By Subhash K Jha
MUMBAI: They were to Bengali cinema what Rajesh Khanna and Hrishikesh Mukherjee were to Hindi cinema. Plus a lot more. Rituparno Ghosh and Prosenjit Chatterjee did 7 unforgettable Bengali films together. Off screen they were very close friends who often fought over trivial and not so trivial matters.
And now on Rituparno’s death, the grief-stricken Prosenjit plans a film on Ritu. “I should write a book on him. But that is not my domain. So I will do something on screen. Yes, I am planning a film on Ritu now. Of course, I’ll preserve and restore his 19 films. But I’ll also make a film on him.”
Lately Prosenjit and Ritu had grown distant because of the latter’s insistence on undergoing potentially life-threatening hormonal operations. Prosenjit warned Ritu not to mess around with his body. But the director adamant on changing his gender, wouldn’t listen. This issue created a rift between the two life-long friends. Rituparno also insisted on making gay-centric films which further distanced Prosenjit professionally and personally from the filmmaker who changed the career and life-course of Bangla cinema’s biggest superstar since Uttam Kumar.
Exclaims Prosenjit, “But look at the irony, Ritu finally did a non-gay film Satyanweshi after three years, where my wife Arpita plays the main female lead. So I was connected to Ritu in what we didn’t know would be his final work. Arpita and Raima Sen were like daughter to Ritu. My wife is not just an actress but also a wonderful singer. Ritu smsed me when I was in Cairo saying, ‘After a long time I got to work with a singing actress.’ For Arpita Rituda was a teacher . She’s lucky to have worked in his last film. Regetttably, I didn’t get time to visit the sets if Satyanveshi. But my wife would constantly BBM pictures from the locations.”
Sighs Prosenjeet, “I am sure my wife would look lovely in Satyanveshi. He could make any actress look beautiful.”
Prosenjeet was unable to work in any of Rituparno’s films since 2009 because the director’s work gravitated towards an expression of his homosexuality.
“Not that I minded playing a character,” clarifies Prosenjit. “But those films were about Ritu’s character. They were made to express his viewpoint and anguish. I felt I had no place in them, although he and the director Kabeer Kaushik offered me his lover’s role in Arektir Premer Golpo. But that was a film about his character. I had nothing to gain as an actor.People started gossiping about my refusal to play a homosexual character. But if I get to do a film like Tootsie or Brokeback Mountain I’d happily play gay. I’ve taken risks during my career.”
Recalling their long association fondly, Prosenjit said, “So many memories flood me. We fought like any two very old friends over childish issues. When Ritu decided to take on the editorship of a Bangla magazine, I fought with him because I thought he was unnecessarily deflecting attention from his true vocation.We also fought over a television serial that I produced and he acted in. But today I know we made something that would be remembered 20 years ago. Even Mamta Bannerjee liked our serial.”
Prosenjeet had warned Ritu against undergoing gender-transformation surgeries. “I told him not to do anything that would jeopardize his health. We all needed him.B ut he didn’t listen. My fights with him were on this issue. He was taking health risks that would suit a 20-year old. He went through operations that affected his health. I tried my best to dissuade him. But he didn’t listen. Now I regret it. All of us his friends should have tied him up bodily and prevented him from doing this to himself. He would’ve been making path-breaking films for the next 25 years. The good thing was, during recent months he had snapped out of the homo-centric cinema and was making a film that had nothing to do with sexuality.”
Recalling his abiding association with Rituparno, Prosenjit says, “I feel sorry for today’s young actors in Bengal who would now have no opportunity to work with Ritu. They’ll never know what they’ve missed. Ritu tapped the other more serious actor within me. He put me in touch with emotions that I didn’t know existed within me. Do you know, he even wanted to cast me in the very first film that he made, the children’s film Hirer Angti. Ritu regretted not casting me in that film as well. He was new and at that time everyone scoffed at his ambitions. ‘Are you mad? How can you cast Prosenjit in a children’s film? He’s a big commercial star. He wouldn’t even meet you.’ That’s what Ritu did to me and many other mainstream actors. He took us out of the commercial zone and placed us in this other world altogether. You see, Ritu used a refined aesthetic language. But he had the mainstream audience interested in that cinema. He got big stars from Mumbai and Kolkata into his cinema. He made actor reinvent themselves. Look at what he did to Raima Sen. Today’s she is accepted as a sensible actress in Kolkata. Ritu’s contribution to cinema is tremendous. Everyone who saw me in Ritu’s Doshor and Sob Charitra Kalpunik wondered what I had done in these films. But it was a magic created by Ritu. When I did my first film Unneshi April with him, I had just two scenes. I had a very difficult love-making scene with Debashree Roy where I had to be with her but my mind was somewhere else. Ritu left it to me to convey this. When I did the scene he was very pleased. In Sab Charitra Kalpunik where my character dies, I had to be decorated with chandan, etc. Ritu was very disturbed doing this. He didn’t like decorating me as I played dead. Then Bipasha Basu also intervened.We forced him to do it. Ritu was very emotional on and off screen. When he was shooting Khela, he wanted me to use my own clothes to play a film star because we didn’t have budget. He dug into impossible resources to make his cinema happen. He’d go to any lengths to get that perfect shot. I enjoyed every moment of my screen work with Ritu. He was my mentor.”
Pondering over the loss, Prosenjit says, “I used to tell my wife if something happens to me she should immediately go to Rituda to guide her. Now he’s gone. We had our share of fights. But we were always there for one another. Our friendship went far beyond work. I will be grateful to him all my life. It will take me a long time to get over the loss.”