22nd September 2013. I spent the afternoon watching Rituparno Ghose’s films Titli and Chitrangada. Beautiful, sensitive and brave.
This took me back to my last visit to Kolkata a few months ago, when I found my father sitting glued to the television, watching the live telecast of Rituparno Ghose’s Sharan Shabha (memorial meeting). I decided to sit and watch it with him. The memorial was attended by the who’s who of Calcutta, rather the whole of West Bengal, and included members of the Bangla film industry, politicians, academics, artistes, indeed anyone who mattered. And that included the Chief Minister, who sat through the whole programme.
Several people came up to reminisce about the talented filmmaker, and spoke about his untimely death and the legacy he has left behind. Not having ever lived in West Bengal, and not being familiar with them, I depended on my father to identify them for me.
A gentleman with striking white hair was one of them. He was accompanied by a young man in ethnic clothes and kohl-lined eyes. The elderly gentleman was introduced as Chapal Bhaduri, a well known stage actor particularly famous for his enactments of female roles in Bengali theatre. He had been the subject of a film by Rituparno, and he recounted his association with the director during the making of the film.
It was now the young man’s turn to speak. Rituparna Ghose had fought tirelessly for the cause of men like him, he began. And added, “I hope that aamra jara Rituparno (we who are Rituparno), will now find greater acceptance in society…”. Meanwhile, on the screen behind him, flashed pictures of Rituparno Ghose, adorned with full make-up and jewellery, smiling down at the audience. Watching the young man pay his tribute were thousands, perhaps millions of Bengalis across the world. Only a relative handful was present there. The majority, like my 87 year-old father and I, sat glued to their television sets.
After the programme ended my parents and I discussed Rituparno. They knew a lot more about him and his than I did. But what surprised me was that for the first time I was able to discuss homosexuality with my parents. It seemed that Rituparno had been able to do what neither me nor my sister, both human rights activists, who make it our ‘job’ to persuade the world, had not been able to do in all these years. It appeared they had finally accepted homosexuality. That they thought it was ‘Ok’ to be gay because of Rituparno, whom they admired greatly was gay and had the courage not to hide it. The life of Rituparno, the brilliant director and artist, had finally persuaded them to regard being gay is “normal” .
Even as I was trying to absorb this change in my parents, it suddenly occurred to me that what was happening in my parents’ home was perhaps true of many more conservative middle-class Bengali homes. Is this why the young man had said “aamra jara Rituparno”? Had he realized that, in his death, the great filmmaker had pushed his audiences to recognize and accept homosexuality like they had never before?
Perhaps this was the first time that LGBT rights had been placed before such an eclectic ‘bhadralok’ audience, without being frowned upon. This was no gay parade, yet it had an equal, if not greater, impact, possibly as much as the Delhi High Court’s order decriminalising adult homosexual relationships.
Surely when we recount Rituparno Ghose’s legacy, this, besides all his films, especially those dealing with homosexuality, will rank high as another enduring part of it.