Bimal Roy, the people's filmmaker: Tracing the evolution of his visual aesthetic, depiction of social issues
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.
The development of Roy’s visual aesthetic
Roy started his work in cinema as a camera assistant to Nitin Bose in the New Theatres in Calcutta. Before this, as a child, he had already developed a liking for drawing, painting, and playing the violin, and was skilled in the art of picture making. He had also spent some time experimenting with a box camera presented to him by his elder brother.
Bose, who could be termed Roy’s first tutor, talks about his sincerity and dedication of purpose, “There was something in Bimal, in his gentle manner, in his silence which inspired deep confidence. I was totally captivated by his attachment to work.
When we had no work, he would stand next to the camera, polishing the lens till it sparkled.
Dedication to work was one of Bimal’s greatest assets.”
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.
In 1943, BN Sircar was asked by the British Government to document the Bengal famine, and he chose Roy for the camera work. The team shot all around Calcutta, and were able to capture the “gruesomely real” and pathetic state of the people. Unfortunately, this documentary footage was never shown, nor is it traceable.
Udayer Pathey, filmed in Bengali in 1944, was Roy’s next 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 Tamil film Nalla Thangal won Bimal Roy his first award for excellence in camera work, following which he served as the cameraman in two more Bengali films, Anjangarh (1948) and Mantramugdha (1949).
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 insight into their lives brings a never-seen-before realism into cinema.
He walked into a 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.
Becoming a director
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 travails of a poor farmer and his experiences. Roy’s daughter Aparajita Sinha says about the film’s story, “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 compered by Sunil Dutt, who was then known as Balraj Dutt.
Fundamental to the formation of Roy’s filmmaking perception was his allegiance, and particularly, his passion for Soviet cinema.
He was a member of the first Indian film delegation to the former Soviet Union; the exposure to socially aware films on the international circuit etched itself into his experiences significantly. Roy recalled, “At the festival, the Best Picture Prize was won by the Russian film Man’s Destiny, based on the novel by Sholokhov. An interesting fact which the festival brought to the notice of all participating countries was the progress made by Mongolia and Korea in filmmaking. Another notable feature of the festival was the appreciation of Indian film music by the members of the jury as well as the audience. The music of Jalsaghar was unanimously voted the best.”
While it wasn't a success in the country, Do Bigha Zamin gained commercial recognition abroad, under the title Two Acres Of Land and also became a critical milestone for Roy. He bagged awards at Cannes and the Karlovy Vary Film Festivals abroad, while also winning the Best Film and Best Director awards at the inaugural Filmfare Awards in Bombay.
Encouraged by these successes, Roy began work on another film based on one of Sarat Chandra’s stories, Biraj Bahu, which was also a hit and then followed this up with Devdas, yet another of Sarat Chandra’s novels.
In 1955, Roy felt that he could interpret Devdas differently from the earlier PC Barua versions (Hindi and Bengali), both of which Roy himself had photographed two decades earlier. In fact, he dedicated this film to Barua and was confident that there was a new generation that had not read the book or seen the Barua film, who would come to see this story in a fresh new setting and style. While Roy successfully gave this tragic story a new perception, even handpicking the cast to include Dilip Kumar as Devdas, Suchitra Sen as Paro and Vyjayantimala as Chandramukhi, Devdas was still not a commercial victory.
Two successes followed, however: Madhumati written by Ritwik Ghatak and Yahudi in 1958. Madhumati, when seen in its entirety, had all the elements needed to be successful: a great script, Salil Chowdhury’s musical score, and the song ‘Aaja Re Pardesi,’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar.
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 filmmakers who created a separate niche and definitive identity for women in cinema, thus also empowering women outside films.
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 the everyday, non-sensational aspects of life. His films record the social, economic and moral trends in the India of his day and age.
One of the biggest legacies gifted to Indian cinema by Roy is the team that he nurtured: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Basu Bhattacharya, Salil Chaudhary, and many others. With Roy, and later on their own, these individuals made films and music on very Indian themes, chose stories that questioned social norms and problems faced by the post-independent society. Roy inspired and guided; in turn, they have also acknowledged that he shaped the lives of everyone he met.
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.
One can cite Roy as being instrumental in bridging the gulf between new cinema and that of the post-independence era. The most significant thing Roy did for Indian cinema, was to keep it Indian.
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