Celina Jaitly Haag makes her Bollywood comeback with Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s homage to late Rituparno Ghosh(Vickky Idnaani photography)
Celina Jaitly Haag makes her Bollywood comeback with Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s homage to late Rituparno Ghosh(Vickky Idnaani photography)

Season in the sun: Putting the spotlight back on Rituparno Ghosh

Journalist-turned-director Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s latest movie is a UN-endorsed tribute to the late queer National Award winning Bengali director, and the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights
Hindustan Times | By Ananya Ghosh
UPDATED ON OCT 20, 2019 01:37 AM IST

Rituparno Ghosh, the late 12-time National Award winning director who gave Bengali cinema a much-needed facelift and is one of the most famous and critically-acclaimed Bengali directors of the post-Ray era, has sadly been relegated to just ‘that Raincoat director’ even to the ‘knowledgeable’ Bollywood audience. For the mainstream, the name doesn’t really ring a bell.

Multiple National Award-winning director, late Rituparno Ghosh, was one of the first celebrities in India to have come out as queer
Multiple National Award-winning director, late Rituparno Ghosh, was one of the first celebrities in India to have come out as queer

For Ram Kamal Mukherjee, the journalist-turned-filmmaker, who not only grew up on Ghosh’s cinema but was also close to the auteur having interviewed him many times, this has always been deeply disturbing. So Mukherjee, who made his directorial debut with the short film Cakewalk, has now taken it upon himself to introduce the cinema of the Bengali legend to mainstream cinegoers.

“There is still a lack of understanding about the LGBTQIA+ community and the biggest block is that we are still not ready to educate ourselves about homosexuality”

“I wanted to do a mother-daughter story and while working with this script I was constantly reminded of Rituparno Ghosh’s Unishe April, a film on a mother-daughter relationship,” says Mukherjee as we sit down for a quick chat at a Lokhandwala café. Titled A Tribute to Rituparno Ghosh: Season’s Greetings, Mukherjee’s film is a homage to Ghosh and is already making news for talking about Article 377 and the LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, the United Nations, under its UN Free and Equal campaign, has collaborated with Mukherjee as the film’s Social Cause partner.

Follow the star

Ghosh was also one of the first celebrities in India to have come out as queer. An occasional cross-dresser, he’s been fighting for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.

“We expect our parents to be perfect, but what if one day we find that is not the case?” The tribute to Ghosh is not overt. “There are a lot of Easter eggs that people who know his films will be able to spot!” says Mukherjee cheekily. “In one line, the film simply says, ‘I am who I am, take me as I am!’…it is exactly what Ritu believed and lived by.”

The tributes are restrained, yet often profound. For instance, the name of the character played by Celina Jaitly Haag is Romita – a name inspired by Ghosh’s protagonist in his 1997 film Dahan for which Rituparna Sengupta had bagged the National Film Award for Best Actress.

Celina Jaitly Haag with Azhar Khan in Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s A Tribute to Rituparno Ghosh: Season’s Greetings (top); The actor with the director
Celina Jaitly Haag with Azhar Khan in Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s A Tribute to Rituparno Ghosh: Season’s Greetings (top); The actor with the director

The film also stars Lillette Dubey and debutant Azhar Khan, and marks the debut of transgender actor Shree Ghatak. Last year, the Saif Ali Khan starrer Kaalakaandi had featured another trans actor, Nary Singh. Bollywood has not been particularly known for its inclusivity, but these are rays of hope that might bring in a new dawn.

The character played by Shree is called Chapala, another subtle nod to Ghosh’s portrayal of Chapal Bhaduri, one of the last female impersonators in Bengali theatre, in the Kaushik Ganguly directed 2010 film, Aarekti Premer Golpo. Ghosh was one of the very few directors who dealt with queer relationships in his films and in this regard, his last film Chitrangada (2012) deserves a special mention.

In pursuit of happiness

It seems that time has finally caught up with Ghosh, who was considered ahead of his time for his films depicting same-sex relationships. This year we saw a mainstream commercial film, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, starring bonafide Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor, on the LGBTQ community. September 6, 2019, was also the first anniversary of the historic judgment by the Supreme Court in reading down the provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and decriminalising consensual same sex relations.

But according to Celina, we still have a long way to go in shedding our stereotypical understanding of the LGBTQI+ community. The actress, over the years, has been one of the most robust and consistent voices actively supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, which prompted the UN Free and Equal Campaign to take her on as a goodwill ambassador and equality champion.

“There’s always been an emphasis on lesbian and gay activists, individuals and groups. People don’t realise the importance of a straight ally who can express his or her support in small but incredibly meaningful ways,” she says.

Talking the talk

Homophobia is still deeply entrenched in our cultural fibre, says Celina. “Combating discrimination requires a change not just in laws and policies but in hearts and minds too. There is still a lack of understanding about the LGBTQIA+ community and the biggest block is that we are still not ready to educate ourselves about homosexuality,” she says.

“It begins with difficult conversations. I’m convinced that the best way to have this difficult conversation is through a medium that is most relatable to the people. And in India that medium is definitely cinema. Season’s Greetings will definitely stir a need for those difficult but necessary conversations in its own subtle way,” she says.

She is hopeful that the film will inspire conversations across ideological spectrum about the LGBTQIA+ community, raise awareness about homophobic and transphobic challenges and discrimination.

“Bollywood is probably the only industry in India where the LGBTQIA+ have the freedom to be themselves, but there are many who are closeted, and many who don’t want to acknowledge the LGBTQIA+ and do not feel it is their responsibility to contribute to change. On the other hand there have been many instances where stereotypical gay characters were used as comic relief inserts,” she observes.

But with films like Kapoor & Sons and Aligarh finding their audience, she is optimistic. “It is a marked improvement from the time when the National Award winning director Onir was told that his movies do not have an audience. I’d like to believe that the long term trends are positive. Given films like ours I can say attitudes are shifting, at least in Bollywood.”

Follow @ananya1281 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, October 20, 2019

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