Rituparno Ghosh is considered to be a flamboyant filmmaker and the queer icon of India. Ghosh, born in 1963 in Kolkata was a film director, writer, lyricist and an actor in Indian cinema. He made 15 cinemas and won 12 national awards alongside many other awards at international film festivals.
In the Indian film industry, Ghosh was one of the very few open homosexuals.
The first time I saw Ghosh in 'Arekti Golpo' in 2010 reminds me how his appearance impacted me. It was the first time I had heard of the word ‘transgender’. He underwent breast implant surgery for one of his roles in the movie 'Arekti Golpo'.
During the last years of his life, he explored the transgender lifestyles. Ghosh was revered to be explicitly flamboyant, he lived his life on his own terms with an unapologetic pronouncement.
Through his films, lifestyle, films, columns and media presence, people got introduced to an alternative philosophy of a life beyond the binary established by hetero-patriarchal societal norms which they had been unaware of until now.
This made people not only acknowledge that there were other forms of sexuality, gender identity and desire, than the normative ones, but also take into account the sexism, regressive ideals and prejudiced temperament that people hid beneath the veneer of cosmetic respectability.
Ghosh was at the peak of his career during 2006-2013. This period was crucial for the LGBTQ+ community in India.
In December 2001, the Naz Foundation, a sexual health NGO working with gay men, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court, challenging the constitutionality of criminilisation of same gender sex in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and calling for legalisation of homosexuality.
The Delhi HC dismissed the case in 2004, saying there is no cause of action and that purely academic issues cannot not be examined by the court. In February 2006, after the Naz Foundation filed a special leave petition for the case, the Supreme Court reinstated it in the Delhi HC, citing the fact that it is an issue of public interest.
In the coming months, Voices Against 377, a coalition of NGOs, joined the petition, while India’s Ministry of Home affairs filed an affidavit against the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
In July 2009, in a landmark judgment, a Delhi HC Bench, consisting of then Chief Justice Ajit Prakash Shah and Justice S Muralidhar decided to decriminalise same-sex relationships under Section 377, saying criminalisation violated the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and equality as enshrined in the Indian constitution. But critics challenged the Delhi HC's decision in the SC.
In 2013, the LGBTQ community suffered a significant blow when the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court’s judgment, saying Section 377 “does not suffer from the vice of unconstitutionality and the declaration made by the division bench of the high court is legally unsustainable.” Finally, in an unanimous verdict, the SC scraped the criminilisation under Section 377, marking a triumphant end to a lengthy struggle for justice.
Ghosh wanted to change the perspective and knowledge of the ‘homosexual’ by entering into the sanitised spaces of the society with narratives of parallel sexualities, thereby busting the false notions of compulsory heteronormativity.
'Arekti Premer Golpo', 'Memories in March' and 'Chitrangada' indeed worked towards creating awareness of same-sex desires among the uninitiated audience. Ghosh inserted stories that talked about the emotional struggles of being different into already existing fables of normative society and narratives of the same-sex desires. He was successful in engendering a change in the perspective from which sexual desires and love had been comprehended so far.
Ghosh must be lauded for his guts. He was the first Indian who dared to attempt the representation of homosexuals in a populist medium of art. With his work he tried to give people an empathetic understanding of queer lives.
Ghosh’s cinema defied norms of gendered behaviour, and his films celebrated the marginalised. He was probably the first openly gay male filmmaker who broke cinematic barriers by his subtle depiction of relationships.
He strategically aligned himself with the common man’s life and established himself as one of them; it indeed made it easy for him to intervene the private space of the people to talk about issues they usually turn a blind eye to, such as alternative sexual identity, gender and subversion of gender roles.
Ghosh’s initial steps towards introducing his audience to LGBTQ+ themes were rather cautious. 'Memories in March' (2010), is a suitable example of this. Ghosh wrote and acted in this film, where both the homosexual protagonists are urban-middle-class people and rarely show visible signs of queerness. Although lack of queer visibility ran the risk of depoliticising queer culture where visible self-dramatisation of characters holds huge importance.
Ghosh's next film ;Chitrangada' (2012) revolved around queer characters. This film is far more conspicuous in its depiction. It shows the journey of a biological man who undergoes sex reassignment surgeries to become a woman.
Anuj Vaidya, co-director at the 'Third South Asian International Film Festival' which screened many of Ghosh’s films, on 'Chitrangada' said, “In his recent work, it becomes too hard to determine whether one is watching a man or a woman—and I love that Ghosh often does not care to elaborate”. Vaidya goes on to say that although it is indeed "destabilising at first" but later the viewer hardly cares whether the protagonist is "a he or a she or the many possibilities in-between".
Ghosh rejected labels both for himself and for the characters he created in his cinematic universe; his films celebrated the possibility of identities who do not necessarily have to fall within the binaries of male/female or hetero/homo, thereby making the characters universally relatable.
In his films, he picked references from indigenous cultural resources, such as the myth of 'Chitrangada', the figure of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Brajabuli songs and introduced a different perception of exploration.
Through the columns of newspaper, in the 'Robbar (Sunday)' column of March 6, 2011, he, in a manner of lucid storytelling, brought up the myth of Chitrangada and Arjuna from Mahabharata to comment on gender fluidity and androgyny: "During exile, the virile Arjuna becomes the braided dance-teacher, is it the poetic justice of the Mahabharata? Does it tell that in reality, a human life is not complete if both masculinity and femininity are not lived?"
Ghosh’s primary concern was, perhaps, to naturalise queerness and to locate it as a valid cultural identity within the larger frame of the society.
Despite bullying, alienation and ignorance, Ghosh exhibited a selfhood which was not restricted by shame. He countered bullying with his flamboyance. Ghosh adapted a non-binary and gender-neutral dressing style in his later years. Popularly, he is visualised as wearing long salwar-achkan and silver jewelleries with kohl in his eyes and his shaved head in a turban.
In the July 17, 2011, he wrote about the homosexuality depicted in the temples of Khajuraho or Konark in his column for 'Robbar (Sunday)'.
Sangeeta Datta, writer of 'Bird of Dusk' and Ghosh's friend from his teenage, told in the documentary, “During the university days, he was an avid reader, a complete film buff, shy in his early years, and preferred one-to-one conversations. I saw him getting bullied and teased by other boys simply because he did not match with the expected ‘male’ or macho codes of masculinity.”
She added that he had a way of bringing people to his films that engaged the audience in a huge way.
A professor from Jadavapur University and a scholar of queer studies Kaustav Bakshi highlighted the moment in which Ghosh officially came out as a queer person.
In 2009, on an episode of his talk show 'Ghosh & Company', Ghosh directly demanded an explanation from Mir, an actor and mimicry artist who was by then famous for impersonating Ghosh as an effeminate person, by asking, "When you are mimicking me, are you mimicking Rituparno Ghosh, the person, or are you mimicking a generic effeminate man?…Have you ever thought that when you mimic me, you actually end up humiliating all effeminate men in Kolkata?… You should be sensitive to the fact that you are hurting the sentiments of a sexual minority. I am objecting to your act not because I am inconvenienced myself, rather I am objecting to it on behalf of all those for whom I maybe a representative."
But Ghosh had indeed taken an enormous risk in deciding to go public about his sexuality and making films on same-sex desires, as he told Kaustav Bakshi in an interview, “I have indeed estranged a section of my audience... the middle-class audience, we were talking about... I am aware of the loss. A lot of them are wary of my cross-dressing in public! In fact, the respect I used to command has been seriously affected by my decision to proclaim my sexuality.”
Ghosh was a huge Satyajit Ray fan and an heir to the Bengali cinematic masters such as Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen. India’s queer icon passed away in 2013 at the age of 49, leaving behind a rich yet incomplete cinematic legacy.