How does one remember Rituparno Ghosh? Is he defined by the several National Awards he won for his films? By his continuous, fearless assertion of his sexuality that taught his wide middle-class Indian audience to understand and accept people’s sexual preferences? Or as a prolific author – by his volumes of written work that span over a range of themes?
Perhaps what we truly remember him for is his distinctive style of sensitive storytelling. Ghosh is often described as a filmmaker with the deepest understanding of human relationships. Truly, his stories were born from our lives, and he understood the hearts of his characters like no other. This was how his films connected with us – we found the reflections of our stories in his people. We spend our lives searching for people who shall understand us, when most of us seldom understand ourselves. ‘No man is an island’ – and as we unfurl our growing web of attachments, life becomes beautiful and complex. Rituparno Ghosh’s films, like the keys to a chamber of secrets, help us grasp this complexity, thus aiding in reconnecting us to our own selves.
As one talks about this aspect of his films, something else is said alongside – his understanding of women characters – their hearts and minds, and their behaviour in any relationship. These two combined, make his portrayal of one particular bond extremely delicate and penetrative – the mother-daughter relationship.
The relationship between the mother and the daughter is seemingly simple and effortless, but is, in reality, layered and complex. The backdrop of this relationship is a strong connection of blood, but it leaves spaces for comradeship, authority or estrangement. While we naturally expect it to be one of unconditional love and friendship, this is often not the case – its sensitivity makes it vulnerable, and a number of reasons, especially over several years, can cause this relationship to break down.
But this is also a relationship where the troubles can often not be left unresolved – they demand confrontation, a final conversation in all its pain, brutality, or comfort. ‘A mother and a daughter – what a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction. Everything is possible and is done in the name of love and solicitude. The mother’s injuries are handed down to the daughter. The mother’s failures are paid for by the daughter. The mother’s unhappiness will be the daughter’s unhappiness – as if the umbilical cord had never been cut,’ says Eva to her mother Charlotte in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978). Rituparno Ghosh’s second feature film, Unishe April (1994), had shades of this Bergman film on the strained relationship between a celebrated classical pianist and her daughter. Unishe April is the story of Sarojini (Aparna Sen), a famous dancer, and her daughter, Aditi (Debashree Roy). In both films, the daughters carry with themselves feelings of neglect, isolation, and pain accumulated over several years.
Aditi has grown up alone, under the care of Boya, the housemaid. Her mother has been largely absent, busy with dance classes and performances. She had lost Manish, her father at a very tender age, but it is his memories that she holds close. The film takes us through a single day in their lives – April 19, the date of Manish’s death – and presently, also the date on which Sarojini is declared the recipient of a prestigious award. As she is showered with congratulatory phone calls, flowers, and media attention, Sarojini hardly has the time to look at the calendar. In her room, Aditi quietly remembers her father.
Aditi has not known care. She finds it unbelievable when Boya tells her she thinks of her when she’s away at the hostel – that someone should think of her in her absence means too much to her. She guards her father’s memories fiercely, disregarding Sarojini’s feeble attempts to come close. Only a missed train brings Sarojini home on the night of the nineteenth – on a dark night of powercuts and thunderstorms, the mother and the daughter find themselves alone in an empty house. Years of distance separate them, but unspoken words accumulated over the same years come rushing in.
The genius of Ghosh’s filmmaking lies in pointing out on screen, subtleties that can leave a deep impact on people and their relationships. Held separately, these are negligible, human mistakes and misunderstanding but when strung together, they form mountains between people. Aditi cries that her mother had never bothered to teach her dance. Day after day, Sarojini had taught a roomful of students, of the same age as Aditi, who had been looked after in the other room by the maids. Yet, Sarojini never knew Aditi cared for her art.
Yet, the flow of their relationship is not as harsh and drastic as in Autumn Sonata. Conversation brings them closer, helping each of them understand the pain of the other – perhaps because, in their hearts, both of them had waited to return to each other someday. Aditi had tried filling up her father’s void by placing him on a pedestal, as an ideal man who could never have been a reason for anyone else’s suffering. Sarojini gently explains to her the relationship she shared with Manish – ‘physical abuse is not the only form of abuse, she says, and tells Aditi of her father’s capability to neither handle her talent and fame, nor his own narrow-mindedness if she gives up dancing for him.
It is important to note that the reconciliation doesn’t come at the cost of losing their individuality. As they hug each other in an emotional moment, the phone rings. ‘Don’t go,’ says Aditi, almost like a child. Sarojini smiles, but gently pushes her away to answer the call. The telephone is, in fact, an interesting metaphor used throughout the film. Their conversations are periodically punctuated by the ring of the telephone – a continuous reminder of Sarojini’s stardom.
Titli (2002) was another film that explored the mother-daughter dynamic. It is the heartwarming story of Titli (Konkona Sen Sharma), a teenager obsessed with a famous actor, Rohit Roy (Mithun Chakraborty). The mother-daughter relationship in this tale is close, but is disrupted by Titli’s revelation that Rohit was once her mother’s lover. Here, too, they end up having a long conversation, with Titli slowly understanding that her mother is a separate individual with her own stories and experiences. At the center of the story of the film lies a co-incidence, yet we, as an audience relate to this film no less. Its end gives a strong message, of a daughter’s acceptance that her mother could have a past, that she hadn’t always been a mother. They reunite – perhaps the bond is now stronger with a shared secret. The final scene of the film stays with us forever, filling us with warmth and newfound understanding for our mothers.
While several of his films fleetingly dwell on the dynamics of this relationship, it is Unishe April and Titli that go deep into the theme. They go beyond what we generally see in popular cinema, with the mother as either the closest friend, the merciless villain, or as simply existing without making any noticeable impression. These two films stand out in this regard, for the filmmaker’s lens here views them as separate entities, two women with their own thoughts, habits, and perceptions. In both films, they manage to make peace in the end, but even if they didn’t, the journey they are thrown into to understand each other is more important than what the end awaits.
From the ind.igenous desk