If somebody dies in Mumbai, in colloquial terms they refer to the deceased as ‘off’.
Today, I will talk about a mobile phone that was switched off for the first time. The phone belonged to Rituparno Ghosh.
Unlike other ‘arty’ directors, a lot of people understood the cinema that Rituparno Ghosh made, but a lot more couldn’t (or didn’t want to) understand him as a person. Now that he is no more, everybody is paying eulogies to his craft on his death anniversary. But I am going to talk about Rituda, the person I knew, the person he had become and the person he wanted to be.
In Bollywood, when it comes to actors and directors, chances are that you will frequently come across two kinds of people — the one who lies and the other, who lives a lie.
Most — who are into same-sex relationships — choose to live a lie than accept that they are gay. It’s easier that way because coming out in the open about your sexuality would require you to have guts to face the world, family, friends and even yourself. I have a lot of friends from the film industry who never shy away from talking about being gay. They are not celebrities. It is the celebrities in Bollywood, who have chosen not to come out about their sexual orientation.
Rituda was not among them.
But Rituda came across as an extremely moody person. He would snap at you if he sensed that you are not going to ask him the ‘right’ questions. I never would and hence he would always give me a cocky answer which would sometimes threaten to ruin my interview. He hated most journalists and I don’t mind admitting that I was counted among them.
Whatever be the case, his phone always rang when I called and he always answered it. If he couldn’t pick up my call immediately, he would always send me a text message back.
I was aware of his hatred towards me, but I was never used to the fact that an automated voice would rudely tell me that “the mobile number you are calling is switched off” when I dialled 9830056***.
That day has finally come and it brought back a montage of memories about him.The strongest among them would be the last time we met in person.
It was an unforgettable conversation.
Why was Rituda so angry with Mumbai journalists?
Rituparno Ghosh was angry with a lot of journalists, especially the ones working in Mumbai; he would always frown while speaking to them.
Rituda did not trust a handful journalists who had written unsavoury articles about him or his films. He wouldn’t boycott them but he would always let them know that he didn’t like him or her. I don’t remember writing anything derogatory about him, but somehow I was always greeted with that frown. I always felt that he was being rude to me for no reason or no fault of mine. I was also waiting for an opportunity to give it back to him someday.
One day, I got the opportunity.
Rituda had come to MAMI (The Mumbai film festival) to promote a film with Raima Sen. They (the PRs) had lined up an interview with him. I was already tired with the workload and not in the frame of mind to face the filmmaker who clearly didn’t enjoy answering my questions. The filmmaker too seemed tired after the forum he had just attended, where he had addressed both the press and film-buffs. At the back of my mind, I knew that the article wouldn’t make it to the front page of the entertainment supplement, unless he decided to surprise me by giving me the story that I sought from him. It was more like a space-filling exercise and I was not upto it.
Yet, I agreed because the person coordinating the interview had already booked a ‘slot’ for me to speak with him. As it turned out, I was the last journalist he was facing before leaving for the airport. This is how the conversation began:
“You were speaking about mentoring Raima Sen…”
“I am here to speak about the movie and not Raima. Don’t try to be clever. I am here to speak about the character she played. Ask me about that.”
“Thank you for what?
“For answering my question…”
“But I never answered your question”
“Exactly, that’s how you answered my question.”
“What is my answer?”
“You answer is ‘I am here to promote my film and I don’t care about what you are going to ask me. I will only promote my film’ and that basically the interview should only focus on the film.”
“Yes. That’s my answer.”
“That’s why I said ‘Thank you’ because that is exactly what I am not here for. I am here to speak to you and not promote your film. So, I guess there is a conflict of interest here. So thank you for speaking to me and maybe we will talk when we are on the same page.”
“What did you want to ask me?”
“It has got nothing to do with your film.”
“Okay, what did you want to ask me?”
“I wanted to ask you as to why you are always angry. Why do you seem so troubled all the time? And what makes you think that people like me are always there to put you down?”
“You are asking this on record?”
“This is not an interview. I am not going to write anything. I am just asking you. I am curious. You seem to be angry without any reason. You seem to be in some kind of imaginary badland where you are being persecuted all the time.”
“Is it not a badland? I make a film and you talk only about my mannerisms. I come to Mumbai to attend a marriage, and you speculate if I am here for a surgery to get breasts? I give an interview and you want to know about the man I am sleeping with. Do you ask these questions to any other director on this forum? If some homophobic journalist tries to show me in bad light because of my sexuality or mannerisms, won’t that make me angry? I have got more National Awards than any Indian director in this forum, and all you see are my breasts? Huh! Back in Kolkata, there is a radio jockey who tries to get cheap publicity just by mimicking me. Will you do that for any other director who has won 12 National Awards? What’s the connection of my films with my sexuality? What’s wrong in loving a man as intensely as you love a woman? What’s wrong in making love to a man as intensely as you make love to a woman? What’s wrong in seeing the world from a woman’s point of view? Some of you are looking for cheap publicity simply because you want to cater to some homophobic men, who say, ‘Look, here comes a weirdo’. I am not going to oblige. You guys have done that to a lot of people before me and you guys will do it to a lot of people after me. But I am not going to surrender to your bullying. If you cannot accept my homosexuality that’s your problem, not mine. If you want to make fun of my mannerisms, that makes you a weirdo, not me. I know what I am and I don’t want to take life lessons from all of you. It’s not you that I don’t like, I don’t like journalists who stare at my breasts and write articles about it. You wouldn’t do that to an Oscar-winning director from the US, would you? There’s just no sense of shame!”
(He paused as I continued staring at his face)
“I am not talking about you. Aami jaani tumi eirokom lekho ni kintu eirokom lekha hoyechhe ekhane (I know you haven’t written anything like that, but people have written such stuff here). If you want to ask me yes, someday I will explore this (same sex relationships) through a film too.”
In another five minutes, the conversation came to an end and I left the venue.
I felt that Rituda had a courage that was difficult to match. Yes, he was angry. He had every reason to be angry. And like him, there are so many Rituparno Ghoshs out there who are angry at us.
Yes, we have no shame.
It is true that he did get artificial breasts through surgery because of his overbearing desire to become a woman. Many Mumbai journalists wrote articles about it, mocking him. Those articles appeared during the marriage of Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan which he came to attend in Mumbai in the middle of a medically induced sex-change procedure.
But that was only the beginning of a descent.
Apparently, his body couldn’t bear the stress of the procedure that he was forcing on himself. The body gave up one day and the mobile phone, which always received my calls, was switched off forever.
Rituparno did make a film on same-sex relationships. It turned out to be the last film which released during his lifetime.
Here is the trailer of that film, Chitrangada.