Watching Dahan (1997) in my teenage years left an indelible impression on my mind. When Romita was attacked on the street, it was as if the slumbering city of Kolkata woke up to the evils of sexual assault - ‘molestation’ or ‘eve teasing’ - as it was commonly referred to as then. Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013) de-romanticized the famously ‘cultured’ streets of Kolkata.
It is Indrani Halder’s character of the school teacher Jhinuk who protests and not Palash, Romita’s husband, and crusades to punish the assailants going against the men in her life. Singer-writer Suchitra Mitra as Jhinuk’s grandmother remains a part of that indelible impression as she refuses to see Jhinuk as a rebel deserving praise for doing a job that she should have done as a fellow citizen. Rituparna Sengupta’s character Romita, a newly-married, middle-class woman eventually backs out from the case under pressure from her in-laws signaling the latent conservativeness of Bengali society. When Romita is raped by Palash, Ghosh’s gaze is taut on the seething anger that she experiences. In mainstreaming marital rape and consent in drawing-room conversations much before the internet, the woke generation and #MeToo, Ghosh destabilized the conventions of viewing female bodies, sex and sexuality.
So, when Ghosh invests Aparna Sen’s character of Sarojini with female desire, loneliness, ambition and questioned why motherhood needs to be ideal in Unishe April (1994), it created resonances across mother-daughter relationships. Seen through the eyes of her doctor-daughter (Debashree Sen), the film frees Sarojini off the burden of sacrifice.
This assumes significance if one considers the timeline of the early phase of Ghosh’s career when he broke into the Bengali film industry in 1992, the same year in which Satyajit Ray died. Ghosh stepped inside a vacuum that was left by the three luminaries — Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. The ’90s were also a time when the Bengali film industry was making a slew of formulaic, mass-oriented potboilers featuring a largely misogynist mindset. So, naturally the urban, educated audience or the 'Bhadralok' and an entire generation were yearning to see the complex realities of their time on screen.
The Queer Gaze
The openly gay filmmaker was often criticized and met with a hush-hush scandalous gaze in the Bengali film fraternity. Ghosh reportedly reprimanded a popular stand-up comedian for mimicking him. “Have you ever thought that whenever you mimic me, so many effeminate men in Kolkata, in Bengal feel ashamed, feel humiliated?” he had asked. The filmmaker, whose films were regularly screened at film festivals and who brought back international awards to Bengal, fashioned the persona of the effeminate-man or the naari-shulabh purush — his salwar-achkan, silver jewelry, kohl-rimmed eyes, shaved head graced with a turban — thereby disrupting the binary of heteronormative (the belief that heterosexuality or sexual attraction between persons of opposite sex is the default/ 'normal' sexual orientation) Bengali consciousness. It ruffled feathers; Ghosh was questioned on the necessity to dress and talk in the way he did, a burden that he perhaps carried until his death reportedly of heart attack and complexities arising in the process of gender reaffirmation surgeries.
Ghosh lent that richness of imagination to the Bengali screen as he grew to occupy the in-between space channeling arthouse aesthetic with realism in socio-culturally pitched storylines. The ‘in-between’ was his happy place; signifying fluidity in dress, appearance, love, language and identity.
“LGBT films should not be viewed as activist films alone. In fact, many aren’t. Rituparno Ghosh’s films were extremely audience-centric. In fact, he never considered himself an activist, but rather an artist,” told Rohit K Dasgupta, lecturer at University of Southampton, and also a close associate of the late Ghosh, to the media.
In the last three films of his career where Ghosh acted – Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo (2010), Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March (2011), and Chitrangada (2012), he exhibited his queer persona. Notably, these three films were released in the backdrop of the changing scenario of LGBTQAI+ movement in India, right after the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2009.
The part-autobiographical Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish that draws from the androgynous character in the epic Mahabharata, traces the angst and agony of a person struggling with gender identity and law prohibiting a same-sex couple to adopt a child. Ghosh’s films were thereafter affirmed by queer activists and screened at various queer film festivals across the globe.
Unmasking masculinities and fashioning femininities
Dasgupta conveys that queer is not a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, it is someone who challenges the heterosexual power and status quo.
This insight helps in understanding the multiple ways in which Ghosh challenged heterosexual power equations in sexual, emotional and romantic relationships.
For the middle-class Bengali Bhadralok that was his significant audience, it is to Ghosh’s credit that he projected the hollowness of their conventional morality within the larger framework of visual excess that his films were designed as.
If in Bariwali (1999), Ghosh takes on a warmth-filled gaze as he portrayed the loneliness and latent sexual desire of a middle-aged, unmarried woman, in Antarmahal (2005) he exposes the regressive positioning of the bride (Soha Ali Khan) as reproductive machinery in Zamindari households and lends agency to the young, lower-caste male sculptor (Abhishek Bachchan). In Choker Bali (2003), Ghosh depicts female desire through the transgressive character of young widow Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) who seduces her childhood friend’s husband Behari. In Raincoat (2004), Ghosh shows the ‘closeted’ existence of Neeru (Rai) in a Calcutta room, an incestuous relationship in Utsab (2000) and class complexities in love and desire in Abohoman (2010).
“Queer aesthetics are explored through the way characters such as Behari in Chokher Bali and the young sculptor played by Abhishek Bachchan in Antarmahal are represented,” Dasgupta was quoted in the media. Many critics have drawn attention to the use of the ‘closet’ as a metaphor for exploring themes of marginalization and repression within the space of so-called straight sexuality.
His gaze was on unburdening relationships; on queering so-called straight sexuality. His cinema espoused fluidity in dressing and desire, a fluidity that Ghosh insisted on throughout his life.
Take a look at Ghosh’s last words in Chitrangada, “This is a changeable world. Nothing is permanent – possessions, love, things we own, even our own bodies. Why then do we cling to things like gender and identity with such fierceness? Why do we turn them into such issues?”
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)