Bimal Roy: The genius who helped several talents to flourish

Each one of Bimal Roy's team of friends and collaborators from Calcutta was a great in his own right.

Sonal Pandya

Bimal Roy was already an established filmmaker in Kolkata with New Theatres before he came to Mumbai to begin the second stage of his career. Roy started out as a cameraman, working under the legendary PC Barua on films like Devdas (1935) and Mukti (1937) in Bengali cinema. He learnt the tools of the trade behind the camera which greatly helped in the latter half of career as producer and director. His first Bengali film, Udayer Pathey (1944), on the differences between the rich and the poor was an instant success.

In the early 1950s, Roy migrated to Mumbai along with fellows artistes Hrishkesh Mukherjee, Nabendu Ghosh, Asit Sen, Paul Mahendra and Kamal Bose. Roy’s daughter, Rinki, calls it his ‘second migration’. The first was when he had to leave his family’s house and land in Suapur, East Bengal, in 1930 for Calcutta after their estate became bankrupt on the passing of Bimalda's father.

Roy was invited to Mumbai to make his first film in Hindi for Bombay Talkies, Maa (1952), starring Leela Chitnis, Bharat Bhushan and Nazir Hussain. Detailing Bimalda's second migration, Rinki Roy said, “My father came to Bombay in 1951, after the Partition of Bengal, when it was split and became East Pakistan. The Bengali film which used to travel and be released in Dhaka and the film industry suffered. Half the market was gone. East Pakistan didn’t want films from India.” Though melodramatic, Maa was well received. The screenplay was written by Nabendu Ghosh.

Roy made two films in 1953, the neo-realistic Do Bigha Zamin and an adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's Parineeta. Do Bigha Zamin became a landmark in Hindi cinema. The film brought Roy international recognition as well, along with a prize at the Cannes film festival in 1954. It was also the winner of the first Filmfare awards for Best Film and Best Director.

For Parineeta, Roy reunited with friends from Kolkata to put together the most faithful adaptation of the novel on screen.Produced by a fellow émigré from Kolkata, Ashok Kumar, Parineeta starred Kumar as Shekhar Rai and Meena Kumari as Lalita. Roy worked on the film's screenplay with Asit Sen and Nabendu Ghosh, while Hrishikesh Mukherjee was his editor and Kamal Bose, his director of photography. Earlier, his friend Salil Chowdhury had provided the story for Do Bigha Zamin.

Interestingly, according to Rinki, Roy “always wanted to go back to Bengal. He was a very Bengali man, his ethos was Bengali. I can’t think of a more Bengali man, [even though] he was international. He was relatively uncomfortable here, but he realized that there is no point in going back."

The Bengali film industry was in a very bad state at that time. Everybody left behind there was ageing. "[Famed producer] Mr [BN] Sircar had almost packed up and then he [Roy] was responsible for all these people who came [with him to Mumbai], their families. Eventually he stayed back."

But the fact remains that Bimal Roy, one of Hindi cinema's greatest directors, never bothered to learn Hindi. "He would understand," says daughter Rinki, "but his bound scripts were always written in Bangla first. Nabendu Ghosh used to write them. [As well as] Paul Mahindra, who knew both Bangla and Hindi. He used to be the dialogue director, so when he had to give a dialogue to an artiste, he called Paul Mahindra.”

Besides penning the screenplays of Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963), Nabendu Ghosh was an author of nearly 40 novels and short stories which won several honours. He, too, eventually turned to direction with Trishagni (1988), starring Nana Patekar and Pallavi Joshi. The film won the National award for Best First Film of a Director. Ghosh had deliberately sought out Roy after watching his directorial debut, Udayer Pathey. Says Rinki, "He called my father his film guru. They were all very fond of one another."

His famous friends and colleagues were celebrated and award-winning filmmakers in their own rights, but when they all came together on Roy's films such as Devdas (1955), Sujata (1960) and Bandini (1963), they added extra prestige to a Bimal Roy production. Hrishikesh Mukherjee assisted Roy as a director and worked as an editor for many of his films before becoming a filmmaker with Musafir in 1957. The cinematographer Kamal Bose shot many of Roy classics in black and white and in colour. Bose won the Filmfare award for Best Cinematographer five times, a record in that category.

The famed composer, Salil Chowdhury, contributed to Roy's films like Madhumati (1958), for which he won the Filmfare award for Best Music Director, and Prem Patra (1962), both as a music composer and screenwriter. Salilda, as he was called, was both a poet and a playwright who wrote in Bengali and composed for many regional languages.

The adept Asit Sen was proficient as a cameraman, was an assistant to Roy, and also helped him with his screenplays. He turned director in 1956 and won the Filmfare award for Best Director for Safar (1971) starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. These close collaborators worked often on each other’s films and their insights and experiences went a long way in sharpening the final product we saw on screen.