The Critical Tourist
When you are all but convinced that art these days does little more than serve self-promotion and the market, someone comes along to show that all is not lost, that art can still make a difference. It happens rarely, but when it does, you have to salute that artist.
Rituparno Ghosh, the first openly gay and transsexual Bengali filmmaker and actor, died in his sleep last Wednesday night (May 30) at his residence in Kolkata. He was 52. It is for film experts to evaluate the quality of his remarkable output of around twenty films over a little more than two decades; all I do here is touch on what seem to me the crucial aspects of his legacy.
The Bengali film arena was simply barren through the last two decades of the twentieth century, until RituparnoGhosh’s emergence in the early 1990s. By the turn of the century, he had ushered the Bengali film audience –at least the serious kind– back to the movie theaters. The diversity of Ghosh’s subjects is striking. His bold treatment of taboos, such as social marginalization of a molested woman (Dahan, 1997); repressed romance between two cousins in an extended family (Utsab, 2000); and domination of women in a patriarchy obsessed with male heirs (Antarmahal, 2005), opened new doors for Kolkata’s younger filmmakers. Unafraid to shake up the false prudery of Bengali culture, Ghosh became the brightest successor to his senior colleague and mentor, Aparna Sen. Yet at the same time, he also passionately offered his tributes to Rabindranath Tagore (Chokher Bali, 2003; Noukadubi, 2010), the one-man canon of Bengali high culture. A third strand in his work is his meticulous dissection of the auteur’s seemingly impervious public image to expose the underlying vulnerabilities and insecurities (Unishe April, 1994; The Last Lear, 2007; Abohoman, 2010). One can certainly discern other, overlapping threads in Ghosh’s work, but the ones outlined here are enough to demonstrate the complexity of his creative endeavor.
Ghosh used both his art and his celebrity to challenge society’s normative notions about alterity,yet homophobia per se does not play a central role in his films because he never believed in mere propaganda films. In the last three productions –two of them directed by others– in which he played gay and transgender roles (Memories in March and ArektiPremerGalpo, 2011; Chitrangada, 2013), critique of homophobia is oblique at best, underscoring instead the self-expression of sexuality. They blur the gap between life and art in a way that is unprecedented in Bengali film history.Rather than subverting normativity from the margin, he confronted it from within the center, and his probity about his own sexuality stubbornly resisted any attempt to stereotype him. When society came at him with all its ignorance and vulgarity, he educated society with all his patience and grace. With the depth of his erudition, the diversity of his intellectual inquiry, the wide range of his creative interests, and no less, his humility, he compelled the dominant culture to accept him as one of its own. Finally, he empowered the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities of India in a much more meaningful way than any generic activist ever. Thus, what he leaves behind is, without a question, a legacy of integrity, courage, and creativity—or more precisely, of courageous creativity. And in this regard, RituparnoGhosh is a pioneer indeed.