May 30, 2013

Goodbye Ritu. Heaven is the richer for you.

Well before he became a world-renowned filmmaker, Rituparno Ghosh was a genius in the advertising industry. He first made news in the mid-1980s. At Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), where I worked, we heard of this brilliant copywriter at Ram Ray’s Response. He was not just translating English-language ads to Bengali but actually creating original lines, thoughts and campaigns.

We approached him for the SharadShamman campaign, now institutionalised as Calcutta’s uberDurga Puja awards. True to form, he would come over during his lunch break, moonlight for O&M and leave us with a stunning piece of work. To date, the SharadShamman campaign remains one of the most successful ad initiatives in the Bengali language.

As an ad man, Rituparno had a remarkable eye for detail – textual as well as pictorial. The right pen for a particular prop, the correct lighting, the appropriate word: it was an obsession, almost a fetish. We didn’t know it then but he was preparing the ground for a feverishly rigorous career in cinema. Watching a Rituparno film is not easy; the casual viewer can miss out on just so many nuances.

It was apparent the Calcutta ad universe was too small for him and his energy. Like Satyajit Ray, his predecessor in so many ways, Rituparno left the craft of advertising to become a movie maker. To me he defined the word 'aesthete'. If I were to pick my three favourite Rituparno films, they would be Chokher Bali, Raincoat and The Last Lear. Fittingly, the first was made in Bengali, the second in Hindi and the third in English. This said something about Rituparno and the expansiveness of his art.

By the early 1990s, both of us had left advertising to pursue other passions. Of course, Rituparno left all of us far, far behind. He became an international celebrity, feted in Karlovy Vary one day, New York the next. Eight years ago, I moved house and found myself Rituparno’s neighbour. He lived in a lane just off Prince Anwar Shah Road, about 500 metres from where I was. The friendship was renewed and in fact grew deeper.

A brave, courageous man, willing to defy orthodoxy, Rituparno was comfortable with his personal choices and his sexuality. He grew particularly close to my wife and camaraderie blossomed. Many evenings were spent discussing movies, advertising, the Bengali milieu, the gay movement, the economics of culture. Every time, Rituparno was the life of the adda.

Rituparno came over for dinner on several occasions. He was always there for Christmas, and at least three or four times during the rest of the year. However, he didn’t actually stay for dinner. Rather than wait till 10.00 or 10.30 for dinner to be served, he would ask for it to be packed into a tiffin carrier and would leave early. He needed to take his diabetes shots and retire early. It became a routine – Rituparno and the tiffin carrier.

At 9.30 the following morning, almost like clockwork, the tiffin carrier would be returned, clean and spotless. As I write this, I can see the tiffin carrier in the kitchen. I don’t think we can use it again.

Goodbye my friend. Heaven is the richer for you.