Bimal Roy – the Doyen of Indian Cinema
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Bimal Roy – the Doyen of Indian Cinema

Roy started his career as an assistant cameraman at the famous New Theatres, Calcutta

Bimal Roy – the Doyen of Indian Cinema

It is a proud privilege to remember one of the most outstanding Indian film directors, the man who spoke in pictures, Bimal Roy, on his 112th birth anniversary. Shyam Benegal once said, "Bimal Roy was making human beings seem like human beings,". He also spoke about how the protagonists in Roy's films are not depicted as heroes. Roy's films deviated from the trend of making characters look "larger than life or reduce them".

Roy started his career as an assistant cameraman at the famous New Theatres, Calcutta. His fine sense of composition and lighting won him several accolades. His first Hindi movie, 'Do Bigha Zamin' in 1952-53, which portrayed the agony of the displaced peasantry, had a strong universal impact for its humane portrayal. In brilliant cinematic language, the film told the simple and heartbreaking story of a farmer struggling to save his land from a greedy landlord. Considered as a landmark film and one of the 10 best Indian films of all time, the film had the rare distinction of being one of the first Indian films to win awards/laurels in so many countries: China, UK, Karlovy Vary, Cannes, USSR, Venice, and Melbourne. He was the only director to have the distinction of receiving 11 Filmfare awards for Best Direction or Best Film, starting with Do Bigha Zamin in 1953.

His other films: Parineeta, Biraj Bahu, Madhmati, Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, etc were unparalleled in exploring sensitivities of the human relationship with its complex nuances. Bimal Roy immortalized the legendary novelist Sarat Chandra by basing several of his films on the latter's classics like 'Parineeta', 'Devdas',  'Sujata, etc'  which found powerful expression in his films. Based on the theme of reincarnation, his ethereally beautiful film 'Madhumati' had humming and mesmerising music. His films highlighted progressive thinking, challenged brutal exploitation and showed the innate strength of women. Bimal Roy had a unique sense of unforgettable music, realistic and sensitive portrayal of social conflicts, storytelling technique and presenting lifelike characters.

He brilliantly maintained the inherent poignancy of the story of 'Devdas' whose realistic portrayal was greatly touching and heartrending. His depiction of Devdas's progressively sliding health condition – when he was on a suicidal path by consuming more and more liquor – by showing the driver of a rail engine throwing coal into the furnace which had the effect of further igniting or stoking the fire was superb. Dilip Kumar’s dialogue in Devdas, "Kaun kambhakhat jeene ke liye peeta hai......" became a part of India's folklore.

Bimal Roy had a tremendous sense of music. His unmatched portrayal of situations had a deep impact on the human psyche which left an indelible impression. He used the voice of Asha Bhosle befittingly in the film Bandini. Asha has a terrific voice and has no parallel in rendering 'sad and sombre songs'.  The heroine (actress Nutan) sings the song ‘Ab ke baras bhejo bhaia ko babul’. I must say that the song had a terrific impact on me and it still haunts me whenever in my contemplative moments, I happen to reminisce and visualize the scene; my eyes even today get moist.

A 'silent master' and a trendsetter, Bimal Roy, ushered in the golden age of Indian Cinema in the early 50s. A socially committed director, his films had the power to inspire and move audiences. If 'Do Bigha Zameen' was an eloquent portrait of displaced peasants, "Sujata' (which depicted an orphan and untouchable girl) took up the ever-burning issue of caste struggle. The women in his films played powerful and defining roles. His purposeful films had a great message for society.

The maestro Bimal Roy became a name synonymous with great cinema craft in India and abroad. Marked with gentle humanism and progressiveness, Bimal Roy's films had a tremendous impact on the new wave and parallel cinema during the 50s and 60s. His unparalleled films which were awe-inspiring and won not only the critics' acclaim but also the admiration of the masses became the harbinger of so-called parallel cinema in India. He was, in a sense, a complete school of filmmaking and gave Indian Cinema many distinguished filmmakers, writers, lyricists and music composers, such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Salil Chaudhary, Basu Bhattacharya and more. He is credited with introducing the genius composer Salil Chowdhury to Hindi Cinema with Do Bigha Zamin and utilized his skills in several other films. His worthy disciple and successor, Hrihikesh Mukherjee continued his legacy in the true spirit. Very few people know that 'Do Bigha' was based on a story 'Rikshawala' written by Bimal Roy himself back in the 40s. Film 'Parakh' was also based on his story. He was a versatile writer.

Bimal Da, as he was popularly called, was a quiet, humble and unassuming person. An unsung hero, he never bragged or showed off his achievements. He cared little for the box office and always followed his instinct. A man of few words, his persona was always a picture of humility and modesty. Without making any noise, he kept working as a karma yogi on his creative projects one after the other and gave films to society that were pure and healthy entertainment – watchable by the entire family. Such people are born once in a century. Roy traced the evolution of his visual aesthetic, depiction of social issues. Roy was a filmmaker who brought realism to Hindi cinema. 'Making human beings seem like human beings'

One can cite Bimal Roy as being instrumental in bridging the gulf between new cinema and that of the post-independence era. The most significant thing he did for Indian cinema, was to keep it Indian.

Our images and memories of Calcutta and Bengal today would be incomplete without the work of Bimal Roy, a cameraman-turned-director, whose films have shaped and contributed to a very valuable part of Indian cinema. Roy's part in this history is comparable to the roles that Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray have played in portraying and communicating the life, times and culture of India.

Roy was soon working independently as a cameraman. Some of the films photographed by him include those of the legendary Pramathesh C Barua, such as Devdas in 1935 and Mukti in 1937. He also worked on some well-known documentary films; How Kerosene Tins Are Made and Grand Trunk Road are two examples.

Udayer Pathey, filmed in Bengali in 1944, was Roy's other film as a cameraman. Its critical success took the city by storm and prompted a remake in Hindi, titled Humrahi (1945). About the film, director Mrinal said, "What was striking was the remarkable way it was shot, the incredibly precise moment of the camera gave the image of a statue in the film, a very special distinction." Thus, Roy was already reaching out to people through the power and language of the images that he made.

The spirit of his films

The spirit and personality of Roy are key elements that come through in all the films that he has worked on.  In particular, Roy's camera was almost always at eye level, very down to earth and realistic. The human element was foremost in them.

Roy's family had lost all their ancestral zamindari or land in East Bengal and had then migrated to Calcutta. So he understood the feudal set-up and felt the pulse of the people all around him – both the displaced migrants in the cities, and the impoverished villagers left behind. Some of his best films are about these people, where his insights into their lives brings a never-seen-before realism into cinema.

He walked into the world with silent footsteps and unquestionably filled it with the efficacy of his images. Aware as he was of the technological implications of behind-the-lens work, he portrayed the true reaches of social, emotional and economic devastations, small and large through his command over his art.

In all his films, one can also sense that Roy stayed close to his roots. The rivers of Bengal, the Baul music, the closeness to nature, the landscapes — all find expression in his work. Most importantly, he chose the works of Sarat Chandra as the stories for many of his films. In 1950, Roy was invited to Bombay, where he was given a one-film contract by Bombay Talkies to direct Maa (1952), and his unique under-played yet moving style of film-making made it an instant success, prompting Roy to continue to stay in Bombay, instead of returning to Calcutta. By now, he had put together a team of technicians for this film, which included scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh, assistant directors Asit Sen and Nasir Hussein, editor Hrishikesh Mukherjee and music director Salil Chowdhury, and he continued to work with this team further.

The 1953 film Parineeta, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel, followed, and this was also one of Roy's masterpieces. Its success led to the establishment of Roy's own production unit, Bimal Roy Productions, now making him an independent filmmaker.

This was followed by the release of his much-acclaimed breakthrough film, Do Bhiga Zamin. It was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore's poem of the same name, and is based on the trails of a poor farmer and his experiences. Roy's daughter Aparajita Sinha says about the film, "Industrialisation was eating away at the livelihood of the rural farmer, a pain which he so sensitively portrays in the closing scene of Do Bigha Zameen. In the film, which won an award at Cannes, Shambu loses his land to industrialisation; commerce wins and the peasant loses. The whole theme of migration of labour and the sense of displacement felt by migrants on moving to the cities is depicted with feeling. Shambu and his family come back to the village, only to see a factory on their 'do bigha zameen'. The sense of loss is heart-rending. It was a landmark film and till date remains a touchstone in Indian cinema."

This film was inspired by the neo-realistic films of Italy, particularly Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves. It was released the year after the first International Film Festival held in India in 1952; this was one of the earliest events where the film world was exposed to European classics by Roberto Rosellini, Vittorio De Sica and Lucino Visconti. When released in India, the film ran at Bombay's Metro Theatre for only a month, despite the premiere being aired on radio and being compared by Sunil Dutt, who was then known as Balraj Dutt.

Depiction of women in Roy's films

Roy's next two releases were films starring Nutan, which were individual hits – Sujata and Bandini. An aspect pivotal to the success of the film, both critically and commercially, was in Roy choosing Nutan to play the role, where he recognised and was able to bring out the intense realism in her performance, which was critical to both roles.

Bandini deals with a woman prisoner who is pushed by life to murder, after which she is punished but receives deliverance too, and is considered by many to be Roy's finest and most complete work. For the film, Roy adapted Charuchandra Chakravarty's short story, dealing with the finer nuances of the feminine mind and feminism.

Sujata, which deals with social ostracism, won the President's Certificate of Merit in 1959, five Clare (Filmfare) Awards and an Indian entry to Cannes in 1960.

Both these films, while depicting the hardships of women, are also progressive and reformist in their message. The women in these films had reached crises in their lives, yet there is a very liberal approach to them and it is not a judgmental view. This is a particularly impressive presentation, as women in the country were facing several kinds of social prejudices.

Yet Roy's films gave the female protagonist a very powerful voice, even in her helpless situation. Roy became one of the first and few Indian  ilmmakers who created a separate niche and definitive identity for women in cinema, thus also empowering women outside films.

Shaping lives

Bimal Roy's last production before he died in 1966 was Benazir (1964) directed by S Khalil. The body of work that he has left behind is remembered most for its portrayal of everyday, non-sensational aspects of life. His films record the social, economic and moral trends in India of his day and age.

While speaking of Do Bigha Zamin, Satyajit Ray said, "It is a film that still reverberates in the minds of those who saw it – and it remains one of the landmarks of Indian cinema. He was thus undoubtedly a pioneer."

Roy's themes were simple. In the everyday ordinariness of Indian life, he saw the manifestation of his ideology. A distinct sympathy for social, economic and religious exploitation are themes that occur often in Roy's work.

To India's great misfortune, the film maestro Bimal Da, the doyen of Indian Cinema, succumbed to cancer on 8 January 1966 at the age of 56, leaving behind an unmatched and unequalled cinematic legacy that is India's proud National heritage. Much more was to come from his stable. The cruel and untimely death snatched away a brilliant filmmaker and director prematurely. In his death, India lost a brilliant filmmaker, director and a great human being.

Through his oeuvre of cinema, Roy laid the foundation of realism and complexity in mainstream, popular fare that had not been quite seen that way before him. His major career spanned only a decade, but it saw Roy leaving an indelible imprint on Indian cinema.