On May 30 the Indian film director Rituparno Ghosh died of cardiac arrest in his home in Kolkata. He was 49.
“His death has been extremely shocking for all of us,” wrote the veteran Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan in his blog (Bachchan plays Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby). “49 years is no age to die, but Ritu Da, as we affectionately called him, has gone. He has left a huge void in the world of some of the most progressive work done in recent times.”
Shekhar Kapur, the director of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth movies, tweeted: “Shocked by passing of Rituparno Ghosh. He was dreaming of getting into what he called his ‘next phase’. Hugely creative explorer on film.”
Rituparno Ghosh’s death is a massive loss to the creative vitality of Indian cinema. I’m reluctant to make comparisons, but to give one a sense of its scale here in the U.S., it would be like finding out that Paul Thomas Anderson just died. After nearly 22 films (most of them in Bengali, two in Hindi, and two in English), Ghosh, as Kapur aptly said, was indeed beginning the next phase of his career. He had made the transition from a successful regional film director of independent art-house Bengali cinema to a sought-after director of urbane Hindi cinema, and finally, to being an Indian filmmaker of international acclaim on par with Shyam Benegal and Mira Nair.
Ghosh was often compared to another famous Bengali-born director, Satyajit Ray. Ray was India’s first global celebrity director. Winning awards in Cannes in the ‘60s, Ray was championed by Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese. Wes Anderson used many of Ray’s Indian classical music scores to score his 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited.
Ghosh in turn reinvigorated and reinvented the Ray canon of Bengali cinema. He took Ray’s early material, stage and literary adaptations of the great 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, and breathed new life into them by focusing on the psychological complexities of women’s lives in colonial India.
Ghosh’s most well-known Tagore adaptation is Chokher Bali(“A Grain of Sand in the Eye”). The film starred Bollywood’s most famous actress Aishwarya Rai (Bride and Prejudice), The Pink Panther 2) as a beautiful young widow whose misfortune turns her into a manipulative creature of revenge. Rai has never been better in any role. The film is memorable in its depiction of the indolence of the upper-class landowners in late 19th century Calcutta. I reviewed Chokher Bali for PopMatters back in 2008 knowing then that the film would stand the test of time.
Ghosh’s first breakthrough film was a small Bengali art-house picture called Bariwali (“The Lady of the House) made in 1999. The story centered around a day-dreaming, ageing spinster who’s trying to come to terms with a life of loneliness. His next film, Utsab (“The Festival”, 2000), depicted a family reunion in a decaying Kolkata mansion during the Durga Puja festival. Echoes of Ray, Alain Resnais and Chekhov pervaded the nuanced story of repression and unexpressed bitterness.
One quality that set Ghosh apart from other Indian directors was his ability to depict female characters on screen. His women stand out in one’s mind in terms of their psychological complexity. Perhaps Ghosh had a sharper insight into women in India—of what it means to be an outsider. He was openly gay. Towards the last few years of his life he adopted a feminine persona, wearing wigs, makeup, and women’s clothes to public appearances and events. In the West, we take for granted some of our openness and tolerance in comparison to other countries. India, and especially Kolkata, is still very conservative in many ways. Ghosh was an icon to India’s newly emerging and confident LGBT community, and with his death, they lost a great activist and a champion of human rights.
In the first decade of the new millennium Ghosh was building his artistic reputation and taking on unconventional, critically-promising new projects. He worked again with Aishwarya Rai in a Hindi-language adaptation of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, Raincoat (2004). His next film, another period piece, Antarmahal (“Views from the Inner Chamber,” 2005) was unsparing in its depiction of sexual violence towards women often enacted in the name of ritual and tradition. A Bengali landowner marries twice in the hope of begetting an heir. He doesn’t spare his young second wife, who he ravages sexually in the presence of a priest reciting hymns. Later, in another attempt to appease the gods, he forces his first wife to sleep with five Brahmin priests in a perverted form of an ancient ritual, Ashwamedha Yagya. I believe Ghosh’s strongest films, Bariwali, Chokher Bali, and Antarmahal, deal with the unexpressed agony of women’s lives in India. Few directors had his insight when it came to writing a nuanced screenplay or coaxing a strong performance out of an actor.
The Last Lear
His last significant films were The Last Lear, Sob Charitro Kalponik (“All The Following Characters are Imaginary…”) and Noukadubi (“Boat Wreck”). The Last Lear starred Amitabh Bachchan as an eccentric ageing actor who can’t accept the popularity of movies in India to the wane of theater and high art. It was a strange, unexpected, and at times, uneven performance from Bachchan, but it was his most unique and fearless role, stripped of any vanity. Ghosh had this ability to make very guarded and seasoned movie stars come out of their shells and that’s not an easy thing to do.
Rituparno Ghosh’s death is a rude shock to anyone who believed in the future of independent cinema in India. The world lost a unique voice in directing and screenwriting.
In his own view of himself, Ghosh cited Satyajit Ray as a main influence, but felt at odds with his own sexuality in a close-minded country: “Ray set a masculine prototype for film directors. People were proud of his height and his ability to speak posh English. People like me who wear danglers and kajol (eyeliner) to parties are regarded as an insult to Ray.” Ray cast a long shadow in terms his artistic legacy but also his sheer physical presence.
I once spoke to David Denby about Satyajit Ray and Denby said that he cut quite a figure—tall, impossibly lean, constantly chain-smoking his pipe like Sherlock Holmes. At times there was a bracing haughtiness to Ray that could intimidate anyone. Ghosh by comparison seemed gentler and more open to frailty. Perhaps he was a man of a more postcolonial politically-correct age, though I think it had to do with his singular intuition as an artist.
Though Rituparno Ghosh left us far too early, we still have his movies. They are surpassingly good in their erudition and emotional clarity. Ghosh was a true original who maintained his integrity and creative vision in the commercialized and conformist world that is showbusiness in India. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone, but his spirit will always be alive in the dynamism and grace of Tagore’s great work and in the eternal struggle of the outsider who’s just trying to get his voice heard.