'I DON'T WANT TO BECOME A WOMAN...'
RIP Rituparno Ghosh - a man who stood inbetween the sexes... defiantly.
My first novel 'Faraway Music' was launched in January this year. In my first ever interview, a journalist asked me about the recent trend of books getting transformed into films, and which Bollywood director I'd pick, if indeed I could have a wish list. I remember I laughed, saying, 'Only Rituparno,' to which the lady on the other end of the line laughed saying, 'Spoken like a true blooded Bengali.'
In Bangalore, a month or so back, a journalist again raised the same question. And my reply remained consistent to which he added, 'But why only a Bengali director? As in isn't someone like Karan Johar perhaps more lucrative or an Anurag Kashyap?' I remember what I had said, and his answer too.
'Have you read Faraway Music?' I interrupted.
'Partly,' he answered, a tad apologetically.
'Then read it fully... then you will what I am talking about, alright,' I cut him short.
'Bong bonding,' he chuckled, exuding a smugness, so common in a modern-day rookie.
'Yes! You should have known better...' I said, hanging up in a huff.
Luckily we had run out of time too.
As I woke up to the devastating news of my favorite director's sudden death... waiting almost half a day to make sense of my feelings, I can't help but wonder if we have indeed lost our last cultural icon? By we, I mean my generation - convent-educated, sporting Levis and chewing bubblegum, shaking a leg at an upmarket discotheque and growing up on a diet of Madonna, Def Leopard and Tom Cruise (gosh remember those days, think it was called the 80's!) We never watched Bengali films in stuffy auditoriums or dissected Joy Goswami or Shakti Chattopadhyay. We ate in air-conditioned restaurants in Park Street and brushed shoulders with Kolkata's cultural connoisseurs at Tolly. We went overseas for summer vacations and preferred a racy Salman Khan flick to a Ray classic.
At this point, I must interject and recall a particular conversation I recall with alarming alacrity. A story, my grand-father used to love repeating of a time in the city. One of its saddest days, Bapi often narrated, his eyes moist... when Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) died. A young student, Bapi could go on for hours on how he, along with his young friends had run for miles, accompanying the mortal remains of the great bard, weeping copiously, as if mourning the death of a family member. Bapi always broke down describing the scene, the millions gathered on the street, rendered almost fatherless.
'Pitriheen mone hoyechilo nijeke sheidin, shob jeno kirom spodhho hoye giyechilo. Bangalir shob gaan jeno hariye gelo,' he'd muse, sometimes breaking out into a Bhromo sangeet, a song of pious prayer and piety, to which then Mamma, my grandmother would add a few lines, reminiscing on summer holidays spent in the family holiday home in Giridhi. My mother would sit watching, till my grand-father made eye contact with her. And just like that, she too would lend her voice to the verses, pulling me in.
I lost my grand-parents in the same year, 1995. We now live in Delhi. It's been over a decade. But, even now, on cloudy summer evenings, Ma and I go back with an almost childlike ease to those moments... to being who we were, in a city where such things are perhaps taken for granted.
I felt like that today, since this morning in fact, as we sat facing a gnawing television screen, talking about how Ghosh, now deceased was perhaps one of the most glowing embodiments of that generation of Bengalis who contributed so much to our widely known and fierce sense of cultural supremacy. Every time, in my own journalistic career when a colleague would bring up a Bollywood director of repute, me along with some other probashi Bengali colleagues would scoff, muttering under our breaths, saying, 'Ektao Rituparnor standarer noi... no wonder he keeps bagging one National award after the next!'
My personal relationship with a man I idolized deeply at a creative level began when my father (a converted Bengali, originally Andhrite) took us to watch Dohon, saying he had heard about. I was in Jadavpur University, the same college from where Ghosh too graduated. I recall the fuss I kicked up, frowning upon a three-hour marathon, with nothing more than 'nyaka nyaka kanna kati and boka boka gaan.'
I was dead wrong. In less than an hour, Ghosh had me riveted and how.
A master story-teller with an eye for aesthetics and a deep and haunting sensitivity of the human psyche, I could not for the life of me imagine how he was a man. And if so, how on earth did he know so much of the female psyche... the tension in a woman's body, her pain, her agony and the intricacies of a typical middle class Bengali family. How could he sense the pulse of a changing city - the impotent rage, the hypocrisy, the seething frustration? How? Just how the hell did he extract a gut-wrenching and gritty performance out from an actress like Rituparna Sengupta, who till then, I had only seen in commercial cinema, the ones that my house helps watched with glee on a Sunday afternoon, after their work was done, the kinds that I scoffed at and stayed away from.
Over the years, through many of Ghosh's flicks, I have wondered the same, however, being critical of his adaptation of Tagore's 'Chokher Bali' and 'Noukadubi', of his choice to cast a bevy of Bollywood beauties, namely Aishwarya Rai or Soha Ali Khan or even much later, Bipasha Basu (her voice dubbed terribly in Shob Choritro Kalponik), his overdoing of the 'coming out of the closet' act with his outrageous costumes, over the top head gear and his latest obsession - acting as a gay man in almost every movie he ever did. Or maybe I had grown up, now living miles away from home - at a safe vantage point to criticize a man who in a sense took a woman like me, back into the hushed darkness of a movie hall... before the age of the plush multiplexes and the beginning of the resurgent wave of Bengali cinema that we seem to be now gloating in.
Looking back however, as I am now being forced to do, I can't help but feel that maybe Ghosh was evolving with me. Trying to constantly fit in, to push his own boundaries. To uncover layers that only he knew existed within him, his own sexual orientation being at the core and almost going parallel with his creative journey. I almost forgot about Ghosh for a while, relegating myself to a mere DVD at best. Until on a holiday home, I happened to watch 'Arekti Premer Golpo', also called Bengal's answer to 'Brokeback Mountain', a story of gay love based on the tumultuous life and times of Chapal Bhaduri, a legend in Bengali theatre, a man who constantly felt trapped in a woman's body, essaying the role of women on stage. In an interview to the Telegraph, prior to the film's release, Ghosh had said and I quote, 'People find me mysterious (laughs). And I find it very amusing that people suspect my sexuality all the time and yet they are so curious to know about my sexual life. There's always been a lot of speculation about me on approaching femininity... whether I am going in for a sex change or a breast augmentation, all kinds of speculation. But I was never embarrassed. If I want to change my identity by changing my sex, I would be the first person to let the world know about my new identity. I consider myself privileged because of my gender fluidity, the fact that I am in between.'
As images flicker of Ghosh's body now headed on its last lap home, I can't help wonder if he himself was able to make peace with his inner struggles. If indeed he too was a creative genius tormented by his obsessive sense of perfection and tormenting loneliness, despite all his public charisma and candor. And, how we, my generation and younger perhaps, will remember Ghosh? Who will he be compared to - Ray, Ghatak... Tagore? And if indeed we as a community are running out of icons to pull up, and brag about, to quote from and to translate... to call a cult, a classic, a crusader of a lost era.
A lot of my friends back in Kolkata talk about films that never see the light of Delhi, my mother musing about them endlessly, saying that we are missing out... all the time. It's never bothered me really, not until I wrote my own book, giving up a heady six-figure salary to follow my heart, slay some of my own inner demons, this time decidedly. It's to this end, that I know that I will miss Ghosh irrevocably - for standing for something... for having the courage to base his films on women, to want to resurrect the magic of Tagore to generations of Bengalis who probably never even open the Geetanjali, to be an artist first, and not a movie-making movie mogul whose main target was the box-office.
These are dangerous times. Times when best-selling authors like Chetan Bhagat write scripts for Salman Khan and pose for Shaadi.com ads, when marketing is a bigger headache for all creative people, like me, who are reminded, time and time again, be it by their publishers/producers/record labels that we have to sell something. Commerce determining our net credibility!
'How many copies? How many weeks? How many art works sold?'
I swallow hard.
It's why I needed you around, Rituparno Ghosh. All of us did. To be our standard, our shining example, our best man to prove the point that we must all win, each creative person - however big or small, however talented or mediocre, however successful or deprived of it. To know our job, to believe in our talent, to hear our own heartbeat - in a world that was fast losing imagination and colour, not to forget the pathos of poetry - the highest kind of story-telling there is - human emotions unbridled. The simple joys of a joint family, the depths of a woman's loneliness behind the closed doors of a bedroom, the angst of a poet's aloneness, the lustfulness and wanton abandon of gay lovers, any lovers... really. The breath of Tagore's visual imagery... the songs an entire generation, had so easily forfeited.
Maybe it's why you were so very relevant, so real. For being just that... a creator, a poet, a painter, a singer, a dancer, a director, a man who had something to say... a man with a world view matched only by your personal philosophy, someone smart, but not shiny, someone deep, but not preachy, someone successful, but not jaded.
Never run of the mill.
It's almost ironical that just days ago, I concluded my fourth novel Cut! based on the chequered life of a director Amitabh Kulashreshtra, imagining and praying that someday you would be sitting with me, maybe on a dais, or a park bench maybe, the evening light mellow and moody. I would always think of you in a red turban and kohl lined eyes, sporting chunky silver jewellery, the fractured evening light slipping in through your slender fingers... as we'd talk... just talk.
Like Bapi did... or Mamma... or my parents had when we took a taxi back from Nandan, the sky a strange slate, like today... I try and visualize your words... like theirs. The way we had dissected your cinema, finding a strange heroism in the simple courage it takes to tell a human story. I don't know if you were the best director as is being pointed out now, in hindsight... or if the Gen Next of Bengali cine-goers will really care about your untimely demise after a point, what with so many 'new age' Bengali films standing in a copious semi circle. I wonder if you will be satisfied with the epithet of trail-blazer or path-finder - terms that I personally found limiting.
Or maybe, I am just a fan. A woman who always admired you from afar, wishing someday your path crossed mine.
'There she lies... in her own right,' I would quote you lines from Mark Twain... something you had said in defence of actress Paoli Dam's sensational nudity controversy, linking it to the way in which we view sexual dialogue in our books, films and art. Do it the way a creative mind should - impartially, eloquently and brazenly.
Yes, there are brilliant directors - and soon I will find another DVD to watch on a muggy Saturday afternoon - but after the last reel has played out and the credits are over - I know I will miss you, ever so silently.
A man who was more than a man and no lesser than a woman - a Bengali who had the courage to imagine a narrative, close to his home, and ensconced in his heart.
'There she lies,' I whisper... making a promise as they announce its time.
Dust to dust.
Ashes to ashes.
Nothing else matters.
In the life of a creative person, nothing else will.
'Society can't accept people who are not normative,' you had once said, in a sense defying that very society that now wails in your memory, chasing a hearse, running hard... before...