Review: ‘Bird Of Dusk’ “Captures Highs And Lows Of A Remarkable Life”

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A still from Bird Of Dusk trailer. (Image courtesy: YouTube)

Director: Sangeeta Datta

Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)

A wonderful and essential addition to a not-exactly-overflowing stream of Indian films on cinema, writer-director-singer Sangeeta Datta's documentary on the late Rituparno Ghosh, Bird Of Dusk, filmed over a period of one year, is nearly as remarkable and wide-ranging as the subject's luminous and multi-faceted career that rescued Bengali cinema from the trough it had sunk into in the 1990s.

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By no reckoning was Rituparno an ordinary filmmaker. His life was no less creative than the chiseled screenplays he wrote, the heartfelt stories he put on the big screen and the tangible characters he lovingly etched out. He was a colourful personality who drew and thrived on public attention even as he sought moments away from the spotlight. He was a conflicted, temperamental individual but one who never failed to fill his cinema with warmth and humanism. No wonder no Bengali director in the post-Satyajit Ray generation attracted as much adulation as he did.

Rituparno Ghosh's work straddled several domains of life in Kolkata – cinema, art, mass media, storytelling and gay rights activism. Although hailed in some quarters as a successor to Ray, he was innately a rebel who approached all labels with skepticism. I do my own thing and in my own way, he said in a television interview that is part of this film. People might like or hate what I've done, but I will go on, he added. Go on he did and left behind a string of much-loved films.

Bird Of Dusk, named after a painting by Abanindranath Tagore, founder of the Bengal School of Art, draws upon Ghosh's personal memoirs (First Person), his own interviews and conversations, and "a hundred stories from those who knew him" to come up with a fascinating account of a dazzling career that was tragically cut short in mid-flight. A large portion of the film is focused on his career as a director who not only brought Bengali audiences back to the movie halls, but also made people in India and elsewhere in the world sit up and take notice of his unique voice.

The 96-minute documentary, which has got a limited release this Friday, provides an overview of Ghosh's career, beginning with the children's film, Hirer Angti (The Diamond Ring), which remained unreleased, nearly putting paid to his filmmaking aspirations. His sophomore effort, Unishe April, which won a National Award, effected a turnaround after which he never had to look back.

Sangeeta Datta's film follows a young transgender actor Ranjan Bose as he probes Ghosh's films and ideas as part of his research work. The young man's peregrinations around the city that Ghosh lived and worked in and loved immensely are an integral part of Bird Of Dusk, which has many much bigger names sharing their views on the filmmaker's life and craft.

Readings of First Person by thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, radio jockey Mir Afsar Ali and Ghosh himself are supplemented with freewheeling chats with Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Nandita Das and Arjun Rampal, besides Ghosh's frequent collaborators, cinematographer Aveek Mukhopadhyay, film editor Arghyakamal Mitra and music composer Debojyoti Mishra, and festival curators Dorothee Wenner (Berlin) and Cary Sawhney (London).

As his actors point out in different ways and in varying contexts, his films had great psychological depth and were completely non-judgmental and marked by deep empathy for people grappling with emotional and other issues. He was one of India's finest contemporary screenwriters, but he also had a way with actors, which led to many Bollywood stars (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan, Arjun Rampal and, of course, Amitabh Bachchan) featuring in his films.

Sangeeta Datta, who divides her time between London and Kolkata, was a friend of Ghosh's from their university days and also worked as part of his filmmaking unit. But Bird Of Dusk is as much a tribute as a deep dive into a complex life that concealed many unfathomable qualities. At least two of the actresses that Datta has interviewed for the film narrate incidents they would rather forget. Sharmila Tagore complains about how Ghosh gave Raakhee Gulzar top billing in Shubho Muhurat although the latter was her junior without consulting her. And Nandita Das talks about the circumstances in which she was dropped at the last minute from Chokher Bali.

From the very outset, Sangeeta Datta's film alludes to the fluidity of Ghosh's sexual preferences while bringing out that this defining aspect of his life began to assert itself late in his career. As director Kaushik Ganguly, who made the first of Ghosh's three films as an actor, Arekti Premer Galpo (Just Another Love Story), which delved into his growing assertion as a person with a gender-free identity, says, he took his friends and acquaintances by surprise as he rapidly changed himself outwardly to make a statement. In his final two films as an actor – Memories In March and Chitrangada – he went further to claim his right to be who he was.

It is in the light of the striking down of Section 377 and the context of the complex politics of gender and sexual identity in this country that Bird Of Dusk acquires special relevance. Ghosh's life, at least the last ten years of it, became a living example of exemplary courage as he came out and became an LGBT icon.

Bird Of Dusk captures both the highs and lows of a remarkable life, blending a spirit of celebration with an undercurrent of profound melancholy. It does so with admirable lightness of touch and a sense of genuine respect for the man behind the creative force who dared to be what he wanted to be.

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