SINCE RITUPARNO GHOSH’S DEATH from a cardiac arrest on 30 May, at the age of 49, there has been an outpouring of tributes, befitting someone who was arguably Bengal’s most widely known contemporary film icon. With his passing, we have lost not just a talented and prolific director, but also a rare public figure willing and able to depict—and in recent years, embody—the fraughtness of our sexual selves. Ghosh started to make a calculated change in his physical appearance about five years ago, shaving his head, taking hormones and adopting a new wardrobe that made him look increasingly androgynous. In recent years, in his cinematic output, too, he became preoccupied with questions of gender identity, though more as an actor and writer than as a director. Following his death, his filmography has been characterised as a progression from some sort of closeted bhadralok-ness to sexual liberation, but this seems to overlook what his oeuvre, as a whole, tells us. I would suggest that Ghosh’s cinema was always a kind of poetry of the interior, attending closely to the inner spaces of the home, and of the heart. The intimate chamber dramas he specialised in were closely observed portraits of the Bengali middle class at home, and sex and sexuality were integral to that picture right from the start.
His films, shot largely indoors and built up through conversations, were sometimes dismissed as uncinematic: it was often argued that they were like filmed plays. But the frequently enclosed nature of his canvas seems to me to have been Ghosh’s strength: under the sustained attention of his gaze, the finest of faultlines could come into view—and very occasionally, be bridged. His dialogue—Ghosh was rare among contemporary Indian directors for having scripted all his films—was immaculately attentive to the gradations of age, class and education, to the tensions and insecurities created by disparate backgrounds, even within the same household. It was no accident that so many of his narratives played themselves out within the space of the home.
Houses, and the conflicted relationships women have with them, are a recurring theme in Ghosh’s work, as I have mentioned in another article. He once described his breakthrough film, Unishe April, as being inspired partly by watching Ray’s Jalsaghar and drawing on the zamindar’s relationship with his crumbling mansion to create his ageing dancer’s relationship with a house full of memories. In future films, whether it was his imagining of the 19th-early 20th century Bengali universe—Chokher Bali, Antarmahal, Noukadubi—or his recreation of contemporary women’s lives—Dahan, Bariwali, Asukh, Utsab, Raincoat, Dosar, Khela, Shubho Mahurat—he remained remarkably sensitive to the pushes and pulls of the household. Ghosh understood, better than any Indian filmmaker I can think of, both the desire for domesticity and its capacity for suffocation. Whether it was the present-day housewife in a crumpled sari stuck in a house crammed with furniture, as in Raincoat, or the 19th century bhadramahila for whom leaving the house without an escort, even in a private carriage, was forbidden, Ghosh constantly forced his audience to experience domestic space as his female characters did. And he was unafraid to depart from the letter of a text for what he felt was its spirit. “[Tagore’s] novel ended with the widow Binodini going to live in Banaras, devoid of all desire,” he said to me in 2008, speaking of Chokher Bali. “My film emphasised her independence—the letter Binodini writes when she leaves talks of her own desh, which should be read not as country, but as space or domain.” If Binodini’s farewell letter speaks of her past actions as driven by a desire for setting up a home, it also gestures to a future in which her home will be the whole country, the whole wide world, whose existence she has finally caught a glimpse of by leaving Calcutta. Remarkably, Bengali contains a word that can mean both ‘home’ and ‘world’—‘sansar’, pronounced ‘shongshaar’. Dahan, set in the mid-1990s, paints an even more astute picture of the ambivalence of home: how the menace of the outside world can turn a woman’s shongshaar into a prison, containing possibilities for violence that are harder to thwart. A young woman, recently married, is molested and almost gang-raped on a city street. She manages to escape, only to discover that the safety of her marital home is a dangerous illusion. His acute attentiveness to the meanings of home—the lines that mark inside and outside, but also the lines that divide people within it—made Ghosh a master of the chamber piece.