Dear Ritu da,
The earliest memory I have of you is on a rain soaked evening in Nandan in 1994, shortly after the release of your first film Hirer Angti. Barely six then, have I remembered how you were being hailed as the next Ray even then.
Your death last morning came as a shock to everyone. The film fraternity has been abuzz with tributes from luminaries whom you directed in your two-decade career . You have been hailed as the renaissance man, the true heir to Ray, whom your called your “obhibhabok”(parent). You have been credited with restoring Bangali cinema’s place in the international arena and with bringing the dwindling audience back to Calcutta’s theatres . You blurred the lines between commercial and art-house cinema and an irreplaceable loss to Indian cinema.
I grew up with your films. From understanding the pangs of marital rape in Dahan to introducing myself to Rabindranath, it was your work that made me grow into an individual. Had it not been for you, I would probably never have turned towards Tagore.
Your attire slowly changed from being the unassuming middle class Bhodrolok to the flamboyant “queen” that you were called in the mainstream press; I watched in awe as you transformed into the most confident person I knew, and in turn, inspired countless millions like me to not be afraid.
You taught me that it was possible for a widow to not be portrayed as hapless and suffering, and for a heroine to speak through her body and menstruate on screen. You showed it was not important to be a “real man” to play the hero and that two men falling in love need not solely be toilet humour. Is it irony then, that you are still fighting the demons screaming “she-male” to “gays ko aids ho jata hai”.
I never met you. But like every other marginalised man stifled in a hetero-normative regime, I felt proud when you told a Calcutta based entertainer who’d often mimic your gait and talk, "Are you mimicking Rituparno Ghosh or an effeminate man?"
Many amongst us weren’t as brave as you in being who we are. As you said, “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.” Thank you for understanding.
Ridiculed for wearing Kajal and jewellery, I remember how you’d be constantly asked, “What is the need to do this?” or “He’s a great film-maker, but…” . You’d take it sportingly and say, “My audience loves me hence they feel bad that I am doing this.” But was there sadness, Ritu da, when you told Kaustav Bakshi, “My city can neither handle me nor ignore me. The respect that I used to command has been seriously affected by my decision to proclaim my sexuality”?
You lived in a hypocritical middle class Bengali society whose appreciation of queer sensibilities end with appreciating Brokeback Mountain in the theatre, who don’t like their Rabindranath sexualized and who baulk at the idea of a “non-man” gracing three hours on screen.
One of the reasons I became a journalist was so that one day, I can sit across the table from the person who became the greatest activist of queer causes without being one. Most directors are bound by their gender, but, as you proclaim in your last film, Chitrangada, your life "is a story of how one can choose one’s gender." You have left us, yes, but through your controversies, your flamboyance, your art and your embracing of androgyny, you have given us more than any artist of this generation. In life and beyond, I remain,
An honoured fan
(The article earlier said Unishe April was Rituparno's first film. We have now corrected it to Hirer Angti. Apologies for the error.)