An icon beyond labels: Man, woman or Rituparno?

One of Rituparno Ghosh’s greatest performances on screen was not in any of the dozen films he directed or in the handful in which he acted. It was on one episode of Ghosh and Company, a Bengali chat show he hosted on the Star Jalsa channel. His guest was the comedian Mir.

One of Mir’s great talents is mimicry. And Rituparno and his mannerisms were often the target of that mimicry. “When you mimic me are you mimicking me or are you mimicking an effeminate man?” asked Rituparno.

A rather nonplussed Mir replied he was imitating Rituparno Ghosh and only Rituparno Ghosh.

“But what is the message?” asked Rituparno. “Are people seeing Rituparno Ghosh or a naari-shulabh purush (effeminate man)?”

 PTI

Ghosh was someone who embraced his sexual minority not with an activist zeal but an almost matter-of-fact brazenness by just being who he was: PTI

Then he proceeded to shred Mir’s arguments.

“Have you ever thought that whenever you mimic me, so many effeminate men in Kolkata, in Bengal feel ashamed, feel humiliated?”

For Rituparno it wasn’t personal. “I can carry off my jewellery with such flamboyance it doesn’t matter to me. But there are many people who feel tremendous shame and stigma about this, who don’t have the courage to wear jewellery, or the guts to wear kajal. I can live life on my terms, Mir. But they cannot.”

Some thought Rituparno had planned a public ambush on Mir. Others thought Mir, himself a member of a minority as a Muslim man, should have been more sensitive to begin with. That debate still rages on Youtube though Mir and Rituparno never carried their grudge forward. Rituparno appeared on Mir’s comedy show as a judge. And yesterday an emotional Mir mourned Ritu-da in front of his house.

That is what we lost with Rituparno Ghosh’s death. Not just a filmmaker and writer, but someone who embraced his sexual minority not with an activist zeal but an almost matter-of-fact brazenness by just being who he was, with his Sunset Boulevard turbans, his flowing outfits, the herbal kajal-rimmed eyes, the dangling ear rings. It was not a fantastic drag queen performance which would have been just an act. It was Rituparno being Rituparno - erudite and articulate, just in a gender-bending salwar-achkan.

Anuj Vaidya, co-director at the Third I South Asian International Film Festival which has showcased many of Rituparno's films says, “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.” He says it is "destabilizing at first" but eventually it does not matter if it is "a he or a she or the many possibilities in-between - I am just watching Rituparno." It was not just make-up. Rituparno was changing physically - shaved-head, kajal-eyed. He had had abdominoplasty done before a role and undergone hormone replacement reports The Times of India. "I think what is important is how Ritu over the last five years had started changing the way he dressed and presented himself and to see that as a film maker/ actor/ writer he started to address queer themes in films simultaneously," says filmmaker Onir, director of I Am and My Brother Nikhil.

Perhaps, says, Onir, the respect and love he had earned gave him the confidence.

In Aar Ekti Premer Galpo Rituparno played both the jatra actor Chapal Bhaduri who spent his life playing women on stage and a gay filmmaker making a film about Bhaduri. In Memories in March he played a gay man whose lover has died and who must confront the dead man’s clueless mother played by Deepti Naval. In his last film Chitrangada: The Crowning Glory, he used Tagore’s dance drama as a springboard to play a choreographer struggling with his gender identity.

Enacted by a diva like Rituparno, these characters often were more Rituparno than real characters. But in the Tagore drama Noukadubihe went one step further by dubbing the grey-haired widowed mother in his own voice. It’s as if physically Rituparno Ghosh was quietly transforming himself into a woman in front of his audience’s eyes and despite occasional snickers about Ritu-porno and Ritu-di, his very middle-class audience largely played along politely.

Critic Aveek Sen offers up a clue as to why that was when he writes that both Chitrangada and Aar Ekti Premer Golpo have the same problem: “Nowhere in the two films do I seem to remember seeing two men actually enjoying sex without the accompaniment of some ritual of refinement or beautification.”

Perhaps the “ritual of refinement or beautification” is precisely what allowed Rituparno to keep his middle-class Bengali audience, who he had seduced back to the theatres with films like Unishe April. Middle-class Bengal, simultaneously conservative and well-schooled, a deadly combination, is obsessed about appearances and maintaining the status quo. But Rituparno seduced them with a particularly well-chosen Rabindrasangeet in a film, with the intimacy of his chamber pieces with unforgettable women, and then hit them with the sexual politics – not just homosexual but also heterosexual like the marital rape in Dahan.

What made him a truly remarkable was that he did all this while rejecting labels. The Times of India notes his breast implants before shooting Arekti Premer Galpo and his ongoing hormone replacement therapy, but in an interview with Shohini Ghosh, Rituparno refused to be boxed into labels.

It is assumed that feminine gay men desire to be women. It is an inability to see beyond the binaries of male-female, hetero-homo.

At a time when rising acceptance of alternative sexuality in India (especially in the media) has meant increasingly hard-coded labels -- lesbian, gay, MSM, bisexual, transgender -- Rituparno just blurred all the boundaries with his androgyny. “It is for me to decide whether I will stand in the queue for men or for women or neither of the two,” he once said.

Now looking back, we can only marvel at Rituparno’s audacity to be who he was right here among us. “I have acted in female roles for decades. But it has always been on stage. I would never have dared to go around dressed as a woman in public like Ritu did. I admire him for his courage to defy the world and be himself” the real-life Chapal Bhaduri told The Times of India. “Our society is extremely vindictive and unforgiving.”

On the other hand perhaps the gender-blurring Rituparno Ghosh was meant to be Bengali – a language whose pronouns have no gender, whose verbs don’t reveal the sex of the subject. In a tribute in The Telegraph, designer Nil switches from he to she in the middle of the piece. For a moment it’s unsettling and then you just keep reading. It’s a neat bit of activism with a sly Rituparno touch. But it would have been impossible, and unnecessary, had Nil written for the Telegraph’s sister publication the Bengali Ananda Bazar Patrika.

As I watched Rituparno’s body being taken to the crematorium, the sombre gun salute, the gushing tributes about “irreparable loss”, I heard one television guest slip and call him “she” and apologize. I couldn’t help smiling. Rituparno was unsettling gender even in death, right there in our living rooms. As he himself paraphrased Mark Twain's reaction to Titian’s painting of a nude Venus:

“There she lies in her own right.” In Rituparno's case, in a trademark turban and kurta, a hint of a smile on the lips.

Perhaps Rituparno Ghosh was having the last laugh. At the crematorium there are no His incinerators and Her incinerators.