In the early 90s, there were three kinds of Bengali films.
The taxpayer-financed exercises in intellectual masturbation, which would have a weeks’s run in Nandan before being sent to film festivals in Cuba and Bulgaria, marked by egregious vomiting, death and long languorous shots of dirty soles of feet, much appreciated by bhodrolok with unkempt beards, jholas, hawai chappals and fantasies about Truffaut.
The Swapan Saha-Sukhen Das jhaal muri of populist entertainment, made largely for a suburban and rural audience, cheap knock-offs of Hindi movies or hyper-emotional tragi-dramas with themes drawn from village Jatras, a spicy mixture of talcum powder, flab, and body-parts bartered for treatment of tuberculosis.
And of course Satyajit Ray films.
Then Ray died.
With it, a significant section of the Bengali urban population, too unworthy for Chiranjeet in a cowboy hat but too cinema-illiterate for the wannabe-Fellinis, stopped watching new Bengali films.
Which is when Rituparno Ghosh came into the frame. And one by one, all those who had fled the theaters came running back.
Like Ray, Rituparno had that deft touch, the ability to tell a story simply and engagingly, without the intrusive heavy-handed direction that sadly often masquerades as “waah kya art” directorial prowess. “Sohoj katha jaaye na bola sohoje” (It’s difficult to tell a simple thing simply) and that Ritu-da, at least in his best works, could do that so precisely is what made him such an amazing filmmaker.
What I found most unique about Rituparno Ghosh, and this perhaps was because of his background in making ad-films, was how he was a true commercial artist. This is even the more unique, since Bengalis, especially those that label themselves intellectuals, consider “the market” to be Satan itself. Rituparno understood his art. And unlike many that came before him, he also understood commerce. He limited his oeuvre to a world he understood, urban, middle to upper-middle-class Bengal, which perhaps not coincidentally, was also his target demographic. He was out there on TV, in award shows, and in the media, promoting himself and his films, flamboyant and camera-friendly—a far cry from the ideal of the “serious” director, who, at least in Bengal, was expected to speak through his works, and through his works only. He made Hindi movies. He worked with mainstream Bollywood stars, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and Bipasa Basu at the heights of their careers, and also established Bengali popular stars like Debasree Ray, Prosenjit and Rituparna, none of whom had displayed much in the way of acting chops before Rituparno cast them in lead roles.
And yet, and this is where he was so unique, he never sold out. He made experimental movies. His characters, even in his most mainstream creations, were broken and cracked and difficult, not always the easiest to understand or empathize with. He went heavy on dialog and light on action. He loved making his urban audience cringe with gratuitous sequences of menstruation, sweat, and even near-blasphemous imagery. He wore his sexuality proudly on his sleeve, despite the inevitable social blow-back (A common refrain in Bengali living rooms “Rituparno is a good film-maker, but why does he have to be…err…like that?”) He explored alternative sexuality in Chitangada and when that did poorly at the box office, he made a detective thriller, but with a non-conventional actor (director Sujoy Ghosh), thus continuing, till the very end, to walk the line between artistic whimsy and market awareness.
While Rituparno may be with us no more, it is this legacy which endures in the new wave of Bengali cinema that so clearly follows the Rituparno model, of which “Bhooter Bhobishyot” is perhaps the best example, which seeks to be entertaining as well as original, providing as it does a much-needed alternative to the derivative holocaust of the “Challenge” and “Paglu” variety.
Which means that Ritu-da has left his world in a better place than he inherited it, blazing a trail for others to follow.
And what really can be a greater achievement than that?