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A sense for silence

Rituparno Ghosh died young, but he was born old

That Rituparno Ghosh did a brilliant job of placing complex characters in the same frame and arriving at a life-truth was evident right from the start. The first film of his that I saw was Unishe April, just after it got a national award for best feature. To my Bollywood-weary eyes and ears, where dialogue and visuals are ratcheted up for maximum noise, the film was balm. It was about a family and knotted relationships, a mother and daughter trying to find ways to talk to each other. It was about the silences that are created between individuals, even the closest blood relations, when things sour. And it was about possibilities, of how people can heal, slowly, painfully. Aparna Sen and Debasree Roy, as that mother and daughter, were like my mother and me. Or like any mother and any daughter, anywhere around the globe, looking for connections.

Ghosh, who died this morning at his Kolkata residence, was only 49. But he was preternaturally old. I think he was one of those people who are born old, and I don’t mean this is an ageist sort of way, but in the way that leads towards wisdom. Unishe April, out in 1994, was only his second feature, but he displayed in it, and continued to display in his subsequent work, a rare understanding of human nature. He was fearless when it came to emotion : he demanded that his actors strip away the layers, throw away artifice, so that when they felt pain, we felt it too. He did not shy away from making them ugly, even as he kept his sets beautiful. Ghosh’s cinema strove for beauty and reality, and if ugliness stepped in, well, that was fine, too.

Ghosh’s arrival on the Bengali film scene in the early 1990s, and his instant recognition, was a sign that the archaic filmmaking style and content that had straitjacketed mainstream Bangla cinema was history. He brought modernity and urbanity in his storytelling while being completely rooted in the Bengali ethos. With the very influential Aparna Sen as enthusiastic collaborator, Ghosh began creating the sort of realistic, sombre chamber dramas that Ingmar Bergman used to: Unishe April was a tribute to Autumn Sonata, one of Bergman’s loveliest, most accessible films. He followed that up with Dahan, about a couple struggling to cope with the trauma of violence, which also got a clutch of National awards.

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