brings snapshots of Rituparno Ghosh — the man, the woman, the director, the cultural icon, the tormented soul. The Krishna who wanted to be Radha....