Rituparno Ghosh: Exploring the LGBT Community in India

Laura is out again this week, and while I miss them dearly, I now have the honor of addressing one of Queer History’s September Wish List articles. Today we’ll be discussing the life and work of Rituparno Ghosh, filmmaker, and actor of Kolkata, West Bengal, India. 

The majority of sources I looked at when writing this article referred to Ghosh with he/his/him pronouns, though he has been labeled as a trans woman and/or genderqueer. The book Ritpuarno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender, and Art uses hir/zie pronouns in certain chapters when talking about Ghosh and he/him/his in others. This article uses he/him/his but wants to address the complexity of Ghosh's gender identity.

Writing about queerness in cultures that aren’t westernized is a little difficult, as in some cultures discussion about heterosexual sex is taboo, not to mention homosexual sexual or non-cis gender identity. When I started researching this week’s article, I ran into a lot of empty spaces where information was supposed to be because India, in particular, has a history of reducing and/or denying the existence of its queer community.

There are several Hindu deities, however, who are recorded in religious texts as having either participated in homosexual acts, varied their gender, to have served as protectors of transgender individuals, or represented India’s third sex (the kliba). The deity Ardhanarishvara is said to be the genderless combination of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati and is split down the center in visual depictions. The story of Shikhandini, too, tells the tale of a hero who was born a woman but who was raised as a man and who eventually swapped their gender with another man’s, thereby becoming a man in body and spirit. There is also the deity Samba son of Krishna who stands as the patron of eunuchs, transgender folks, and homoeroticism.

It’s only recently that LGBT+ individuals have been brought into the public eye in India. Shabnam Mausi was the first trans woman (hijra) to be elected to a public office; she held said office from 1998 to 2003. Manvendra Singh Gohil is an Indian prince who came out and was subsequently disowned by his family – he has since toured around the world and opened The Lakshya Trust.

Even as the community has become more prevalent, though, LGBT+ rights remain a hot topic in India. Same sex physical relationships were deemed illegal under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code up until 2009. The legislation that legalized same-sex relationships was revoked, however, in 2013. It wasn’t until February of 2016 that the Indian Supreme Court decided to take the legalization of LGBT+ relationships back into consideration. 2008 saw the first Pride Parades in five different Indian cities, and Pride has continued since, though it does not occur nationwide.

That said, there aren’t many rights available to those who identify within the community. Child adoption by trans individuals is legal, as is the changing of one’s legal gender, but the rights to civil partnerships, marriage, or even to be in a sexual relationship with a person of the same gender remain unavailable to anyone in the community.

This is the environment that Rituparno Ghosh was born into. Ghosh was born in 1936 and spent his early years working in advertising. His film career can be divided into three parts: films about the Indian middle class, films with high ranking Bollywood actors, and finally films that focused on the queer community.

Ghosh worked not only as a director but also as an actor. Towards the end of the career he worked behind and in front of the camera simultaneously; he finished his career with the movie ‘Chitrangada.'

Ghosh is reported to have been at odds with his sexuality and gender identity for most of his life. This, some reports say, was because of the stifling environment of the Indian film industry. Ghosh “was cautious about sending out the wrong signals to actors,” according to Subhash Jha. It is said that he threw himself into his work only to spend the bulk of his personal life alone, thus “[seeking] to get himself a feminine physique to match his sexuality” alone.

It’s said that Ghosh often wore dresses and makeup, and it is heavily implied that he was transitioning before his death. It’s strange, then, that so many articles refer to him with male pronouns – this one included. When Ghosh died in 2013, it was clear that he was part of the queer community – ‘Chitrangada’ was unquestionably queer, and ‘Arekti Premer Golpo’ included Ghosh acting as a transgender director. The details of his life, however, remain hidden.

This lack of information is frustrating. Indian culture, as mentioned before, has taboos regarding the discussion about heterosexual sexual partnerships; talking about the lives of people in the LGBT+ community, especially given the levels of homophobia across the nation, seems almost unthinkable. It led me to wonder how to balance Ghosh’s article, while I was researching: should I focus on his other accomplishments, his many films, and awards, or should I focus on how alone he was in life and how the culture of homophobia isolated him not only from hateful people but his community?

Ghosh died of a heart attack brought upon by Type 2 diabetes. If he had lovers, they are not mentioned in the bulk of the articles I found while researching him. If he took a new name for himself, I did not find it. If he preferred to go by female pronouns, no one seems willing to discuss it.

Cultural differences are important to recognize, especially when undertaking a project that celebrates the queer community worldwide. However, I can’t help but feel a little cheated knowing that part of this person’s life is now lost. When we look back at Old History – Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, for example – we expect that some life details will have been lost to time. Even when looking at the lives of people in the early 20th century, such as Virginia Woolf or Josephine Baker, we know that some historians will have done their damnedest to present them as heterosexual.

It’s worth recognizing that this practice continues today and with individuals who helped form the modern community that is eye opening, and frankly emphasizes the need for a project like this one.

The need and want for privacy is understandable. It’s finding the line between privacy and erasure that may define queer history for the coming generation.

Sources:

Santa Banta News Network. “Rituparno Ghosh’s sexual
transformation”. Santa Banta. 28
April 2011. Web.

Jha, Subhash. “Filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh was adamant on
changing his sex, says Prosenjit Chatterjee”. News East West. 3 June 2013. Web.

Jha, Subhash. “Rituparno Ghosh, a man paranoid about his own
sexuality”. India Today. 31 May 2013.
Web.

Conner & Sparks. Shiva.
1998. p 305. Print.

Conner & Sparks. Ardhanarishvara.
1998. p 67. Print.

Shyamantha, Asokan. “India’s Supreme Court turns the clock
back with gay sex ban”. Reuters. 11
Dec 2013. Web.

Bedi, Rahul. “Homophobia persists in India despite court
reforms”. The Telegraph. 5 July 2011.
Web.

“Mumbai’s gay pride comes to fore”. DNA India. 17 Aug 2008. Web.