Dr Kaustav Bakshi is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Bakshi has written widely on topics of gender, sexuality, and popular culture. He has spoken on issues related to gender and sexuality in postcolonial South Asia at Colombia University, Birbeck, University of London, University of Connecticut, City University of New York, Syracuse University, among others. His books include Popular Cinema of Bengal: Stars, Genres, Public Culture(Routledge 2020), Queer Studies: Texts, Contexts, Praxis (Orient Blackswan 2019), and Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender, Art (Routledge 2015).
Following is an edited transcript of the conversation that took place at Bakshi’s office at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, on November 25, 2019, and was for the most part in English; the Bengali phrases used were translated into English with Bakshi’s approval.
Sushrita Acharjee (S.A.): To begin with, Rituparno Ghosh has been described by many, especially after his death, as the first queer icon of Bengal. You have been one of them. What made you identify Ghosh as an ‘icon’?
Kaustav Bakshi (K.B.): He was definitely the first queer icon because there was no other director or film star or anybody related to the film industry in Bengal who ever came out as queer. He was the first one to publicly declare his sexuality. He also declared himself to be the spokesperson for the apparently voiceless queer people of Kolkata, particularly in that famous episode with comedian and talk show host Mir on Ghosh & Company. I would consider it as his official moment of coming out. Ritu-da had obviously come out to a lot of people privately but that was the first public moment where he talked about his sexuality. It happened in 2009, when he was working on Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo. I call him the first queer icon primarily because he was never mendacious about his sexuality. He talked about it very openly, without any inhibition. There was no other public figure, that’s how I would like to put it, in Bengal who ever showed that courage. He was making a lot of difference to people’s lives, as was revealed by my research. Just like an icon, Ritu-da was changing many lives.
As I was interviewing people in Kolkata and elsewhere, I realised that queer men and women almost worshipped him for bringing out into the open their stories, their desires. There was no other voice within the popular media telling the stories of queer people. Even Bengali literature did not have too many texts on same-sex love. Nabanita Deb Sen has made some contributions; Syed Mustafa Siraj’s Maya Mridanga is another important novel; and very recently, Swapnomoy Chakraborty’s Holday Golap has been added to that list. There are a few others as well. But not many people know about the existence of these texts. Cinema, unlike literature, reaches a large number of people, and cinema does not demand or assume literacy. So, Rituparno’s films have made a huge difference even for those who are not literate.
He emerged as a star in his own right because he was commercially successful anyway. There are very few people who do not know who Rituparno Ghosh is. Stardom is associated with being known. Stardom also has a very interesting aspect of public appearance. Ritu-da’s public appearance underwent several changes over the years. He has been experimenting with fashion for a long time. He brought a degree of androgyny to male fashion, and that androgyny graduated into crossdressing with time. It encouraged people who wanted to dress differently. He walked the ramp in Abhishek Dutta’s attire at Lakme Fashion Week, and it was path-breaking because he was androgynously dressed. Many people who wanted to approximate that kind of fashion followed Ritu-da’s style. Rituparno was, therefore, larger than his films—he was an influencer.
S.A.: Did Rituparno’s uninhibited admission of his sexual orientation or gender queerness change the common people’s perception of gender and sexuality?
K.B.: Because he was talking about his sexuality openly, as a very successful director who was internationally recognised, he was attributing queer sexuality a certain degree of respectability. My interviews with people, particularly Bengali people, revealed to me that many of them actually came to understand what homosexuality was because of Rituparno Ghosh. Also, unknowingly, he became a support system for many queer men and women as though there was somebody, some iconic figure on whom they could rely.
S.A.: Sangeeta Dutta, who assisted Ghosh on Raincoat, screened her documentary film on him, Bird of Dusk, at Nandan on the occasion of the twenty-third Kolkata International Film Festival in 2019. The film shows Ghosh’s associates and contemporaries talking about him and sharing their memories of him. There were some remarks, however, that might have revealed the ignorance of some of his colleagues regarding the issues of sexuality and gender. How well was his identity as a queer person received by the Bengali film industry?
K.B.: There are many queer artists in the film industry; the only difference was that Ritu-da, as I said, could not be pretentious. Maybe that was making other people uncomfortable. Generally speaking, if someone is very honest about one’s sexuality and does not really want to hide it for convenience, that person becomes a threat to a lot of others who do not want to reveal their sexuality. Because the film industry, at the end of the day, is very heteropatriarchal in certain ways; somebody’s uninhibited display of homosexuality may make people uncomfortable. Bengal does not have a very long ‘known’ history of queer artistry. Ritu-da appeared to be exceptional and remarkable. If they had travelled the world and seen that there were so many queer artistes and that queerness was associated with very high art, Ritu-da would have been accepted without discomfort. The insensitive comments you are referring to were passed without much awareness. It is extremely difficult for a heteronormative person to empathise with those who are different from them. They might not have realised that they were betraying their homophobia in those observations, which they thought were well-meaning.
S.A.: When Rituparno Ghosh was at the peak of his career, and was gradually becoming confident enough to come out in public as a queer person, many would mock effeminate men by saying, ‘Rituparno’r moto korishna’ [Do not act like Rituparno]. In your interview with Ghosh, he made a very interesting remark, ‘The city can neither handle me, nor ignore me.’ How do you think the presence of Rituparno, as a queer figure in the public eye, affected the queer community of Bengal?
K.B.: That is his stardom. I wrote in one of my essays that he was one of the very few stars who could generate an abuse after his name. ‘Rituparno’ simply replaced some derogatory terms such as ‘ladies’ and ‘chhakka’ [a pejorative term for transgender people in many South Asian cultures], the terms used to shame feminine men. I would rather like to read it positively because it shows what a great star he was, so much so that his name became a brand for effeminacy in men.
We may recall that queer was a term of abuse previously. Around 1990, it was reclaimed as a political term. In Ritu-da’s case, the same thing happened. He had such a great impact on the mind of the people as far as sexuality was concerned, that he became a brand name for sexual otherness. Therefore, I believe that it is better to read this phenomenon positively. Names associated with stardom have always been used for appreciation. For his case, his name became a term of derogation. People thought of him as a threat or an anomaly. He was making the heterosexual onlooker uncomfortable with his films, his worldview and his cultural activism. When you say, ‘Rituparno’r moto korishna’, you are actually not doing a disservice to him; you are rather paying him homage. This queer exhibitionism, which is equated with Rituparno, gathers a political currency, albeit unintentionally.
S.A.: Rituparno is lauded for offering visibility to the LGBTQ+ community for the first time on the Bengali screen. But he has also received criticism for ignoring the queer subculture of Bengal. What are your thoughts on this?
K.B.: I talked about this in my essay ‘A Room of Hir Own’. I did not share this in my essay, but I can share this here. I remember Syed Mustafa Siraj once calling Ritu-da up; Siraj asked him if he could adapt his novel Maya Mridanga into a film. I was very excited and encouraged Ritu-da to do this because Maya Mridanga is one of the first queer novels ever written in Bengal without people even realising that it was a queer novel. All through that text, the terms somokami [person having same-sex desire], somopremi [person engaged in same-sex love] never appears, but it is anyway a deeply emotional text which challenges heteronormative assumptions of love and coupledom. Most importantly, it was a novel with a happy ending—unlike most same-sex love stories, the lovers are not separated.
Ritu-da admired the novel but declined the offer of adapting it. The novel is set in the western part of the rural Bengal, with which he was not familiar at all. The novel is about alkaap, a form of itinerant folk theatre popular in rural Bengal, and it was, as he told me, very difficult for a metropolitan filmmaker to relate to. Ritu-da said that because he did not know the culture of itinerant theatre in Bengal, he could not risk a film on it as it might lead to misrepresentation. Ritu-da was primarily making films for an educated bourgeois audience, people with whom he could relate. Also, I believe, his audience was not yet ready to appreciate local queer subcultures which remarkably challenge bourgeois politeness and the idea of respectability.
S.A.: In what ways was Ghosh’s depiction of the people and the city political, and how would you compare the films to those of Satyajit Ray and Aparna Sen, given the nature of politics of their films?
K.B.: No filmmaker can afford to be apolitical. By locating his films within the domestic space of middle-class/upper-middle-class Bengali homes, he was unravelling the politics of gender relationships within that familiar space. He was talking about rights, although there may not have been strong political rhetoric in the way we understand politics. In a nutshell, Ritu-da’s politics was not about being political, following any ‘ism’, but he was politicising the familiar space of the domestic middle-class life.
S.A.: It has been almost seven years since Ghosh’s untimely death in 2013. Do you see the legacy of Rituparno Ghosh being carried on in the Bengali film industry?
K.B.: His name is brought up now and then, but if I say legacy, it was interesting how Kaushik Ganguly brought back that lost script of Jyesthaputra (2019). Nagarkirtan (2019) by Ganguly was also dedicated to Rituparno Ghosh; the film was on a queer theme and it did have markers of a Rituparno film. So, Kaushik Ganguly, to an extent, carried forward that legacy.
My research has revealed that Bengali group theatre, where they have brought in queer characters recently, carries forward his queer legacy. Many male actors who play the roles of female impersonators on stage shared with me that their idea of queerness comes from observing Rituparno’s films and writings. They did not study queer theory as a discipline or follow any such academic discourse. Ritu-da’s work gave them pointers on how to bring queerness onto the Bengali stage. Even though Raja Sen made Maya Mridanga (2016), one of the most celebrated queer texts into a film, the focus was not on the queer aspect of it.
So, I do not really see Ritu-da’s queer legacy being carried forward much, but many filmmakers have indeed been influenced by Ritu-da’s eye for detail in production design. The way many of the female actors dress now seems to be influenced by how Ritu-da dressed his female leads. Since Ritu-da’s musical collaboration with [music composer] Debojyoti Mishra for his films, the music of many films was influenced by that [minimalist classical music]. It is difficult to ignore him even now. Maybe the queer legacy is not being carried out, but Ritu-da’s aesthetics are certainly replicated by many. Many have imbibed it without even realising it is inspired by Rituparno. I believe that to make queer films, there must be a queer subjectivity invested in it. I do not know how many have the courage like Ritu-da to be out and make films that way. Even in films like Nagarkirtan, although there is sympathy for the queer character, I do not think there is empathy. You can give the subaltern a voice, but you cannot really bring out the pain and the agony. We may need another queer filmmaker to regenerate that kind of queer politics in Bengali cinema.