The first death anniversary of Rituparno Ghosh is a good time to remind people once again of the immense contribution to Indian as well as Bengali cinema that the director had made. However, it is also important to know that Ritu da, as the director was lovingly called by his ever-grateful juniors, was a multifaceted genius – advertising copywriter, screenplay writer, actor, lyricist, mentor to many actors, and of course, director.
Rituparno’s career began in the advertising industry, where he rose to become a very effective copywriter and ad film-maker. He was particularly noted for composing succinct, appealing one-liners and slogans for ad campaigns in Bengali during the 1980s. He worked for Ram Ray’s Response advertising agency. Well-known examples of his skill lay in memorable punchlines like ‘Boroline Chirodin’ and ‘Bongojiboner ango’ for Boroline and ‘Tawker aponjon’ for Margo soap. Then there was the campaign for Frooti, the Asian Paints Sharad Samman awards for Durga Puja, and numerous others. Eighteen of these won national wards. The promise was very much there – a promise of glory in terms of the visual, the artistic, the communication.
The 1985 Boroline ad which came out before the Pujas, with Rituparno’s copy
Years later, ad guru Alyque Padamsee, who had run into Rituparno in Kolkata and Mumbai for several assignments, recalled in an interview: “I saw in him a Shyam Benegal who had also worked with me as an assistant when I was film chief for Lintas. Shyam had this hunger to become a film-maker. I could sense the same urge in Rituparno whenever we met. I knew it in my guts that this fellow would eventually become a great director. He was already showing tremendous visual promise. I told him, ‘one day you will make some outstanding films’.” According to another ad guru, Prahlad Kakkar, “I used to find him very sensitive. He was a gifted writer even at that stage. He would keep translating Bengali pieces to English since he had excellent command over both languages,” but he was frustrated at “being an adman even though he was good at it... He would say, ‘everything here is specific to selling. I am an artist and not inclined to sell’.”
He himself said, “But I was not satisfied. I love to talk, to write and to communicate at length. I was searching for a feature to happen.”
That search bore fruit in 1990 in the form of a documentary film on Vande Mataram for Doordarshan. Then came the children’s feature film, Hirer Angti, the only children’s film that Rituparno was to make. Based on a novel by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, it was a good film, but didn’t get a wide release. Things changed dramatically with his second feature, Unishe April, released in 1994. It was a critical and commercial success, and Bengal, and India, hailed the arrival of a film-maker with a vision of his own. The film starring Aparna Sen and Debasree Roy in leading roles, won two National Award in 1995, including one for Best Feature Film, and set him on his path to glory.
A scene from Unishe April
There was no stopping him. Gems of films followed one after the other – many of them winning awards, both international and natioanl, and wowing the discerning viewer worldwide. Dahan, Bariwali, Utsab, Asukh, Titli, Shubho Mahurat, Chokher Bali, Antarmahal, Dosar, Khela, Abohoman, Shob Choritro Kalponik, Arekti Premer Golpo (co-director), Chitrangada, Satyanweshi, Sunglass (Taak Jhaank in Hindi), the last being a bilingual film (Bengali and Hindi) – 15 Bengali feature films in all. In between came three Hindi films, the features, Raincoat and Kashmakash, and Urge, one of the 11 stories in the film, Mumbai Cutting. His sole English film, The Last Lear, was based on Utpal Dutt’s semi-autobiographical Bengali play, Aajker Shahjahan, and was also the only Rituparno film to star Amitabh Bachchan. He also made a brilliant documentary on Rabindranath Tagore called Jeevan Smriti. Unfortunately, both Sunglass and Jeevan Smriti had their first screenings after the director’s death.
A poster of the film Bariwali
Awards also came aplenty to him. There were the National Film Awards for Best Feature Film awarded to Unishe April, for Best Feature Film in Bengali to Asukh, Shubho Mahurat, Chokher Bali, Shob Choritro Kalponik and Abohoman, for Best Feature Film in Hindi to Raincoat and in English to The Last Lear, for Best Direction to Utsab and Abohoman, and a Special Jury Award to Chitrangada.
International awards also came by the handful. His films won awards at many major film festivals: Berlin International Film Festival (Unishe April, Bariwali), Pusan International Film Festival (Unishe April, Chokher Bali), Locarno International Film Festival (Chokher Bali, Antarmahal), Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Dahan, Raincoat), Deauville Asian Film Festival (Raincoat, Abohoman), Chicago International Film Festival (Chokher Bali), Bombay International Film Festival (Asukh, Titli, Shubho Mahurat), and International Film Festival of Kerala (Antarmahal).
Rituparno receiving the National Award for The Last Lear
Significantly, except for a few like Hirer Angti, Raincoat and The Last Lear and Satyanweshi, Rituparno was the author of all the stories of his films, and also the screenplay writer of quite a few. The story of Hirer Angti was adapted from a Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay novel, of Raincoat from the O Henry short story, The Gift of the Magi, of The Last Lear from a Utpal Dutt play, and of Satyanweshi from two Byomkesh Bakshi novels by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. He won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay for Dahan. He was also the story- and screenplay-writer of the Sanjoy Nag-helmed Memories in March.
He did a brilliant turn as Ornub Mitra, the friend of Deepti Naval’s dead son in Memories in March. This brings us to the other facet of this multifaceted personalty – acting. Though his premature death put paid to a budding acting career, the few he did do stand out. First came Arekti Premer Golpo, a biopic on jatra star Chapal Bhaduri, where he essayed the role of Chapal. Then came Memories in March, and finally, Chitrangada. In all the three, Rituparno was feted for his prowess as a thespian. This part of his talent was always known, though, to those who worked with him, as he always used to act out the parts to his actors beautifully. It’s just that only with Arekti Premer Golpo did the people at large come to appreciate this talent for the first time.
Rituparno (sitting) in Arekti Premer Golpo, his first turn as an actor
Besides, he had sundry other talents. He was the lyricist for his own Abohoman and another film, Maach, Mishti & More. For Arekti Premer Golpo, he was also the production designer, and he was translator of the Bengali dialogues for Mira Nair’s The Namesake. It is indeed sad that such a bundle of talent had to pass away at the age of just 50. The world of cinema became much the poorer on this day in 2013, as the maestro died in his sleep due to a heart attack.
A well-rounded person
Besides his talent as a film-maker, as a person, too, Rituparno was charm personified. He could easily bring the best out of his actors and even non-actors, the sign of a great communicator, a sign which was evident way back from his advertising days. As Aparna Sen wrote in a tribute to him after his death, ‘He could bond effortlessly with almost anyone and this stood him in very good stead in his career as a film-maker. His relationships with people may not always have been entirely free of trouble, but his charm was not facile; Ritu was genuinely interested in people – how they lived, how their minds worked – and his sensitivity, combined with his considerable intelligence, allowed him to get to the core of almost anything, be it a human being or an idea.’
Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh, the best of friends
Another aspect of him which must be mentioned is his sexuality. A brave, courageous man, willing to defy orthodoxy, Rituparno was comfortable with his personal choices and his sexuality. Aparna Sen wrote about this aspect beautifully in the same article quoted from earlier: ‘I saw Ritu through many stages of his, sadly, short life. He was initially a slightly effeminate boy, but no more than that, at least not on the face of it. He still hid the fact that he was gay, although it obviously pained him to hide it from those he loved. I remember badgering him to get married and even threatened to look for a suitable girl if he couldn’t manage to find one himself. He brushed my suggestions aside lightly enough, but I was puzzled at the sadness on his face. A few days later he gave me a book of poetry to read, gifted to him by a male friend. “You do poetry recitals,” he said, “ …you might find something interesting here.” After he had left, I started turning the pages. On the flyleaf were inscribed the words ‘to you, from me’. Understanding dawned. I never badgered him again. But that incident broke whatever barriers of inhibition had existed between us. I became his confidante, and he mine. He began to tell me about his relationships, about the pain of the sexually marginalized, about his loneliness, about his desire to be accepted for who he was.’
An extremely well-read and socially active man, Rituparno was popular on social media too.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv