When Rituporno Ghosh passed away, I got the news from a queer friend of mine who lives in Kolkata. The guy was crying when he gave me the news. In the following days I have seen my queer friends in Dhaka, especially males, reacting very strongly to the death. The sudden death of Ghosh at the fairly young age of 49, seemed to have hit a massive emotional chord with the queer population in Dhaka, or at least the small intimate circle I am familiar with. I also felt that Ghosh’s passing was more than the passing of an award-winning popular director, rather it was passing of someone very close to heart, someone who was part of this intimate queer group, someone who went through the pain, humiliation and imposed silence of the queer identity as a regular dose of poisonous social reality.
“You know he actually committed suicide, he overdosed on sleeping pills, after all, how long can one live in such pain?” a queer male friend exclaimed. We sat in a small circle, talking about the social isolation Ghosh must have felt in his everyday reality — the marginalisation, the lack of social space for disclosure, the constant battle with ones parents and loved ones, the humiliation, the loneliness, the social reality that makes it impossible for a queer individual to pursue long term relationships, marriage and family. The death of Ghosh opened up a space where the silenced of the silenced, the queer community of Bangladesh, was able to speak up, at least in private spaces, outside the spectrum of heteronormativity.
Whether or not Ghosh committed suicide and whether or not the West Bengal government hushed it up, is not significant from where I stand. The fact that remains significant is that, the silenced community was able to relate to Ghosh’s life and Ghosh’s death. The social restrictions on practicing queer identity and desire were surpassed while talking about Ghosh’s reality, Ghosh’s films — Ghosh became an imagined identity, an identity one could not speak about as Muslim Bengali men, but an identity they could see reflected in Ghosh’s life, death and cinema. “We don’t live in the country of Elton Johon, Shubho!” the protagonist undergoing a sex change operation in Ghosh’s last film Chitrangada, proclaimed.
No we do not live in Elton John’s country, Kolkata is no New York, Berlin or Paris. Kolkata is still largely a patriarchal society where queer identity is marginalised, the patriarchal misogynist currency of desire largely dominates the film/media industry. Ghosh survived in that culture, and was able to express identity as chosen by an individual, not imposed by norms; and this is precisely why the silenced queer males and females looked at Ghosh’s life and film as the only mirror where they saw themselves reflected. The death of Ghosh was a death of that mirror. The death of Ghosh was the culmination of violence of the narrow social prescription on queer individuals.
Another friend of mine, a heterosexual male, a Film Institute of Pune graduate confessed, “we did make fun of him a lot, humiliated him about his ways.” Another friend of mine, heterosexual and male, once told me that all Rituporno Ghosh films were actually Ritupornography. The slight nudity and often sexual element of Ghosh’s film was termed "pornography" whereas there are numerous other Bengali/Indian films that show much more flesh, and that too for the purpose of box office sales. I believe, Ghosh’s sexual content was criticised by them because Ghosh posed an elaborate critic of Bengali patriarchy and its manipulation of female sexuality in films like Antarmahal , Dahaan , Chokher Bali, etc.
Whereas Tagore’s Chokher Bali depicted Binodini as a fallen woman who eventually comes back to her senses and denounces material life, Ghosh took the depiction a step further and established agency in Binodini. Binodini in Ghosh’s Chokher Bali is presented to us as a complete individual who cherishes love, friendship, sex, revolution, travel, drinking tea and home making all at the same time. When this film came out I was an MA student in south Asia studies in Philadelphia. That semester I had a course on Indian Cinema and Society with an acclaimed visiting professor from India who is also a filmmaker. When I expressed overwhelming satisfaction with Ghosh’s representation of Binodini, the professor replied: “Rituporno’s Chokher Bali is all décor, nothing more.” The reason why, while I internalise the passing of one of my favorite contemporary directors making films in Bengali language and culture, I piece together personal anecdotes, is to depict the general reaction of heteronormative film culture towards Rituporno Ghosh.
Rituporno Ghosh only started expressing his queer identity after the death of his parents. It is obvious that the parents could never accept Ghosh’s identity, Ghosh had to wait till their death to make films like Memories in March, Chitrangada – The Crowning Wish, and Arekti Premer Golpo, where the proclamation of queer identity was possible. The question remains why would Ghosh have to move on just when the journey into stripping off the performance of gendered identity, and the quest for understanding, and living individual desire were coming into play? Was it narrow social space? Was it truly a heart attack? Was it depression? Was it loneliness? Was it the umbilical cord of Bengali culture, a cord that haunted Ghosh’s cinema in his mesmerising reinterpretation of Tagore tunes, a cord that was never cut? Would Ghosh have lived longer, lived more happily if he actually lived in Elton John’s country as the protagonist of his last feature film, a character played by Ghosh, had said.
Whether or not Ghosh’s death was natural or suicide, is irrelevant, what is relevant is the mourning of my queer friends who truly believe that it was a suicide, and it was a result of Ghosh’s socially marginalised position in society because of his queer identity. “After all, how long can one suffer like this?” one of my friends vented. The event of Ghosh’s death too, was imagined as a suicide, this belief was rooted in the personal pain of these queer individuals living in Dhaka city where silence must be worn not like a mask, but like a skin. Mourning Ghosh and talking about Ghosh I felt myself unable to use the term "he" or "she" to denote Rituporno Ghosh. The person who lived to create a life, and self, outside the cage of gendered norms remains as an individual in cinema, in life and more so in death. Rituporno Ghosh with the films, with the lived experience of decoding the gendered body, proved that gender is a mere performance, it is what we do at particular times, rather than a universal notion of who we are.