When I got the news, late morning of May 30, 2013 from a friend, I was stunned! It was just a few months ago at the Kolkata Book Fair event where we met up and had a brief warm chat. He was moderating a very interesting programme on Ray's Women, where he was in conversation with such class acts as Madhabi Mukherjee, Aparna Sen and Sharmila Tagore. Immediately after the programme, he took me aside and whispered wickedly. "Dada, hope you were not too bored with all the inane chatter!"
Witty, smart, clever, charming, articulate, Ritu and I go back to the early nineties when we first met at my sister-in-law, Aparna's (Sen) place at Alipore, Kolkata. I was living and working out of Delhi, so knew nothing about him. I remember him telling me that he was in advertising too - a copywriter - but his heart was into movie making. He had just made a children's film 'Hirer Aangti', but since he was not well known and it wasn't well marketed, the film made no waves.
At the time we met, he was scripting his first feature film 'Unishe April' starring Aparna and Debasree Roy in the principal lead roles and could I please pray that it resonates with the audience? He admitted later - after the film's huge success - that “the contribution of Rina-di (Aparna) and Renu Roy could never be underestimated, because without their morale-boosting support, scripting and dialogue help and aggressive initiatives in rustling up finances, the film would have remained just that - a day in the calendar!"
'Unishe April' was indeed a mind-blowing experience for the audiences of year 1994! A totally content-driven film, powered with amazingly crafted dialogue and bereft of any glamour or stereotypical filmy component, this mother-daughter distancing [shades of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata?] and bonding, the film scored big, fetching him a National Award and marking the entry of a young, new, bold director, with a vision and mission all his own. The film not only got him tons of followers but also garnered huge praise from the press and most importantly, a National Award for Best Actress Debasree Roy and Best Feature Film for him! A century on debut, Ghosh seemed to have made the National Award a habit, winning 12 between 1994 - 2012 (Chitrangada - Special Jury Award). Definitely a record!
What was so special about Rituparno Ghosh? For one, I can't think of any other film-maker in Bengal who so adroitly fused scholarship with market forces. His advertising background obviously came into play because right from the way he dreamt up his subject, his casting, his treatment, his publicity and the way he would present and pitch his stuff to his audiences - he was spot-on.
Secondly, few (if anyone) could match his deadly (and winning) combination of blending quality with speed and making a small budget look awesome! No wonder, in a space where quality film-makers continue to desperately look for funds, Ritu had producers forever lining up. Also, hardly any of his films ever lost money. I once asked him why he didn't pay heed to critics accusing him of [churning out?] making films at break-neck speed that look good but lack soul. He smiled and pleaded guilty, but offered two telling reasons. "Ideas come to me thick and fast and I perhaps, like many others, can pause and take my time, but I don't because I have a unit who need to be gainfully employed and the more prolific I am, the better for them. As for my films being overly concerned with looks, I think cinema is a visual medium and great visuals create their very own magic and fan following. Maybe it's my advertising background or an inherent weakness, but don't we first see and then hear?"
Finally, no film-maker [not Ray, Sen, Ghatak or later Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghosh, Aparna Sen] had the kind of seductive charm he had to convince people - stars, producers, journalists, critics, intellectuals, ordinary people - to rock with him. I imagine, sitting in Kolkata and persuading the likes of Bollywood A-listers to enthusiastically and happily work in his tiny-budget films. Be it Aishwaya Rai-Ajay Devgn in 'Raincoat', Aishwarya Rai in 'Chokher Bali', Manish Koirala in 'Khela', Soha Ali Khan and Abhishek Bachchan in 'Antarmahal', Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta and Arjun Rampal in 'The Last Lear', even Sharmila Tagore and Rakhee in 'Shubho Mahurat', Bipasha Basu in 'Shob Charitro Kalponik', Kiron Kher in 'Bariwali' – they all leapt on board with joy. Intelligent, insightful, evolved, sensitive, extraordinarily well-read, aglow with intellectual curiosity yet sweet, simple, generous, kind, fun and very grounded, Rituparno Ghosh had a ready-made home in every heart he connected with. No wonder be it Aparna Sen, Sharmila Tagore, the Bachchans, Moon Moon Sen, Kiron Kher or whoever, Ritu was always referred to as 'family'.
49 years is no age to say goodbye, but hey, thanks for memory. As for me, at a personal level, I continue to miss those long chats on the phone discussing Cabbages and Kings. Here's to Lights, Camera, Action ... upstairs!!