One of the creative movie producers whom Tollywood doesn’t imitate

Every demise of a celebrity opens floodgates of gushing tributes about the irreparable loss that we shall have to live with. Every anniversary is a reminder of that loss.

August 31 is Rituparno Ghosh’s birth anniversary. It also marks the day when timelines are flooded with posts on Ghosh and his films. It brings back the gender fluid image of a director who stood out with his 1940s-stylled Norma Desmond turban which Gloria Swanson had made famous in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”, the long flowing outfits, the kajal-lined eyes and the dangling earrings. It also haunts us with his brazen style of addressing artistes old enough to be his parent as ‘tui’ as opposed to ‘tumi’ or ‘apni’ in Bengali. It also reminds us of the works of the director, who got the middle-class Bengalis back to the theatre with his brand of cinema that often married lucid story-telling adapted from literature with gender politics.

Rituparno Ghosh

What happened to Bengali cinema post-Rituparno? For a director, who had achieved a national cult status, for both his work and way of life, we would have expected some to walk his path. Not copy him but adapt some of his signature styles.

Aparna Sen and Debosree Roy in ‘Unishe April’

But curiously, Tollywood’s directors of repute consciously or otherwise stayed away. Leaving aside his strong urge to make films on a trot about sexual identities, Rituparno’s gharana of films had at least four unmissable features. Most were aesthetically-made chamber dramas that relied heavily on paying an ode to the rituals of a refined taste. A strain of a haunting Rabindra Sangeet here or an earthy voice of Subha Mudgal singing ‘Mathura Nagarpati’ there would set the mood. The production designer made sure that every drawing room exuded a sense of aesthetics with antique pieces, curios and wrought iron furniture. The décor looked picture-perfect and neat with a generous helping of vintage Bangaliana. Something that we noticed again in the sets of his popular chat show called “Ghosh and Company”. Even if the surroundings were crowded and messy when two former lovers accidently met in “Raincoat”, there was still a degree of perfection in portraying that mess.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Chokher Bali’

These films were heavily populated with Bollywood stars. From Manisha to Bipasha, from Amitabh to Aishwarya, his cast included the who’s who from the shores of the Arabian Sea. What was even more interesting was that he made sure that all of them actually came down to Kolkata to shoot in his movie. Rituparno imported talent or he gave a feeling that national talents wanted to be inhabit Rituparno’s movies. He didn’t shift base to Mumbai. In the process, he somehow created an impression among stars that doing one Rituparno film might be their ticket to being called an actor.

Amitabh Bachchan and Arjun Rampal in ‘The Last Lear’

Unforgettable women characters – either imported from literature or otherwise – have stood out in his films. Till the later years of his career when he concentrated more on sexual identities, his scripts had a lot of space for the complex or even dystopian world of women. He cast them in “Unishe April”, “Dosor”, “Bariwali”, “Dahan”, “Chokher Bali”, “Raincoat”, “Abohomaan” and “Shubho Muharat” to make what he would “womanist” films.

Prosenjit Chatterjee and Konkona Sen Sharma in ‘Dosor’

As he sensitively explored relationships and tumultuous emotions, it was his deftness for writing dialogues that came handy. That was his strength right from his early days when he allowed us into the intimate world of negotiations between an ambitious mother and an independent daughter in “Unishe April”. His characters spoke volumes. But even those who criticized his films for being too verbose would also admit that there was something in his narration and story-telling that was poetic and could make people sit for two hours at a stretch watching people talk and go through emotional turmoils within the four walls of a room.

But what happened to Bengali cinema after that?

Other voices became more prominent. Some made movies that did more business than what many of Rituparno’s ones couldn’t. Some created a niche that was far removed from the world of Rituparno.

Posterity will analyze how well they fared. But before that happens, we can still say that their cinema is different from what Rituparno had made. No chamber dramas soaked in Bangaliana. No dialogue-heavy movies that aren’t melodramatic. No compelling desire to depict the complex world of the third gender. Though based on the trials and tribulations of the third gender, by no means is ‘Nagarkirtan’ a copy-paste of ‘Chitrangada’.

Srijit Mukherji did get Susmita Sen for “Nirbaak”. Tanuja did come down to work in Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s “Sonar Pahar”. Radhika Apte, the toast of OTT, did work in “Antaheen” and “Rupkatha Noy”. But Mumbai stars were not really dialing 033 at the drop of a hat to come and shoot with them. And our directors, in turn, have been more interested in making stars out of our local heroes.

So an Anirban Bhattacharya has now become a constant fixture in Srijit’s films and a Rudranil Ghosh gets a chance to come up with some powerhouse performances. Ritwik Chakraborty has become a much-sought-after hero after Kaushik Ganguly’s “Shobdo”. Kamaleswar Mukherjee oscillates between going vintage with “Meghe Dhaka Tara” and wandering with Dev in the Amazon forests. Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee, hugely successful with their brand of films, makes space for the likes of Aparajita Adhya, Koneenica Bandopadhyay and Anashua Majumdar.

Sudeshna Roy and Abhijit Guha, despite having assisted Rituparno, do not churn out movies that have his stamp. Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury – who like Rituparno comes from an advertising background – had displayed some interest in walking a few paces down the Rituparno lane when he made “Antaheen” and “Anuronan”. This could be attributed to the fact that the duo shared the same technical team and their advertising background. But Aniruddha had shrugged off all such leanings when he went to chasing “Buno Hansh” with Dev and later turned “Pink” with Amitabh.

Does that then mean to suggest that Rituparno – despite being an important filmmaker whom few could ignore – didn’t really influence those his contemporaries or the directors who came after him? Rituparno needs to be credited for discovering the other Prosenjit and Jisshu U Sengupta tucked under their commercial avatars. The likes of Srijit, Atanu, Kaushik and Nandita-Shiboprosad offered more scope to the actors in these stars so that they could come up with varied roles.

Editor Arghyakamal Mitra, who has worked in almost all of Rituparno’s movies, believes that his movies were often a reflection of his own persona. Since Rituparno’s persona is markedly different from that of the other directors being spoke about, the films too are different. “Ritu was not just a director. He was a writer and had edited two magazines. All that shaped his persona. When we would read a script, we could immediately identify that it was written by him. I remember he would write a quarrel scene and we would immediately say the dialogues were those he had exchanged with his mother. That was Ritu. His set design was a reflection of the house he lived in,” Mitra said.

This reflection had a signature style. Even if he migrated to varied topics, there was something that made it evident that the characters/scenes/choice of songs were from Rituparno’s world of cinema. Among the contemporary makers, Arghyakamal notices the urge for paying attention to details of a frame. “This detailed production design, I think, is derived from how Ritu designed his frames. Also, the cinematic way of storytelling in ‘Chitrangada’ and ‘Abohomaan’ is also reflected in Kaushik’s ‘Nagarkirtan’. It too has a constant switching from one perspective to the other. Ritu’s elliptical style of storytelling is also there in Srijit and Pratim’s films. In terms of content of storytelling, I find Anindya coming close to Ritu. Both have a background in writing,” he pointed out.

Debojyoti Mishra, who was the music director for 13 films by Rituparno, said the director liked to believe that he had inherited the choreographed style of filming from Satyajit Ray because of their shared advertising background. But Mishra would like to believe that the director had more in common with Ritwik Ghatak primarily because of their “dramatic impact”. “I felt this very strongly while doing the music in ‘Chokher Bali’ (the exuberance in ‘Eki laabonye purno praano’), ‘Bariwali’ (the theme song of ‘Olo modhumashe diya’) and ‘Antarmahal’ (Amar Pal’s rendition of ‘Umare tui aili’),” Mishra said.

According to him, emulating Rituparno is a tough task. He had a mindscape that was difficult to understand and inhabit. “He was an exceptional talent with a lot of complexities which only compounded with some of his failures too. He had a strangely conflicting persona that married megalomania with high levels of detachment. I am not saying that Ritu was a great filmmaker. I am not even claiming that he was a name to reckon with in international cinema. Yet, there was something in Ritu which no one had. It is rare to find anyone who can match his idiom or be in his space. In Kaushik’s films, I find a version of the external features of Ritu’s cinema. However, the core of their films is very different. Atanu has the sensibilities of Rituparno’s mind though their styles of making movies are poles apart,” Mishra said.

Cinematographer Aveek Mukhopadhyay, who has worked in many of Rituparno’s films, calls him “the last of the author filmmakers”. Directors, he agrees, can rope in the same technicians that Rituparno worked with and yet not be able to make a movie that reflects his sensibility. “Cinematography can’t alone make a movie. Primarily it has to be cinema. The rest will then follow. There are some influences of Ritu in films made by a few other directors. That would include his use of props, costumes and set designs. But what makes the difference is the way Ritu understood cinema, his understanding of the surrounding reality and people and from what level he wanted to explore the problems that were being handled in his films.”

More than his craft, it was the workings of his mind that others haven’t resonated with. Some might have loved, tried but failed. Others might have hated and consciously avoided being a clone. But for both, Rituparno and his films will continue being a metaphor of everything that they can never ignore.