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September 22, 1999


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A man for all reasons

Shoma A Chatterji

Rituparno Ghosh Having honed his directorial skills in the advertising world, with a bagful of prizes tucked under his arm, Rituparno Ghosh stepped into feature films with a children's film called Hirer Angti.

The film, says Ghosh, got an award at some festival abroad, but children in India probably did not get a chance to see it.

Unishe April, which bagged the National Award for the best film about three years ago, was his second full-length feature film.

It was this film that made Ghosh a familiar name with Indian cine-goers. Besides bagging the award for the Best Film of the Year, Unishe April also fetched Debasree Roy the Swarna Kamal for the Best Actress. Roy played one of the two major roles in the film -- that of the daughter -- while the mother's character was played by Aparna Sen.

Basking in the glory of overnight fame, Ghosh did not find it difficult to get a producer for his next film. Bijay Agarwal was more than willing to put in his money to produce Ghosh's next film, Dahan.

Based on an original novel penned by Suchitra Bhattacharya, Dahan bagged for its leading ladies, Indrani Haldar and Rituparna Sengupta, the National Award for Best Actress, split for the first time ever, between two artistes.

Dahan "Though the theme revolved around the molestation of a married woman in a Calcutta street, it was mainly the spirit of female bonding that attracted me to the story," says Ghosh. "The same applies to my earlier film, Unishe April, which focused on a mother-daughter schism that resolves itself in the climax," he adds.

Ghosh, a familiar face at all film and media functions in Calcutta, is a multifaceted personality. You will find him seated comfortably in his editorial chamber at Anandalok, the film glossy from the Ananda Bazaar Patrika group he has been editing for more than a year now.

Or, you may encounter him in a BBC programme, visibly sidetracked by the very vocal Mamata Banerjee in a question-answer session on Calcutta.

Otherwise, he's busy shooting his new film, Badiuli, starring Kiron Kher, at an antiquated house in Tarakeswar, a temple town some miles away from Calcutta.

You could even spot him squatting on the floor, square-legged, at Calcutta's Seagull bookshop, pouring over books he may or may not buy.

Sometimes, he is casually dressed in jeans and t-shirts. But since his rise to fame, he is often dressed in long, designer kurtas with churidars to match, his receding hairline styled in a mop of curls, his back, ramrod straight and his voice, soft and smiling.

He has these lightning changes in mood and behaviour, seeing right through you sometime, and at others, talking to you as if you were a long-lost friend he has just met.

Ghosh's last film, Asookh bagged the National Award for the Best Regional Film in Bengali. The film, which premiered in Calcutta late last month, is drawing rave reviews.

What is Asookh all about? The film is significant because it is the first Bengali film ever to have been produced by the well-known Telugu producer, D Rama Naidu. The indoor shooting of the film was done at a single stretch at the Rama Naidu Studios in Hyderabad.

Asookh deals with the two things Ghosh is famous for -- loneliness of the individual and the fragmenting of relationships in a post-modern situation. Asookh, in a way, is a sequel to Unishe April with the relationship reversed.

In Unishe April, the mother was a danseuse, a public figure, and the daughter was an ordinary doctor. Their relationship was constantly under a cloud of misunderstanding created out of communication gaps -- some circumstantial, some destined.

Asookh In Asookh, the schism is between a filmstar daughter, Rohini (Debasree Roy) and her father Sudhamoy (Soumitra Chatterjee) who, unwillingly, is forced to depend on his daughter's earnings.

"This is my personal tribute to parenthood, to the unit made up of father and mother. Modern life distances us from our own parents to a considerable extent. I have tried to show this through Asookh. I am more interested in the sub-terranean layers of such relationships: be it between mother and daughter (Unishe April), two young women bound only by the commonness of their gender (Dahan), unrelated men and women (Badiuli) or a father and daughter (Asookh)," explains Ghosh.

He adds that "through this father-daughter relationship, I have tried to explore how our mental states are vitiated by circumstances beyond our control, leading to a loss of faith. But being an optimist to the core, I also come to terms with the fact that there is still hope for a restoration of the lost faith, leading to a liberation of the human spirit."

Like all his films, Asookh begins with a crisis, which runs throughout the film like a thread, and ends with its resolution. He keeps shifting from the past to the present, the past reflected in black-and-white and the present shown in colour.

Debasree Roy in Asookh "The theme of loneliness, a recurrent concern in my earlier films, is possibly intensified in Asookh," states Ghosh. "With the difference that Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, emerges as an eternal companion, guiding and supporting the protagonist Rohini, through the ups-and-downs of her high-profile yet lonely life."

He explains the significance of Tagore in his life. "I am personally influenced by Tagore. In fact, it is one of his poems, titled Losing One's Way, that set off the trigger for the story written directly as a screenplay. The sense of loss and the surrounding darkness became the dominant motif I wished to explore," he says.

The relationship between a father and a daughter formed the essence of the poem. This evolved into a celluloid version. Darkness, a literary metaphor in the poem, turned into a visual one in cinematic terms. "It expresses the interplay between trust and distrust, between hope and despair. The emotional impact of incidents are more significant than the incidents themselves," explains Ghosh.

Asookh, meaning disease -- translated as 'Malaise' in this case -- has multi-layered implications in Ghosh's film. The narrative revolves round the sudden illness of Rohini's mother who has to be hospitalised. No one knows what she is suffering from. It is a physical illness that sets off a chain of events in Rohini's life, and in her relationship with her father.

The film opens with Rohini breaking off with her boyfriend. She suspects him of two-timing her with a young starlet who, sort of, threatens Rohini's position at the top. This is suggestive of Rohini's psychological flaw -- her obsession with suspicion.

Finally, the theme reflects the current social malaise of relationships -- decimated, fragmented, broken asunder, under pressures on time, space, self-conflicts and emotional uncertainties brought forth by success, both professional and financial.

Success, therefore, specially in a plasticised, synthetic industry like films, could itself metamorphose into a disease, a malaise. In this particular case, it is the father-daughter relationship that stands exposed, then threatened and finally resolved.

However, Asookh is not Ghosh's best film. The National Award notwithstanding, Asookh is too dark, too brooding -- both in terms of its narrative as well as in terms of its cinematographic space -- to shed light on the inner turmoil that dogs a celebrity's life.

Thanks to the atrocious projection values of the Calcutta theatre where the film was premiered, Asookh turned out to be a more dimly-lit film than originally intended. Rohini, portrayed by a perennially sullen-faced Debasree Roy, looks too jaded for a top star.

What makes her fall for an unknown entity, who does nothing but chainsmoke and exchange empty conversations with his lady-love, is a mystery. If Tagore is such a strong influence in Rohini's life and thoughts, then what makes her so narrow-minded, so suspicious, so low in self-esteem?

Ghosh, with his background in ad films, confesses that he shies away from investing his films with more glamour than necessary. In Asookh, he bends over backwards to keep glamour away. Which is self-defeating, because it's about a filmstar.

The beautification in Unishe April and Dahan stood him well. It defined part of his style, his cinematic language. In trying to veer away from what comes naturally, there is a self-consciousness that surfaces all too often.

Soumitra Chatterjee and Rituparno Ghosh Wasn't he a bit apprehensive of directing a veteran actor like Soumitra Chatterjee who has acted in more than a dozen Ray films? "I did not have to direct him at all," replies Ghosh. "He is quite open to suggestions and knows his work the last precise detail."

He cites an example. "His (Chatterjee) normal walk has a distinguished style. So, when I told him he was portraying a very ordinary man whose self-respect was hurt because he was virtually living off his daughter's earnings, he changed his body language at once. He is a brilliant actor and does not make one feel ill-at-ease because of his stature as an actor," says the young director.

Ghosh confesses that Asookh brings out the deep influence of Tagore on him, as a man and as a film-maker. There are a couple of poems by Tagore, for instance, which come across as Rohini's inner voice, like an interior monologue.

"The voice I use, however, is that of Aparna Sen's, not Debasree's. When Debasree mouths her lines externally, I use her own voice," says Ghosh. He has also used some Tagore songs in the soundtrack. According to him, Tagore is almost like a character in the film.

When one points out the incongruity of Tagore in the life of a contemporary Bengali film actress, Ghosh says, "I have kept the film industry on the periphery of the central action which occurs either at home or in the hospital where Rohini's mother lies, suffering from a dying illness. I have hinted at the multiple role-playing of an actress's life, time and again though."

For instance, he adds, her involvement with her profession is kept mainly at the suggestive level -- confined to the make-up room where Rohini applies make-up, removes make-up, dons different make-ups for the varied roles she performs. She wears spectacles at home, but when she steps out, she puts on contacts.

His next film Badiuli, is also based on his story and screenplay. It is being produced by Anupam Kher, under the banner of Radical Entertainment Company, perhaps with the hope that this may bring Kiron Kher a National Award for Best Actress next year.

Once again, it is about the loneliness of a not-so-young Bonolota, who lives alone with her old retainers, Prasanna and Malati, in a sprawling house in Calcutta. Her husband-to-be died of snakebite on the eve of her marriage, when she was just a child.

She remains unmarried. This once-beautiful, lonely woman' life changes forever when a film director steps in with his team to shoot his film, based on Tagore's Chokher Bali.

Kiron plays Bonolata, memorising her Bengali lines phonetically, perfecting her accent, since she does not know the language. "I have chosen Chiranjeet to play the director. What happens to Bonolata forms the crux of the narrative," says Ghosh.

Who knows, another National Award probably awaits him.

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