A Tribute to Rituparno Ghosh, the Filmmaker Who Humanised Same-Sex Relationships

The city of Kolkata was Ghosh’s muse as well as his battleground, where he sought to change conventional notions about gender.

Sangeeta Datta’s Bird of Dusk is a documentary about the legendary filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, who died of a heart attack on May 31, 2013. His sudden death left a void in several spaces.

The documentary opens with images of Kolkata at night. The strains of the sound track Bonomali Tumi Pore Jonomey Hoyo Radha (Krishna, may you be Radha in the next birth) can be heard in the background. Dutta has chosen the frame wisely.

The song expresses the burning desire within Ghosh to become non-heteronormative; in other words, born ‘Krishna’, yearning to be ‘Radha’. It articulates the filmmaker’s personal angst and his radical imagination about gender and alternate sexuality.

The LGBT community has indeed come a long way in gaining acceptance in society. No longer is it perceived to be ‘dysfunctional people with diseased minds’ or ‘cursed by Gods’. And if we consider movies as an index of social change, then Bird of Dusk shows the distance we have travelled. Films such as Margarita with a Straw (2014), My Brother Nikhil (2005), While I Am (2011) and Aligarh (2015) have laid out a template to articulate desires and feelings of those outside the gender binary.

The third gender, in popular perception, is no more limited to an effeminate dance master, or an emasculated character with affectations. Rather, they are seen as suave, articulate, charming and sensitive, those who perceive themselves through a different gender prism. The same way that people prefer different kinds of food or clothing.

However, reaching this moment in urban India, and on celluloid, hasn’t been easy. This is where we are indebted to Rituparno Ghosh’s contribution to cinema.

Ghosh himself belonged to “the third gender.” Through his creative work, he fought for including the third gender in mainstream society. He sought to highlight how entire communities are discriminated against only because of their sexual orientation.

The city of Kolkata was Ghosh’s muse as well as his battleground where he sought to change conventional notions about gender. He produced socially relevant and sensitive films such as Unishe April, Dahan, Bariwali, Utsab and Titli. Through them, he explored the concept of motherhood and womanhood, wondering if they were mutually exclusive. He director asked if a woman could fully express oneself as a woman and still be considered a ‘good’ mother. He questioned the glorification of motherhood and released its portrayal in cinema from conventional ‘asexuality.’

It was in the later years of his life that Rituparno focused on the issue of sexuality and opened a dialogue on alternate sexual identity. He came out as a gay in the early part of 2000s and thereafter invested his creative energies in giving a voice to other genders.

Also read: Remembering Rituparno Ghosh – Herald of Bengali Renaissance Cinema

His keen insights into the complicated issue were evident in films such as Memories in March, about a mother forced to contend with her son’s homosexuality; Chitrangada, based on a story from the Mahabharata; and Aar Ekti Premer Golpo in which Ghosh plays a gay filmmaker.

Ghosh ran into conflicts with a society that either ridiculed or pretended to love him. Instead of allowing rejection to overwhelm him, Ghosh dedicated himself fully to art and honed it to perfection.

The LGBT community can truly thank him for visibilising the issues driven underground. He impressed upon the audience that homosexuality wasn’t only about sexual satisfaction. In a 2010 interview, Ghosh said “There is much more to such relationships. Same-sex relationships, too, are extremely soulful, emotional and have the same pathos that any heterosexual relationship has.”

Although recent decriminalisation of Section 377 of the IPC has liberated the LGTB community from the shackles of criminality, there is still much to change in terms of perception and representation about the community. Mainstream movies continue to caricature the community, frequently projecting its members as going astray. The song ‘Maa da ladla bigad gaya’ (Maa, your son has gone astray) from the film Dostana (2008), centre around homosexuality, is one such example.

It is against this backdrop that Rituparno Ghosh’s contribution assumes such significance. Sangeeta Dutta’s documentary Bird of Dusk comes at a happy time when the country is debating issues of sexual harassment and violence in different spaces. It celebrates Ghosh for the humanist he was.

Saonli Hazra did a BA in Psychology from Indraprastha College for Women (Delhi University) and an MA in Criminology and Correctional Administration from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She has been a consultant for Times Publications and runs WordsWorth.