Two’s too much: The duo and its discontents

By Anuja Dutta

Still from Dosar (The Companion, 2006)

The first thing that comes to mind about the look of a Rituparno Ghosh film is  the sombre colour palette which simultaneously creates a visual of excess. For someone interested in loneliness as an inevitable extension to urbanity, one would think of his chromatic choices to be both a creative reflection and remedy to that existential condition. It’s against this mix of dreary tones that Ghosh often cast his narrative mouthpiece of the ‘duo’, or the story of two. 

As an arthouse filmmaker fixated on projecting the bourgeois dream, desires and repressions of distinctly middle and upper middle-class origins, Ghosh’s cinematic world and visual aesthetics come with high doses of realism and don’t quite possess too much space for theatrics or extravaganza. The performance and/or ideology of domesticity is heavily punctuated by its discontents, disrupting the apparent harmonious equilibrium of inhabited spaces and sanctified institutions of marriage, family and the couple. Visible undercurrents of tension are often the steering mechanism for a narrative to fully unfold and find its meaning. And the accompanying visual journeys—if they at all have any room for the extraordinary— are crafted with the sensibility of artistic restraint, not abandon. The ability of Ghosh’s cinematic images to make us believe that indeed a commonplace yet intimately real world is being projected on-screen can hardly be contested. Personal spaces are increasingly exposed as sites of vulnerability and loneliness despite getting eventually restored to its homely, sheltered status. Keeping in tune with the title disclaimer, I’d restrict myself to reflecting on two of his works which are personal favourites.

Take, for instance, the monochromatic storytelling of Dosar (The Companion, 2006)the tale of an estranged suburban couple living a fairly comfortable, humdrum life until both their lives are shattered by a literal accident revealing a string of well-kept secrets. Kaberi, the wife, has to come to terms with her husband’s adultery while Kaushik—reeling from the traumatic after-effects of a car crash—simultaneously tries to mourn the death of his paramour (Mita, who died in the same accident) and win back his wife’s trust. The story pivots around the navigating of tensions before attempting a climactic resolution and, for this, the choice of a dated black and white cinematography works beautifully. Instead of harking back to a superficial cinematic nostalgia, the tonality throws into sharper relief the emotional extremities between the troubled duo, eliciting a stark realist present instead of an outgrown past. Most of the framing situates Kaushik and Kaberi at extreme close quarters, visibly etching out the discomfort of emotional and physical distance between them. There are multiple frames to choose from and dwell upon.

In one, Kaberi—with her back turned to the door in a darkened bedroom—gets visibly startled as Kaushik suddenly enters. He requests her company for a mere five minutes which she can’t turn down despite unease.

Throughout—as the scene unfolds—the camera remains focused on Kaberi with a half-prominent Kaushik almost turning into a silhouette as an open door looms in a lit background, symbolising an impending exit, or simply, a passage of transition.

In one of the final frames, the play of shadows disappears with both partners occupying equal visual space as their outreached arms interlock forming a bridge between difference, distance and distrust.

Finally we see Kaberi and Kaushik consenting to resign themselves unto each-other. Kaberi’s final utterance of a love poem—one dedicated to her husband by Mita—contributes a strange duplicity to Kaberi’s character. The nature of the reconciliation remains undeciphered; death and desire both manifesting through Ghosh’s signature return to the ‘double’, a reunion irrevocably haunted by an absent presence (or amalgamation) of the deceased. 

Still from Shob Choritro Kalponik (All Characters are Imaginary, 2009)

We see the metaphor of double resurface in Shob Choritro Kalponik (All Characters are Imaginary, 2009) too, with generous doses of the surreal. Radhika, a woman locked in an unrewarding marriage to Indranil, a poet, finds it difficult to cope with his sudden death; her constant efforts at mourning a loss she can’t yet comprehend is complicated by an unpleasant discovery: that Indranil was a prompt stealer of ideas and, as she later finds out, even lifted off her own poems sometimes. The magic realist treatment of fusing Indranil and Radhika’s ‘afterlife’ together—that of a moribund marriage coupled with both their desires to be seen and understood—are uncannily poignant.

Multiple frames capture this: a heartbroken Radhika attacks an empty chair where her husband used to sit, demanding explanations as to how he could brazenly pass off someone else’s originality as his own.

Another frames the couple in their balcony where Radhika mentions that they both could have attended a poetry workshop in New York as the shadow of an airplane whiz past their faces. The coupling of a muted colour palette with sudden dramatizations of tension of real or surreal proportions make Shob Choritro Kalponik a guarded slow burn watch.

Radhika, in her bright bridal red
Nandor Ma

The narrative continues long after it ends. For a story premised on grey areas of creative originality, fidelity and the translation of desire, both figurative and literal, Rituparno sticks to an ‘unpigmented’ or overtly white storytelling board, perhaps as a device to bring out even the milder chromatic contrasts more effectively. Radhika’s bridal red provides as much a visual jerk as Nondor Ma’s abstinence from colour that imparts a sense of stillness —both tints organically borrowed from their personalities, somehow. For all its unanimous hallmark of arthouse cinema being nearest to realism, both movies—despite being exercises in restraint—probably offered the most in terms of visual excess.

Anuja Dutta is a researcher interested in the colonial & post-colonial economies of supernatural fiction as a literary genre in Bangla. Currently, she finds herself in the doldrums of ghostwriting at a small advertising agency in Calcutta.

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