There are film-makers. Then there are film critics. And then there is us. No not the audience. We are not audience. We are not the people who go to see films to fleetingly look at the on-going events on the screen while munching our tubs of pop-corn. We do not switch off our mobile phones to show our civilized upbringing- but for other reasons. We do not run out of the hall the moment the credits start rolling on. We do not make one sentence judgement of what we just saw while casually munching on the chicken leg in the KFC outlet in the food-court. We are not the audience. Cinema is not our weekend diversion or distraction before more important work schedules engulf us for the other five-six days. For most of our ilk the work is the five-six day distraction which we deal with to survive. We live in duality. The two worlds. Like the two worlds of tengo and aomamae in 1q84. Our world starts when the lights go out. And the screen ignites in all its brilliance and exuberance. We survive in the real world so that we can breathe in the dark cinema theatres. When the lights go out. We are the cinemaniacs.
Long back in college I was discovering the love of cinema inside me. I had just watched Desica, Kurosawa, Ray, Ghatak, Wajda, Bergman, and Truffaut among others. I had started my life in my world of duality. The customary attendance in the college and then the two rupees journey to Nandan. A ten rupees ticket for the world of cinema to open up. It was in these times when I came upon Rituparno Ghosh. It was a time when we cinemaniacs were running away from Bengali cinema. The demise of Ray had put the last nail in the coffin and the present commercial cinema was a torture for any soul. Don’t get me wrong. I am a happy consumer of pulp. But what was happening in Bengali cinema was beyond pulp.
Someone talked about a very good movie called Unishe April which had got released and was a refreshing change from what was going on. I ignored. The sheer knowledge of the names of the world greats instils arrogance into mere mortals and here I was watching their work day in day out. Bengali cinema was below me. Life was about the world cinema and the time spent in the USIS library hunting through the innumerable film magazines and books. It was after a few days when this chorus of goodness went up that I finally, grudgingly walked into the cinema hall in Rashbehari. A ticket in the fifth row on a matinee show on a working day. This was the third week. The movie was a commercial success. This was an ominous sign. Undeterred I walked in, I had already made my decision.
Unishe April opens with a scene of death. Rituparno explores death and loss and vulnerability in many movies. His first released movie was likewise, an exploration of death, of loss… and its impact. I remember going back to watch the movie twice more. It was not about comprehension. It was about the ease of comprehension. In a time when I was delving into avant-garde and was spending countless hours in reading and discussing to digest and make sense I was firstly dumbfounded by its simplicity and ability to reach me. Then there were the sheer layers and sub layers which made me discover something new every time I went back. It was not realisation, or understanding. But more about discovering those minute details carefully or carelessly left by the director for you to find out. Like that moment of sarojini trying to open the door of the store room with force and the daughter aditi shrieking “ma! Tomar hnatu”(ma your knees). Sarojini looks back with shock. She never expected that knowledge and care from her estranged daughter. In one single phrase the director shakes up the unspoken equilibrium of expectation and knowledge between the mother and the daughter. No lengthy dialogues or scenes. One simple phrase. Or that recipe book scene. First signs of sarojini’s sincere attempts at marital life through the recipe book. “Tumi ranna korte paro?”(you know how to cook?)- Aditi’s surprise at that discovery. The subtleness and simplicity of the final scene is nothing short of spectacular. I have seen a lot of cinema. From all across the world. Great films with their beauty of poetry, allegory, imagination. But my favourites are the ones which convey the most with the least and with pure simplicity. The reaction of Apu’s child when he finally meets his father, “dada ami banchtey cheyechilam”, the reflections of Kambei in the final scene of Seven Samurai, the last scene of “Memories of Murder”…Unishe April’s climax is way up there in this list.
The years of conflict between the mother and the daughter captured again in one phrase- “tumi konodin dekecho amay?” While narrating her claustrophobic childhood when her mother used to teach the other kids dancing while she quietly used to have her lunch and do her homework. Hoping and waiting and then seeing her heart breaking. Then, to her mother’s surprise at her observations and assumption that Aditi never liked dance. That one phrase for me defines that relationship. The problems of the relationship. That one phase for me tells the story of a relationship developed based on assumptions where none walked beyond the assumptions into the real feelings of the other person. That in my opinion is one of the most important truths of human condition. Most of our untested assumptions are the ones which lead to the demise of relations. All this captured in that one simple dialogue of the hurt daughter-“you never called me in-did you?”
Rituparno ghosh went on to make some of the most memorable cinema which came out in the following two decades. He kept on making cinema till yesterday. Yesterday night he died. After completing the shooting of his last film- a story of the legendary Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi.
I am not a film director, or an actor or a cinema worker. I never knew him personally. I cannot feel him as a co-director as a teacher or an object of criticism. I cannot remember him with the intimacy of a friend. But then I am not the audience either. I cannot set him aside with a click of my tongue and that momentary feeling of pity. I feel him through his cinema. His cinema which has been talking to me for the last two decades of my growing up and growing old to this threshold of middle age. Educating me and reminding me of the human condition. Not through complex pedagogy. But simple straight forward yet touching, subtle and intimate vignettes.
The first realisation of a son of the vulnerability and frailty of his father (Abohoman). The way undying love long forgotten and hidden inside the marital battleground of incompatibility suddenly breaks open all barriers and floods our lives when the person is no more (Shab Choritro Kalponik). The eternal compromise of marriage. That the woman keeps making with the man. The all-consuming Lord and the devotee wife (Doshar). The sheer confidence and fore-knowledge of the husband (Prosenjit) almost stung us to this reality. The final scene of voluntary submission tore our hearts. Then there was the chilling reminder of our vulnerability and duplicity in Dahan. I did not watch Dahan for a long time. I was too terrified to watch Dahan. Yes I- who gobbled down Tarantino, Kitano, Miike, Johnnie To, Oshima without batting an eyelid. The violence in his cinema was never physical. It was the attack into your soul. Dahan was frightening for me. I had to muster courage to look at the predicament of a woman who is attacked by man. Being a man it was the fear of the shame. The humiliation of the truth. Be it the molesters, the lawyers or the husband…. Even today the memory of her rape by her husband suffocates me.
Rituparno’s cinema was like that textbook with those hidden clues. The challenge for us viewers was to discover the hidden clues. Of life’s realities, characters, moral dilemmas… a variety of things. The excitement and fun of watching a Rituparno movie were these moments of discovery. Of the twenty odd films he made there are many I liked and many I did not. I did not like Last Lear much. Or for that matter the presentation of Abohoman. Or Doshar. But in every film of his there were those moments which captured you. Be it the last scene of Lear, the interaction between the father and the son in Abohoman or the first husband – wife confrontation in Doshar. These moments were those hidden gems. Those moments of realization. And they came to us without any ornamentation or complexity. They were intimate and subtle no doubt- but simple and direct at the same time. That’s why his films not only appealed to the cineastes, but also the masses.
Did anyone interpret Tagore the way he did? Perhaps Ray. But then apart from Ray anyone we can think of? Not only the story-telling. The creation of the world of Tagore. The women of Tagore. The aura of the society whose stories Tagore used to tell. Be it Chokher Bali or Nouka Dubi. Or the supreme twist on Chitrangada in his last release. Besides there was the serial with which he was briefly attached. Gaaner Opare. That was the only Bengali serial I followed. I downloaded all the songs. It was his take on those classic pieces of Rabindrasangeet. Through the serial and the songs his stamp his touch was visible and strong. And so welcome!
Bengali cinema in more ways than one learnt Bengali from Rituparno. His endless intellect and scholastic depth gave him his command. Only a person with immense knowledge can put things across with simplicity. His dialogue writing rediscovered the beauty of Bengali language in the cinema. While film is widely agreed as a visual media one of the main attractions of his cinema was his dialogues. The normal day to day conversations which used to reach sublime heights through application. I have said before- “tumi konodin dekecho amay” from Unishe April will remain as his “dada ami banchte cheyechilam”. A simple complaint of love from the daughter to the mother which practically defined the theme of the movie. And in many ways most human relationships.
Finally you can take away everything else. But the visual exuberance which leapt out of the screen itself was enough for revisiting it again and again. If Ray told us that cinema was a visual medium then Rituparno was its most extravagant performer. The colours, the movements, the composition of each frame. Especially in the period pieces or the performance pieces. The dream like Noti Binodini sequences in Abohoman, the dances in Chitrangada, every frame of NoukaDubi or Chokher Bali… I am sure many critics would have knotted their eyelids and disapproved as indulgence. But what the hell? The sheer beauty of those passages was like ornaments on the lady. Unnecessary yes- but so beautiful! Or the scene of Rakhi-Sharmila showdown in Shubho Muhurat with Anindo rendering “Jibano Maraner SHimana CHaraye” in the next room. With the door locked. It was not glamorous (discounting the two most glamorous actresses of Indian Cinema) but so moving.
Rituparno is no more. Today is the second day without him. His passing has been as unique as his entry into the world of cinema. Sudden, like a flash. Cinemaniacs like me who rediscovered Bengali cinema through him are today numb. But along with us the common popcorn chewing Bengali audience too is today at a loss. Today morning after my latest bout of insomnia my mother came into the room mumbling to herself. When I asked her the matter she replied “ can’t get him off my mind, can’t deal with it too. Started feeling unwell”. “Who are you referring to?” I asked instinctively. “Obviously that rascal! Why did he have to go so soon?”. Rituparno was the younger brother/ nephew for all mothers, elder brother for all like me…he was not that distant and huge star like Ray. Through his films, his media interactions, his writings he had come too close to us. He was with us- the common middle-class “us”, the cineaste “us”, the sensitive “us”…us, the Begalis. It was not fair, the way he went away. Not fair at all….leaving us to deal with this realisation… walking the streets alone…
One song kept coming to my mind since yesterday. Those lines from American Pie-
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
Yesterday cinema died… a bit at least. The lights went out…and the screen was blank…