He said to me once, ‘keep a room for me in your home when I grow older. Else, where will I go?’,” recalls Sangeeta Dutta, choking at the recollection. Her friend didn’t require one. He passed away peacefully in his sleep, in his own home, when he was just 49.
Dutta’s 92-minute documentary on her friend Rituparno Ghosh, Birds of Dusk, has received standing ovations in the film festival circuits and opened in theatres in Kolkata on January 11, a landmark for documentary films. It is also scheduled for screening at Delhi’s Habitat Centre on February 10.
Ghosh filled the void in Bengali films after the death of Satyajit Ray. Between 1992 and 2013, he compelled viewers to return to the theatre over and over with remarkable films that were bold, audacious and broke new grounds. Most of them received National Film Awards in a range of categories, year after year. He also charmed and impressed big names from Bollywood to act in Bengali or English films that he made. Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Nandita Das, Kirron Kher, Preity Zinta, Soha Ali Khan, Arjun Rampal and others happily subjected themselves to be directed by Ghosh.
The documentary is a posthumous tribute to the filmmaker and speaks to a galaxy of filmstars he had worked with. Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, Rakhi, Nandita Das, Konkona Sen and others, including his London film curators, from college days in Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Dutta remembers her pal, “brother-like Ritu”, from their college days studying economics in Jadavpur University. “He was very studious, intelligent and shy and he would often be bullied as his mannerisms were not ‘masculine enough’. He would keep to himself but even then was a very interesting conversationalist on the arts. He would love to tell stories, was a film buff, who would remember each and every detail of the films he watched and would often enact scenes for you,” Dutta recalls.
After the film Chokher Bali, his stature grew internationally. Media loved him and he loved the media glare on him. He would actually get upset if he didn’t see any write-up or photograph of him or his work for a week or so.
He was a bundle of contradictions, concedes Dutta. On the one hand he would love the spotlight, on the other, he would turn away from it and retreat to his room, shutting out everyone but his closest friends. He could be argumentative, aggressive and bluntly tell people on their face that he didn’t like them; on the other hand he could be warm, fun-loving and funny, with an impish sense of humour.
While filming Chitrangada which was his final screen appearance, he started learning Odissi. He took to rereading the Mahabharata and was preparing a play on Krishna and Arjuna in which he was to play a part. He worked himself to death, reflects Dutta sadly
At other moments, he could get somber and speak about tragedies of his life. He would talk of his relationships that didn’t go far. “Once when we were sitting in Locarno during a screening of Chokher Bali, he for the first time opened up about his sexual preferences. We were in a café. There were lots of same sex couples moving. He suddenly said wistfully, ‘Had I left India, I would have had a permanent partner and a family. But now I know that’s not possible.”
It clearly played on his mind. So, in his last few films, he became bolder, more eloquent, elegantly dealing with gender fluidity, non-normative sexual behaviours and third gender rights. He had a deep sense of history and cultural leaning and would draw a lot from his readings of epics. Decorating the middle part of the male body had nothing to do with feminine behavior, that a lot of our rulers, rajas and maharajas did that. They would wear a lot of jewellery and elaborate ‘womanly outfits’. “When he was making The Last Lear with Amitabh Bachchan, he would often come to the sets dressed up in long neck pieces and elaborate headgears. Bachchan, who thought Ritu was my brother, one day came up to me once and said, “Your brother is such a lady”, Dutta remembers with a smile.
As he grew in stature, there was a huge interest in his work in the media. During later days of his life, he drastically changed his personal appearance. He decided to be an actor. So, he started learning classical dances.
In this film, he played a transgender filmmaker with bisexual love. “But that had an adverse effect on his health. He became a diabetic, developed blood pressure and related medical problems.” While filming Chitrangada which was his final screen appearance, he started learning Odissi. He took to rereading the Mahabharata and was preparing a play on Krishna and Arjuna in which he was to play a part. He worked himself to death, reflects Dutta sadly.
Yet, says Dutta, she could see that Ghosh had finally come to terms with himself. He had shaved off his head. “…he looked like Buddha. I began to see a wiser, self-realised, contemplative, quieter, reflective, calmer and philosophical Ritu. I knew he would have loved to have a partner and children around him. He called Raima (Sen) his daughter, and showered his love and affection on my sons...” she reflects.