Rituparno Ghosh emerged in the world of Bengali cinema at a time when Bengal was dealing with a depressive vacuum left by the loss of the master filmmakers who shaped the region’s cultural landscape. Ghosh’s debut directorial venture, Hirer Angti, released in 1992, the same year in which Satyajit Ray died; it had been more than a decade since Ritwik Ghatak’s passing, and Mrinal Sen was at the end of his filmmaking career.
Bengali film industry in the decade of the 1990s was oscillating between intellectual art films and potboilers; the former failed to garner commercial success, while the latter alienated and often criticised the urban elite middle class, the bhadralok, by primarily catering to the proletariat, the working class living in the cities and the villages. In many of these potboilers, the protagonist belonged to rural Bengal and was an embodiment of perseverance, honesty and a rustic simplicity while, in contrast, the city dwellers were portrayed as shrewd, haughty, pseudo-intellectual and capitalist. The urbanite would play the role of a government employee or real estate agent resorting to evil means to take away the humble abode of the people in the rural areas. Many of these films displayed sexist and misogynistic tendencies by pitting the urban, English-educated female lead from a bhadralok household against the rowdy, street-smart rustic male lead who later would ‘tame’ the woman by displaying heroic feats. These potboilers that invested in caricaturing the English-educated urban middle class and indulged in intemperate sentimentality, melodrama and bawdiness were distasteful to the bhadralok.
Ghosh, in his films, fashioned a unique aesthetic that brought the educated, urban audience back to the cinema theatre. The way Ghosh’s characters were clothed and styled evoked nostalgia for the rich past of the bhadralok, who emerged in the colonial Bengal as a cultural community of English-educated professionals, academicians, authors and bureaucrats, due to his proximity to the British rulers. The middle class was allured towards the films Ghosh made, even though by incorporating issues such as marital rape as in the case of Dahan (1997), adultery as in Dosar (2006), casual sexism, conservatism and so on, he revealed the hollow sense of respectability upheld in the bhadralok household at the expense of the women.
The settings in which the protagonists who mostly belonged to the bhadralok class moved, carried a sense of opulence, and the background score of Hindustani classical music and Tagore’s songs revealed finer sensibilities. While Ghosh’s cinema was deeply rooted in the urban Bengali history and culture that the bhadralok took great pride in, it did not lose the reception of an international audience. It was evident from the accolades that his work received; the films were frequently selected for festivals and were often awarded both nationally and internationally. Thus, following the legacy of the master filmmakers of the past, while also developing an idiosyncratic style of his own, Ghosh soon became a favourite of the bhadralok class.
Rituparno in Bengali Popular Culture
Ghosh’s influence on Bengali culture surpassed the limits of cinema. His stardom was only heightened when he started writing columns in magazines and newspapers and hosted more than one television show. He was the chief editor of Anandalok, one of the most popular entertainment magazines in Bengal, and hosted two talk shows on television, Ebong Rituparno and Ghosh & Company. Later, he started writing a special column every Sunday, from December 24, 2006 to June 2, 2013, for Robbar, a supplementary of the Bengali daily Songbaad Protidin.
Ghosh’s public image was marked by explicit flamboyance, an unapologetic pronouncement of living life on his own terms. Through his lifestyle, films, media presence and columns, the bhadralok class was allowed a glimpse into an alternative philosophy of a life beyond the binary established by heteropatriarchal societal norms which they had hitherto been unaware of. It forced the ‘respectable middle class’ not only to acknowledge that there were other forms of desire, sexuality and gender identity than the normative ones, but also to take into account the regressive ideals, sexism and bigoted temperament that they hid beneath the veneer of superficial respectability. He was at the peak of his career at a time (2006–2013) that was crucial for the LGBTQ+ community in India. In 2009, the Delhi high court declared Section 377, which criminalises sexual conduct between two people of the same sex, to be a violation of the fundamental democratic rights of the people, a verdict which was overruled by the Supreme Court in 2013. There were renewed discussions among activists and intelligentsia about the LGBTQ+ politics during these years. At that time, Ghosh’s active presence in the public eye and his work were instrumental in triggering an open dialogue about LGBTQ+ culture in the context of Bengal as well as of India at large. In his columns, films and the talk shows that he hosted, there were often subtle suggestions about his queer identity. At times, Ghosh resorted to flamboyant, almost aggressive displays of queerness, which was bound to unnerve the heteropatriarchal bhadralok values and code of conduct. On July 17, 2011, he wrote in his column for Robbar:
…Read in the newspaper that the Minister of health, Ghulam Nabi Azad has addressed homosexuality as a ‘disease from the West’. After reading the news, he seems to me, not just a conservative but also parochial. I cannot imagine that a central minister of India is so ignorant about the homosexuality depicted in the temples of Khajuraho or Konark. Not only his mind is narrow, but his cultural knowledge is the same… After the verdict of the Delhi high court, Baba Ramdev said similar things about homosexuality—he said that he can cure the disease. At that time, I made a joke to my friends ‘I should then go to Ramdev for treatment. I am not sure how much the disease will be cured, but I can guarantee that after a few days, Ramdev Baba will be completely homosexual.’ That journey to Ramdev did not happen. However, after returning from London, I am thinking of spending some days with the Health Minister.
Kaustav Bakshi, professor at Jadavpur University and a scholar of queer studies, identifies the moment in which Ghosh officially came out as a queer person in the year 2009, on an episode of his talk show Ghosh & Company, in which the Bengali comedian and actor Mir Afsar Ali appeared. In that episode, he directly demanded an explanation from Mir, who was by then famous for impersonating Ghosh as an effeminate person, by asking:
When you are mimicking me, are you mimicking Rituparno Ghosh, the person, or are you mimicking a generic effeminate man?…Have you ever thought that when you mimic me, you actually end up humiliating all effeminate men in Kolkata?… You should be sensitive to the fact that you are hurting the sentiments of a sexual minority. I am objecting to your act not because I am inconvenienced myself, rather I am objecting to it on behalf of all those for whom I maybe a representative.
By 2009, Ghosh had already become a star in his own right, having made 15 films, out of which 11 received national awards. His stature and achievements made sure that his outspokenness about dissident sexuality and gender fluidity garnered some sort of reverence that perhaps others would not receive from genteel society. Ghosh strategically aligned himself with the Bengali bhadralok and established himself as one of them; it indeed made it easy for him to enter the private space of the bhadralok to talk about issues they usually turn a blind eye to, such as alternative gender and sexual identity and subversion of gender roles. A suitable example of this is Memories in March (2010), which Ghosh wrote and acted in, where both the homosexual protagonists are urban-middle-class people and rarely show visible signs of queerness. Although lack of queer visibility ran the risk of depoliticising queer culture where visible self-dramatisation of characters holds enormous significance, Ghosh’s initial steps towards introducing his audience to LGBTQ+ themes were rather cautious.
His next film revolving around queer characters, Chitrangada (2012), is more conspicuous in its representation, showing the journey of a biological man who undergoes sex reassignment surgeries to transition into a woman. In a Firstpost.com article after Ghosh’s death, cultural critic Sandip Roy quotes Anuj Vaidya, co-director at the Third I South Asian International Film Festival which screened many of Ghosh’s films, on Chitrangada: ‘In his recent work, it becomes too hard to determine whether one is watching a man or a woman—and I love that Rituparno often does not care to elaborate.’ Vaidya goes on to say that although it is indeed ‘destabilizing at first’ but later the viewer hardly cares whether the protagonist is ‘a he or a she or the many possibilities in-between.’
Ghosh made a conscious decision to reject labels both for himself and for the characters he created in his cinematic universe; his films celebrated the possibility of identities who do not necessarily have to fall within the binaries of male/female or hetero/homo, thereby making the characters universally relatable. He drew references from Bengal’s indigenous cultural resources, such as the myth of Chitrangada, the Brajabuli songs, the figure of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, etc., and introduced a different perception of exploring these elements. For instance, in his Robbar column of March 6, 2011, he, in a manner of lucid storytelling, brought up the myth of Chitrangada and Arjuna from Mahabharata to comment on gender fluidity and androgyny: 'During exile, the virile Arjuna becomes the braided dance-teacher, is it the poetic justice of the Mahabharata? Does it tell that in reality, a human life is not complete if both masculinity and femininity are not lived?'
Thus, even at the risk of depoliticisation by somewhat aligning himself with the heteropatriarchal middle-class sensibility, Ghosh’s primary concern was, perhaps, to naturalise queerness and to locate it as a valid cultural identity within the larger frame of the society.
Giving Voice to the Marginalised Through Cinema
Apart from the three films focussing on queer characters, Memories in March (2010), Chitrangada (2012) and Just Another Love Story (2012), with which Ghosh was associated in various capacities, his other films also contributed to his vision of filmmaking as a gender-queer person. Most of his films are centred on female protagonists of various socioeconomic backgrounds, whose struggles and daily predicament in the patriarchal society reflect the agony of being in a closet. Bakshi and cultural critic Parjanya Sen write:
An assessment of Rituparno Ghosh’s queer aesthetics should not be limited to the three overtly queer films, in which zie essayed lead characters. Rather, these films should be analysed in the light of hir earliest films, in which zie vociferously challenged the incontrovertibility of heteropatriarchal structures by attributing to hir female protagonists an agency and a voice of protest, while simultaneously evoking the agony of being in the closet, metaphorically.
Ghosh’s films are well known for putting on screen the inner world of women in the most fascinating, authentic and complex ways. While in Bariwali (1999), the loneliness and sexual desire of a middle-aged spinster is portrayed in a sympathetic manner, Unishey April (1994) and Titli (2002) revolve around the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter vis-a-vis the various men in their lives. Dahan (1997), based on Suchitra Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name, for instance, tells the story of Romita of middle-class background, who faces sexual violence from strangers as well as her own husband. It brings to the fore issues of marital rape and the aftermath of sexual assault more effectively than ever before in Bengali cinema. Antarmahal (2005), based on Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s novel Pratima, carries the audience back to the colonial Bengali zamindari household where the young bride is used merely as a tool for reproduction by the old zamindar, and is oppressed, silenced and stunted in every possible way. Antarmahal reveals the hollowness of the zamindari system under the rubric of external splendour. Both Dahan and Antarmahal deal with marital rape and the objectification of the woman and her plight in the in-law’s house. Just as for the queer characters, the closet is symbolic of the heteropatriarchal social structure from where they must emerge in their own right into a more liberating space, for the women too, the patriarchal society is akin to the proverbial closet where their voices are silenced, their narratives of suffering are erased, and their sexual desires are suppressed.
Ghosh’s films offered centrality to the marginalised, be it women of various social strata or, later, the queer people. Although his films often suffer from the criticism of not including enough characters from the subculture or from the lower stratum, and centring on the middle-class bhadralok, Bakshi is of the opinion that Ghosh, who himself came from the bhadralok class, refrained from portraying characters or cultures that he knew he would not be able to portray authentically.
Rituparno, the Flamboyant Queer Icon of Bengal
Due to his all-encompassing influence on Bengali art, culture, aesthetic and so on, he became one of the most prominent icons of Bengal. Despite mimicry, bullying, ignorance and alienation, Ghosh exhibited a selfhood which was not restricted by shame. He countered the shaming with the flamboyance and excess of self-dramatisation, and experimented with his sartorial choice and physical appearance a great deal, resorting to non-binary, gender-neutral clothes in his later years. Popularly, he is visualised as wearing long salwar-achkan and silver jewelleries with his eyes kohl-rimmed and his shaved head in a turban. It, however, cannot be denied that his stardom and cultural significance as an auteur of international repute certainly work in his favour more than it does for the queer subculture of Bengal.
It is true that Ghosh never directly addressed the several gender reassignment surgeries he went through during the last few years of his life; however, he consistently offered valuable commentaries on gender sensitisation in his column writings as well as in the films he had been a part of. During his last few years, he engaged in making and investing in films dealing explicitly with queer protagonists, such as Memories in March (2010) and Chitrangada (2012), even at the risk of losing audience. ‘I have indeed estranged a section of my audience. I am aware of the loss. A lot of them are wary of my cross-dressing in public! In fact, the respect I used to command has been seriously affected by my decision to proclaim my sexuality,’ he admitted in an interview with Bakshi. Although critics insist that his identity as a queer person often overshadows his credibility as a filmmaker, it is important to acknowledge his enormous contribution to bringing the queer discourse into mainstream Bengali cinema and culture at large.
 Ghosh, First Person.
 Bakshi, Dasgupta, ‘Opening Closets’, 5.
 Roy, Sandip, ‘An Icon Beyond Labels.’
 Ghosh, First Person.
 Ghosh wrote the script of Memories in March, directed by Sanjay Nag, and played the role of the homosexual protagonist; he is the director, scriptwriter, and the lead actor in Chitrangada, playing the role of the gender-queer protagonist; and Just Another Love Story was directed by Kaushik Ganguly, in which Ghosh plays the role of a homosexual man.
 Bakshi, Sen, ‘A Room of Hir Own,’ 204.
 Bakshi, ‘I know my city can neither handle me nor ignore me: Rituparno Ghosh in conversation with Kaustav Bakshi,’12.
 Bakshi, Dasgupta, ‘Opening Closets and Dividing Audiences: Rituparno Ghosh, the Queer Star of Bengali Cinema,’ 6.
Bakshi, Kaustav. ‘I know my city can neither handle me nor ignore me: Rituparno Ghosh in conversation with Kaustav Bakshi.’ Silhouette: A Discourse on Cinema 10, no. 3 (2013): 1–12.
Bakshi, Kaustav, and Parjanya Sen. ‘A Room of Hir Own: The Queer Aesthetics of Rituparno Ghosh.’ In Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art, edited by S. Datta, Kaustav Bakshi and R.K. Dasgupta, 204–223. Abingdon and New Delhi: Routledge, 2015.
Dasgupta, Rohit K., and Kaustav Bakshi. ‘Opening Closets and Dividing Audiences: Rituparno Ghosh, the Queer Star of Bengali Cinema.’ South Asian Popular Culture 16, no. 1 (2018): 101–113.
Ghosh, Rituparno. First Person. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 2013.
Roy, Sandip, ‘An Icon Beyond Labels.’ Firstpost.com. May 31, 2013. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/an-icon-beyond-labels-man-woman-or-rituparno-830493.html.