Monday, January 19, 2009

Limited Audience

A few days ago while chatting over tea with some Bong acquaintances, discussion turned to movies by Rituparno Ghosh. This is a crowd of urban, educated, professional (or not), middle-class Bengalis who have spent about equal parts of their lives in India and outside. As is usually the case in such gatherings, us ladies were seated in the informal dining area outside the kitchen whereas the men were in the living room.

Ghosh has been more graphic in depicting sexuality than most other contemporary Bengali directors and these ladies took issue with that. The popular opinion was - if you do have something different and unusual to say via cinema, you don't need to resort to nudity and adult language to say it.

After all, Satyajit Ray never had to do either and still made world-class cinema. All his movies can be watched with family without fear of outraging anyone's innocence. The ladies had a long list of Ghosh movies that had offended their sensibilities with Antar Mahal and Dosar being the top two.

I loved how the betrayed wife in Dosar played by Konkona Sen, says to her husband when he wants to talk to her his affair after the death of his lover "Sorry but I am plenty busy right now and can't take responsibility for your catharsis". To not take note of the little gems like this one scattered throughout the movie and instead focus to the more run of the mill depiction of sex was rather confusing to me. With all due respect, these sisters were completely missing the point of the story.

Besides Bollywood with its item-numbers and "smoldering" item-girls has raised the bar of acceptable level of vulgarity in family entertainment pretty high. The same ladies have no problem dancing to Kajra Re at a party with her little daughters joining in. It is not as if we are still gathered about the living room television, watching Mother India and Pakeezah when Ghosh came along with all his corruptible stuff.

So, I am not sure why he is required to be the upholder of Bengali morality - the movies are already rated as not suitable for immature audiences. What else is he supposed to do ? You wonder if the Bongs might be more distressed by his message than how it is delivered.

Anyway, hearing this indictment against one of my favorite Bengali directors, I had to wonder who then was Ghosh's audience ? The illiterate and semi-literate masses of Bengal would not find much to like about his modern, cosmopolitan characters, their complex motivations, subtle emotions and nuanced wordplay.

I have no reason to believe that the gentlemen over in the living room engaged in earnest discussions of politics and economy (topics they do not think the distaff side is able to contribute to) would have a dramatically different world-view than their wives specially with several women mentioning that their spouses found Ghosh's cinema distasteful as well.

If the husbands of these ladies felt similarly offended by Ghosh's take on love outside marriage and the state of the modern marriage itself, then that's a sizable chunk of his potential audience gone - what is Ghosh left with ? While everyone agrees that he is talented, they don't like it when he goes so far out of line from what is acceptable in bhadralok society. If these Bongs are a slice of the "average Bong" pie, it is bad news for Bong filmmakers who dare to provoke.


dodo said...

you are cool..cooler than those bengaly sissies!!

( I think that was the point of this post)

Heartcrossings said...

dodo - That would be one way of looking at it. It's sad however that the Bongs are not made the way they used to be. We've just become really odd kind of people with no real role-models, out-dated ideas and acute self-consciousness about our indigenous traditions.

We cling to Tagore and Ray like our life depended on it but don't really 'get' stuff. 60 year old Bong matrons dance a la Bollywood at weddings in middle class families these days.

I guess our best days are well behind us and Ghosh is not going to be able to do much about it. The post was about the demise of the thinking Bong - which once included the whole middle-class.

Sunil Deepak said...

I didn't see Dosar but I remember watching Antarmahal. I liked it and I thought that some of the scenes like the sex scene with the priest sitting and reading some scriptures, were revealing things about a society that I couldn't have imagined. Yet, even while appreciating Antarmahal, I can understand that families may not be comfortable in watching it with kids. "Smoldering" item numbers, even when full of double meaning words, are perhaps not understood by kids, who may even copy the pelvic movements, without really connecting it with something else.

bongopondit said...

There is nothing wrong in depicting sexuality as such. Ray never depicted it directly - except for the kiss in Ghare Baire - not just out of contemporary prudishness, but also because he believed certain scenes would be stronger without a direct depiction - remember Sharmila's smudged sindoor in Apur Sansar.

My own feeling about Ghosh is that he tries to make good films, but is rather too pretentious while going about it and the use of sex is often gratuitous rather than necessary to the story. In that case how is Ghosh different from the Bollywood milieu ?

(I do understand your point here is slightly different as in an educated urban class feeling indifference to an intelligent filmmaker just for the sex)

Heartcrossings said...

Sunil - I agree about the innuendos in Bollywood flicks and the idea is that kids won't get it. Ghosh does not leave anything to the imagination and the movies are rated appropriately. Even without the adult content, his subject matter is not kid-friendly at all. If my brethren want to watch family friendly Bengali fare they can check out the Feluda movies by Sandip Ray.

Bongopondit - Ghosh is a Bong 'intellectual' - pretentiousness goes with the territory :) But like you say, he does make some good movies; the characters are nuanced enough to offer some food for thought.

He uses sex to provoke a reaction whereas Bollywood is about titillation. While both are gratuitous, the purpose is a little different. But my point is exactly as you put it "an educated urban class feeling indifference to an intelligent filmmaker just for the sex"