Death, in its myriad hues, has been a constant preoccupation with Rituparno Ghosh, filmmaker par excellence, and perhaps, not unjustifiably, of course, the harbinger of what many deem the renaissance of new wave Bengali cinema. What a loss for the Bengali film fraternity then that Ghosh, just three months short of his 50th birthday in August this year, died yesterday morning, in his sleep we are told, of something as mundane as a heart attack. Ironically enough, Ghosh has long dwelled on the intricacies and impact of death and dying, in a family, in the film industry, in a corporate set up and the effect the passing of someone might have upon human relationships. Umpteen number of his films portrayed the moments recollected by friends and relations of protagonists who are present as a lingering absence, a remembered presence, a memory. What a shame that Rituparno Ghosh, the agent provocateur, who questioned stereotypes – of gender, language, literary canons, identity, attires, accents and physical forms – is now himself a memory, confined, but not limited, by the slew of wonderfully well turned out films that comprise his oeuvre. From Unishe April, his 1994 magnum opus, which won him the National Award for Best Feature Film, his career spanning two decades saw him picking up country’s most prestigious gongs with the ease of a master craftsman, who carried forward the beacon of bold cinematic experimentation from the likes of late Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak.
Ghosh was not just a very eminent filmmaker, he was a litterateur and a connoisseur of music in his own right. He edited Robibar, a Sunday literary magazine brought out by Sangbad Pratidin, a prominent Bengali daily. His snippety, wonderfully terse and delightfully buoyant observations on life’s little things marked the signature editorials, which made reading the magazine a much looked forward to affair for millions of Bengali readers, in Kolkata and elsewhere. But more than anything else, it was Rituparno Ghosh’s ‘queering the pitch’, as it were, of Indian filmmaking that truly defined him and informed his cinema of radical departure. Such astute uses of nuances, of half-uttered sentences, of gestures, dialects and emotions, and such deep understanding of the fluidity of gender and sexuality, expressions merging into and flowing from one another – had not been seen not only in Bengali cinema alone, but also was peerless in evocation of the specificities of Bengaliness. From Dahan, Bariwali, Choker Bali, Dosar, Shubha Mahurat, Abohaman, The Last Lear to the last year’s release Chitrangada, Ghosh’s films have been both cinema of ‘repetition’, in which he had returned again and again to the cherished themes of sexuality and identity, as well as they have been about lush, languorous storytelling, breathtaking and expansive narratives of human love and humane affirmations. Breathing life into sagging careers of actors such as Prosenjit Chatterjee was one of the many feathers in Ghosh’s cap, whose defiant individuality stood out glaringly proud in the galaxy of Indian film industry that has been left much poorer by his untimely demise.