Bimal Roy's leanings towards the poor and the downtrodden stemmed from his basic humanism rather than from any dogmatic leftism. On the celebrated filmmaker's 54th death anniversary, author and film critic Shoma A Chatterji assesses his work.
Bimal Roy, the making of a legend: Anniversary special
Kolkata - 08 Jan 2020 23:07 IST
Shoma A Chatterji
Bimal Chandra Roy was born on 12 July 1909 in Suapur village of East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. Fourth in a line of seven brothers, young Bimal grew up a member of the aristocracy, born as he was in a zamindar family. The affluence of the Roys in those days placed leisure above work.
Bimal Roy began his education at home until he went to Dacca, coming home to spend the holidays in his ancestral village. These were pleasant boat journeys across rivers, offering an audiovisual landscape that found its reflection in many of his films, as noted in F Rangoonwalla's book, Life and Work: Bimal Roy – A Critical Study, NFAI, 1991.
From his boyhood days, Bimal Roy was an avid photographer. He took up science as his stream after high school. A little-known fact about him is that Bimal Roy did female roles in plays like Misar Kumari. His father’s demise was followed by economic disruption, which made everyone look out for a means of livelihood.
By the end of 1930, all seven brothers had migrated to Calcutta, still the second city of the British empire. A business in transport put the family back into better days while some of the brothers joined British firms.
Roy’s interest in photography on the one hand and cinema on the other often took him on long walks to the film studios at Tollygunge. His pursuit of a career in cinema landed him a job with the renowned film company New Theatres, first as an apprentice and then as assistant cameraman. From assisting Nitin Bose as cameraman, Bimal Roy graduated to full-fledged cameraman for PC Barua for the Hindi version of Devdas (1936).
After a career spanning more than three decades in cinema, Bimal Roy died of lung cancer at his bungalow in Bandra, Bombay, on 8 January 1966. His banner, Bimal Roy Productions, already teetering under the burden of heavy debts incurred during his illness and following a fire at Mohan Studios that had left almost everything in cinders, limped along for a while, then stopped. Do Dooni Char (1966) was completed and released after his death but flopped at the box office.
From Udayer Pathey (1944) to Bandini (1963), the Bimal Roy era in Indian cinema spanned two decades of dedicated filmmaking. Before wielding the megaphone, Roy was cinematographer for PV Rao’s Nalla Thangal (1935, Tamil), Barua’s Devdas (1935-36, Bengali, Hindi and Tamil), Manzil (1936, Hindi), Mukti (1937, Bengali and Hindi) and Bari Didi (1939, Hindi).
He was a strong and silent human being; with him, speech was conspicuous by its absence. He spoke very little, about himself, about his family, or about his films. He shunned superlatives. Though he was part of the film industry, he mostly stayed away from parties, or a loud and garish lifestyle.
Yet his name was mandatory in every film delegation that went abroad in those days. He was almost coerced into all sorts of associations and committees, even as he kept away from the political wrangling that formed an inevitable part of all these. He won awards left, right and centre, but after some time, they did not seem to matter to him.
Members of Bimal Roy's technical crew and his acting cast also won awards and during his time were considered among the best in the industry.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, editor of most of Roy's films, won a string of awards for his work with the filmmaker. He later became an independent filmmaker in his own right. At least two others, Basu Bhattacharya and Gulzar, who began their careers assisting Roy, went on to become big names. Roy also gave directorial breaks to his favourite comedian Asit Sen and old friend Arabind Sen.
Vyjayanthimala, Dilip Kumar, Kamini Kaushal, Nutan and Meena Kumari are some of the artistes who bagged top awards for their work in his films. Salil Chowdhury, introduced to Hindi cinema as music director by Roy in Do Bigha Zamin (1953), became one of the top composers in the industry, treading a new path in film as well as non-film music with what is today known as fusion. For one immortal song in Do Bigha Zamin, Chowdhury even incorporated the theme of a Red Army marching tune.
From Udayer Pathey to Bandini (1963), there are innumerable instances of screen performances and technical achievements never known to have been attained earlier in Indian cinema. Though Roy's career began in the days when screen acting was directly influenced by the melodramatic exaggeration that marked theatrical performances, he was noted for his marked restraint. The filmmaker evolved a subtle, normal mode, contributing to the richness of the tapestry of the realistic themes of his films. His visual brilliance, apparent in his pre-directorial works like Chambe Di Kali (1941, Punjabi) and Nalla Thangal, was mature, confident and certain.
The filmmaker is said to have had an almost uncanny sixth sense about the positioning of the camera. Even when an independent cameraman worked for him, he would come to the set, look through the lens, and ask for the camera to be shifted at least nine or ten times. Kamal Bose and Dilip Dutta were his regular cinematographers. Nabendu Ghosh was his regular script and screenplay writer.
Lighting, an extremely important element in Roy's works, acquired greater vibrancy in Sujata (1959), Parakh (1960) and Bandini. Whenever the narration grew nostalgic or throbbed with inner crisis, whether in anguish or in ecstasy, the mood was captured in delicate chiaroscuro patterns of black, grey and dove white. His language was painted in every possible shade of grey, white and black. One never thought of colour even in a pastoral romance like Madhumati (1958) nor did one miss it. The camera was his brush and his unfailing grip over it made him manoeuvre it with gentle strokes, sweeping into his canvas the rich poetry and the powers of human beauty, the intensity and the variety of human emotions.
His narrative was unhurried, lingering, yet never tended to drag like slow-paced films usually do. The editing was marked by his characteristic spontaneity while his dialogues were mostly delivered in low-key and soft tones. Loudness, in other words, was conspicuous by its absence. Pran, who played the villain in Biraj Bahu (1954) and Madhumati, made more eloquent use of body language and facial expression than voice for both films.
Bimal Roy, perhaps, is the only filmmaker of the post-PC Barua-Debaki Bose era who towered over the Indian cinema scenario with such consistent command of the medium. His work is a fine blend of the sophistication of Barua, the emotional lyricism of Debaki Bose and the skilled craftsmanship of Nitin Bose.
Roy’s first directorial assignment under the New Theatres banner came in the form of a 1,000-foot government-sponsored documentary on the Bengal famine of 1943. When he went on location to shoot the film, the masses turned their anger on him, refusing to let him shoot. But he managed to win them over and got some good footage for the film.
New Theatres boss BN Sircar chose Udayer Pathey, an unpublished story by Jyotirmoy Roy, for Bimal Roy’s debut feature. The film went on to be a big hit and the story came out in book form afterwards. The film ran continuously for a whole year at Calcutta’s Chitra cinema. The story was also turned into a play and the entire dialogue transferred on to eight discs that sold very well, creating a new way of marketing movies.
Udayer Pathey introduced a new era of post-WWII romantic-realist melodrama that was to pioneer the integration of the Bengal School style with that of the Italian neo-realist Vittorio De Sica.
The late filmmaker Arabinda Mukherjee, at a lecture delivered at a seminar at the Nehru Auditorium, Calcutta, organized as part of a weeklong programme by the Bimal Roy Memorial Trust back in January 2002, said his entire career in cinema was triggered after he saw Roy’s Udayer Pathey.
“I assisted him on Anjangarh (1948)," the director said. "In those days, we were put through a hard grilling process. I was already employed as editing assistant. I had to train for three months in the laboratory, three months on editing, and three months in sound.
"I had to work under Bimal Roy. He asked me to rewrite scene number 176 from the script he was then making. I was told that he had asked many people to write out the same scene but remained dissatisfied. So, I approached playwright Bidhayak Bhattacharjee and he helped me out by suggesting the ‘drama’ element needed for the scene. I was on.”
Udayer Pathey soon had a Hindi version called Hamrahi (1945), re-shot on new sets with the same artistes. But Hamrahi was unable to repeat the success of the Bengali original.
Roy's leanings towards the poor and the downtrodden came from his basic humanism rather than from purely leftist leanings. His leftist leanings, if any, stemmed from conviction and not from active association because he never held any party card.
Some of Roy's political ideology is reflected in the way Udayer Pathey’s hero Anoop’s room was decorated. His walls were filled with portraits of national leaders and great thinkers as different as Karl Marx and Rabindranath Tagore. A few Tagore songs became big hits.
There was a fiery zeal in Roy's earlier films which was replaced with a mellow social concern in his later works. One of his most notable qualities was the total restraint he practised in keeping away from any kind of political propaganda or pamphleteering in his films.
His next film in Calcutta for New Theatres was Anjangarh in Bengali and Hindi based on Fossil, a short story by Subodh Ghosh. This was followed by Mantramugdh (1949) in Bengali, based on a noted piece of literature by the renowned writer Banphool, and Pahela Admi (1950) in Hindi, neither of which could live up to the expectations raised by Udayer Pathey.
Roy also wrote Manoj Bhattacharya’s Tathapi (1950). That same year, 1950, he was invited by Bombay Talkies to make Maa (1952), and so went to Bombay for six months. There he began to receive offers such as Parineeta (1953), based on a sweet love story by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and produced by Ashok Kumar with beautiful music that was to become a signature for every Bimal Roy film.
“I consider Parineeta to be the most beautiful and dignified celluloid metamorphosis of an original Saratchandra classic that has no parallel in cinema till this day,” said journalist Shankarlal Bhattacharya.
Once he firmly established himself in Bombay, Roy decided to found his own production banner under the name and style of Bimal Roy Productions, using as his emblem the Rajabai Tower of Bombay University.
Do Bigha Zamin was the turning point for Bimal Roy, marking him out as a filmmaker par excellence. The film continues to remain a significant work that bears the distinct stamp of Italian neo-realism.
Do Bigha Zamin or Two Bighas Of Land (bigha being a traditional, nonstandard measure of land used in India, which was generally considered to be equal to 0.25 to 0.4 of an acre) was released in 1953. It is a realistic drama based on a story by Salil Chowdhury who loosely adapted it from a Tagore long poem of the same name.
The story about small farmer Sambhu (Balraj Sahni) opens with a song celebrating the rains that have put an end to two seasons of drought. The song goes 'Hariyala Saawan Dhol Bajata Aaya'. Sambhu and his son Kanhaiya (Ratan Kumar) have to go and work in Calcutta to repay their debt to the merciless local zamindar (Sapru) in order to retain their little plot of land. In Calcutta, Sambhu becomes a rickshaw-puller, facing numerous hardships that even see him involved in a near-fatal accident, the death of his wife Parvati (Nirupa Roy) and the loss of his land to speculators who want to build a factory on it.
Though promoted as the Indian epitome of Italian neo-realism on celluloid, in retrospect, there is more of melodrama than neo-realism in the film. The script and the humanist acting styles, including a hard but kind landlady in the Calcutta slum and the happy-go-lucky shoeshine boy Lalu (Jagdeep) who takes Kanhaiya under his wing while humming Raj Kapoor’s super hit 'Awara Hoon' song, find their ancestry in Nitin Bose’s rural socials at New Theatres such as Desher Mati (1938), enhanced by overtones of the left-leaning Indian People's Theatre Association in Salil Chowdhury’s music.
The film’s neo-realist reputation is based almost solely on Balraj Sahni’s extraordinary performance in his best-known film role. Also remarkable is Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s editing, virtually eliminating dissolves in favour of unusually hard cuts from the falling wheel of the film’s famous rickshaw race sequence to Kanhaiya coming to the bedside of his injured father. Mukherjee claimed that such a cut from day to night was unprecedented in Indian cinema. Sahni, however, is said to have given a similar performance along neo-realist lines in KA Abbas’s first film Dharti Ke Lal (1946).
Bimal Roy held back the release of the completed Parineeta in favour of Do Bigha Zamin, which is said to have offended the film's producer and leading man Ashok Kumar. Roy then set up his own sound stage and an unpretentious office at Mohan Studios in Andheri (East), then a distant suburb of Bombay, and went on to direct Baap Beti (1954), Naukri (1954) and Biraj Bahu under his own banner.
The films that followed were Devdas (1955), Madhumati (1958), Sujata (1959), Parakh (1960), Prem Patra (1962) and Bandini (1963), when Ashok Kumar finally worked with him again.
Eight other films came out of Bimal Roy Productions of which six were features — Amanat (1955), which Arabind Sen was chosen to direct; Parivar (1956), a family comedy; Apradhi Kaun (1957), a thriller; Usne Kaha Tha (1960), based on a short story by Munshi Premchand; Kabuliwala (1961), based on Tagore's short story The Cabuliwallah; and Benazir (1964), starring Meena Kumari. The other two were documentaries — Gotama the Buddha and Swami Vivekanand, a biographical documentary that Roy produced for the Films Division of the information and broadcasting ministry of the government of India.
PC Barua’s Mukti (1937) was cinematographed by Bimal Roy. The film was a pathbreaker as it was the first to use Tagore's songs. A song from the film, 'Diner Sheshe, Ghoomer Deshe', sung by Pankaj Mullick, was the first Tagore song with music composed by Mullick after clearance from Gurudev himself. “The effects could be seen all over again in Salil Chowdhury’s music for Bimal Roy’s Madhumati,” music composer and archivist Tushar Bhatia said at a lecture-demonstration at the Nehru Auditorium seminar organized by the Bimal Roy Memorial Trust in January 2002.
Lyricist-filmmaker Gulzar, when asked how his encounter with Bimal Roy began, told me in an interview that same year, “During the making of Bandini, SD Burman, who was composing the music for the film, and Shailendra, who was writing the lyrics, had a tiff. There was this tune waiting to be written into. Debu Sen, assistant, took me to Bimal-da, who introduced me to SD.
"Since Urdu was my main language, SD had reservations about whether I would be able to infuse my song with the right Vaishnava spirit. I took up the gauntlet and my first song for Hindi cinema was born: 'Mora Gora Ang Lai Le', which became a big hit.
"Sadly, though, when the song was over, Shailendra and SD had patched up. I was left in the lurch. Bimal-da did not like this, but SD was adamant. During the making of this film, I met one of the closest friends in my life, SD's son RD, who would wander about the sets in shorts and sneak out for a fag now and then. Bimal-da, perhaps, felt a bit sorry for me and offered me assistantship for Kabuliwala."