Bimal Chandra Roy was born on July 12, 1909 in Suapur village of East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. The fourth of seven brothers, Bimal Roy belonged to a family of aristocratic zamindars. The affluence of the family in those days placed leisure above hard work. Roy began his education at home till he went to Dacca, coming home to spend in holidays in the village. These were pleasant boat journeys across rivers, offering an original audiovisual landscape that found their reflection in many of his films.
Since he was a boy, 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. However, his father’s demise was followed by economic disruption, which made everyone look out for a means of living. By the end of 1930, all the seven brothers had migrated to Calcutta. A business in transport set the family back into better days while some of the brothers joined British firms. But Roy’s interest in photography on the one hand and cinema on the other would often take him on long walks towards the film studios at Tollygunje. His pursuit for a career in films finally landed him a job with New Theatres first as an apprentice and then as assistant cameraman. From assisting Nitin Bose as cameraman, Bimal Roy graduated to a full-fledged cameraman for P.C. Barua for the Hindi version of Devdas.
After more than three decades in films, Bimal Roy, a chain smoker, passed away in his Bandra bungalow in January 1966 of lung cancer. His banner, Bimal Roy Productions, was already teetering under a burden of heavy debts incurred during his illness and following the fire at Mohan Studios that left almost everything in cinders, limped for a while and then stopped. Do Dooni Char was completed and released after his death but flopped at the box office.
Manobina Roy, his wife, sacrificed what could have been a brilliant career in Black-and-White still photography to commit herself to her family. She also wrote a couple of books in Bengali and wrote in English for periodicals for a brief while. She was a solid pillar of support to Roy right through his ups and downs. After his demise, she tried her best to keep the children away from legal wrangling, and to keep the Bimal Roy banner flying, but it was ll in vain. The family is now split up and entangled in legal hassles, while money from his films keeps flowing in from the satellite channels that continue to telecast the films of Bimal Roy. His rented bungalow in Bandra has been converted into a multi-storeyed residential complex, destroying forever, the dream of his widow of turning it into an archival museum dedicated to Bimal Roy.
Remembering Bimal Roy is a 55-minute documentary film made by his only son, Joy Bimal Roy, collating his memories of a father he lost when he was only ten, talking to people in the industry who worked with this great filmmaker. A series of interviews cover his late wife Manobina Roy and daughter Aparajita, actors Dilip Kumar, Dharmendra, Vyjayantimala, Sulochana, Kamini Kaushal, Gulzar, whose career began with Bandini, and some filmmakers who succeeded him like Shyam Benegal, Ashutosh Gowarikar and lyricist-poet Javed Akhtar. “The river plays an important role in every film of his,” Aparajita pointed out. “He stood head over shoulders above all his contemporaries,” said Dilip Kumar who did three films with Roy, Devdas Madhumati and Yahudi. “How many times have you read Biraj Bahu?” Roy had asked Kamini Kaushal before shooting for Biraj Bahu began. “‘I read it twice,’ I told him. He wanted me to read it twenty times. I did. When shooting began, I was so completely in harmony with the period, the characters and the ambience that I didn’t even feel I was acting. I understood why he had asked me to read the original novel in translation 20 times,” reminisces Kamini Kaushal. Her performance in Biraj Bahu fetched her the Best Actress Award from Filmfare. Among them are Javed Akhtar and Ashutosh Gowarikar who admitted that his Lagaan was a tribute to Bimal Roy and his Do Bigha Zamin. Bimal Roy’s wife, the late Manobina Roy talked about the filmmaker as husband and father.
Bimal Roy’s first directorial assignment under the NT banner was a 1000-feet government-sponsored documentary on the Bengal famine of 1943. When he went on location to shoot the film, the masses turned their anger towards him, not allowing him to shoot. But he managed to win them over and got some good footage. B.N. Sircar chose Udayer Pathey for Roy’s debut feature film. The film was a big commercial hit and the story came out in book form afterwards. It ran continuously for one full year at Calcutta’s Chitra Cinema. The story later turned into a play and the dialogue was transferred onto eight discs that sold very well, creating a new way of marketing dialogue. Udayer Pathey introduced a new era of post-WW2 romantic-realist melodrama that was to pioneer the integration of the Bengal School style with that of Vittorio De Sica.
From Udayer Pathey (1936) to Benazeer (1965), the Bimal Roy era in Indian cinema spans three decades of dedicated filmmaking. Bimal Roy is one of the first Indian directors noted for simplicity and understatement in the treatment of his films. Before wielding the megaphone, Bimal Roy was cinematographer for P.V. Rao’s Nalla Thangal (Tamil), Barua’s Devdas, (Bengali, Hindi and Tamil,) Manzil, Mukti and Bari Didi. He was a strong human being. He spoke very little, about himself, about his family and even about his films. He shunned superlatives and kept himself aloof from parties, avoided a garish lifestyle that is the wont of film personalities everywhere. Yet his name was omnipresent in every film delegation that went abroad. He was coerced into all sorts of associations and committees, even as he kept himself distanced from the political wrangling. He won awards –left, right and centre, but after some time, they did not seem to matter to him. Members of his technical crew and his acting cast won awards too, and during his time, were considered to be among the best in the industry.
Do Bigha Zamin was the turning point for Bimal Roy as filmmaker par excellence. The film continues to remain the most significant film that bears the distinct stamp of the Italian neo-realism school from Bimal Roy’s films. Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land) was released in 1953. It is a realist drama based on a story by Salil Choudhury who loosely adapted this from a Tagore long poem of the same name. The story is about a small landowner Sambhu (Balraj Sahni) which opens with a song celebrating the rains that put an end to two seasons of draught. The song goes – hariyala saawan dhol bajata aaya. Sambhu and his son Kanhaiya have to go and work in Calcutta to repay their debt to the merciless local zamindar (Sapru) in order to retain their land. In Calcutta, Sambhu becomes a rickshaw-puller, facing numerous hardships that lead to his near-fatal accident, the molestation of his wife and the loss of his land to speculators who build a factory on it.
The film’s neo-realist reputation is almost solely based on Balraj Sahni’s extra-ordinary 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 claims that such a cut from day to night was unprecedented in Indian cinema. Sahni however, is reported to have given a similar performance along neo-realist lines in K.A. Abbas’s first film Dharti Ke Lal (1946).
The women in Bimal Roy‘s films had an identity of their own. Their stature was unimpeachable. They were emotionally ‘independent’. They were not mere foils to the men or to the other characters in the film. They created a niche for themselves. Do Bigha Zamin (1953) portrays Nirupa Roy as a peasant wife. She is left behind to cope with her small family of a small son and a sick father-in-law when her husband leaves for the city. She is realistic and credible in her naivete and her earthiness. Kamini Kaushal’s performance in Biraj Bahu, with its low-key smiles, anger, hurt, humiliation and shock, come across beautifully. The scene where she looks into the mirror, is shocked to find all her beauty gone and says, “accha hi hua” is touching.
Devdas has two principal woman characters. Parvati, Devdas’s childhood sweetheart who he cannot marry and for whose love he meets with a tragic death, has two dimensions to her growth. As a teenager, she is her childish, innocent self, a sweet girl prancing about in the woods with the boy she falls in love with. When she gets married to a much older man, a zamindar who has grownup children from a previous marriage, Parvati has compromised with her new responsibility as wife-and-mother within a new family. Devdas is part of a sweet memory, which she begins to relive with shock, as she discovers the ruined figure of a dying Devdas on her doorstep in the climax. Chandramukhi, the singing girl, falls in love with Devdas and is so influenced by his aloofness and his attitude towards her that she gives up her profession for good, aware that her love will never be reciprocated. She slowly and surely metamorphoses from a woman of easy virtue to a woman of quiet dignity, presented with more richness than it was in the novel.
Vyjayantimala in and as Madhumati, dances away against the backdrop of the hilly landscape, her ethereal beauty immortalized in Black-and-White, her performance first, as the love-struck hilly maiden, and then, as the ghost who comes back to invite her lover to a union beyond death, matches the delicate nuances of Dilip Kumar as her city-bred lover. In her double role as the city girl who is asked to play Madhumati’s ghost, Vyjayantimala changes her body language, her style of emoting and delivering her lines, and above all, her interaction with the hero who is just an acquaintance asking her to help. Through Sujata, Bimal Roy gives the women a voice they can call their own, not only through the soft characterization of Sujata herself, who is almost like a painting done in water colours, subdued, feminine and diffident, yet grateful to her adoptive parents without knowing the truth of her status, but also through the other female characters in the film. Rama for instance, is diametrically opposite of Sujata. Their upbringing is clearly filled by markers that show the difference.
Bandini tells the story of a woman prisoner charged with murder narrated in a manner that presents Kalyani within the cinematographic space either directly or within the sound ambience of the film, also used at times as a strategy to move back into her past. Bimal Roy used imagery and sound beautifully to convey the changing and sometimes volatile moods of Nutan. As she is seated in the corner of her gray, grim cell facing the prison’s high wall, she can hear the hoofs of the horse pulling the carriage taking away her lover, or that masterful scene in which Nutan murders her lover’s wife with the hammering of a welder in the background heightening the drama!
Bimal Roy’s leanings towards the poor and the downtrodden came from his basic humanism rather than from Leftist leanings. His political ideology is reflected in the way Udayer Pathey’s hero Anoop’s room was decorated, his walls filled with portraits of national leaders and great thinkers as different as Karl Marx and Tagore. A few Tagore songs in the film were big hits. There was a fiery zeal in his earlier films, which was replaced with a mellow social concern in his later films. One of his most notable qualities was the restraint he practiced in keeping away from any kind of political propaganda or pamphleteering in any of his films.
Bimal Roy was an institution unto himself. He was one of the last iconoclasts Indian cinema has produced. His films define a unique world-view of a silent, peaceful spirit in cinema. In terms of literature, in terms of characterization, in terms of capturing and freezing for posterity the ethnicity of Bengal, his films have a universal quality. Every single film directed by Roy himself, had a social message interwoven into the script, or, the storyline was chosen on the basis of its social relevance. It was also chosen for the significance of the narrative. We find him falling back on literary classics. From Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay through Subodh Ghosh and Rabindranath Tagore, Roy’s films stand testimony to a celluloid transliteration of some of the immortal classics of Indian literature. This writer chooses to label them ‘transliterations’ because Roy remained fiercely faithful to the original literary source. He did not believe in celluloid ‘interpretations’ of literary works. His films were low-key, subtle and intense.
“Bimal-da’s work is poetry in motion,” says music director Tushar Bhatia, classifying the music in Bimal Roy’s films into four categories – (a) as a cinematographer in New Theatres Studio, Calcutta, (b) as director in New Theatres Studio, Calcutta, (c) as an independent producer-director in Mumbai with Bimal Roy Productions and (d) as freelance director with production banners other than his own. “Bimal-da’s aesthetic sensibilities were shaped and honed in New Theatres which spilled over to the films he made in Mumbai,” says Bhatia, throwing light on background sound effects and the positioning and choreography of song situations in his early films. P.C.Barua’s Mukti was cinematographed by Bimal Roy in 1937. The film was path breaking in becoming the first ever film in history to use Tagore songs in cinema. A song from the film, “diner sheshe, ghoomer deshe” sung by Pankaj Mullick was the first Tagore song with the music composed by Mullick after obtaining clearance from Tagore himself. “The effects could be seen all over again in Salil Choudhury’s music for Bimal Roy’s Madhumati,” informs Bhatia.
They are remembered for the low-key performances of the key actors, lilting music and scintillating cinematography in Black-and- White, not to talk of the seamless editing by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who later established himself as a director in his own right. Bimal Roy won two Filmfare hat-tricks as best director (in two spells of 3 consecutive years each), and one best picture award (a total of 8 Filmfare awards). When Bimal Roy went on stage to accept his Filmfare trophies for Do Bigha Zameen in dhoti, kurta and chappals, Bombay’s upscale film coterie raised a hue and cry. He was only underlining his signature: simplicity and minimalism. Do Bigha Zameen won a special mention at the Cannes and Karlovy Vary film festivals (1955-56). At least 12 of his films – Udayer Pathey, Humrahi, Do Bigha Zamin, Biraj Bahu, Parineeta, Devdas, Madhumati, Usne Kaha Tha, Kabuliwalla, Sujata, Parakh and Bandini represent one of the most brilliant epochs of Indian cinema. No account of the evolution of Indian cinema can be complete without an assessment of these films. They represent the pilgrimage of a true and dedicated artist. In them can be seen the maturing from poetry to philosophy, from emotion to music.
Cannes Film Festival
1960: Nominated, Golden Palm for Sujata (1959)
1955: Nominated, Golden Palm for Biraj Bahu (1954)
1954: Won, International Prize for Do Bigha Zamin (1953); Nominated, Grand Prize of the Festival for Do Bigha Zamin (1953)
1964: Won, Filmfare Award Best Director for Bandini (1963);
1961: Won, Filmfare Award; Best Director for The Examination (1960)
1960: Won, Filmfare Award; Best Director for Sujata (1959)
1959: Won, Filmfare Award; Best Director for Madhumati (1958)
1956: Won, Filmfare Award; Best Director for Biraj Bahu (1954)
1955: Won, Filmfare Award; Best Director for The Fiancee (1953)
1954: Won, Filmfare Award; Best Director for Do Bigha Zamin (1953)
National Film Awards, India
1954: Won, Certificate of Merit for Do Bigha Zamin (1953)
Filmography of Bimal Roy
- Chaitali – In Fond Memory Of (a great film maker) 1975
- Do Dooni Char – Producer 1968
- Gautama the Buddha (documentary) – Director 1967
- Anupama – Film Dedicated To (as Bimal Da) 1966
- Benazir – Director, Producer 1964
- Life and Message of Swami Vivekananda (documentary) – Director 1964
- Bandini – Director, Producer 1963
- Meri Surat Teri Ankhen – Editor 1963
- Nartakee – Editor 1963
- Love Letter – Director, Producer 1962
- Kabuliwala – Producer 1961
- Immortal Stupa (documentary) – Director 1961
- The Examination – Director, Producer 1960
- Inheritance – Editor 1960
- Usne Kaha Tha – Producer 1960
- Sujata – Director, Producer 1959
- Madhumati – Director, Producer 1958
- Yahudi – Director 1958
- Apradhi Kaun? – Producer 1957
- Parivar – Producer 1956
- Amaanat – Producer 1955
- Devdas – Director, Producer 1955
- Baap Beti – Director 1954
- Biraj Bahu – Director, Writer (scenario) 1954
- Naukari – Director, Producer 1954
- Do Bigha Zamin – Director, Producer 1953
- The Fiancee – Director, Writer (scenario) 1953
- Mother – Director 1952
- Deedar – Editor 1951
- Pehla Aadmi – Director 1950
- Tathapi – Writer (writer) 1950
- The Mansion – Editor 1949
- Mantramugdhu – Director 1949
- Anjangarh – Director 1948
- Anjangarh – Director 1948
- Hamrahi – Director, Cinematographer, Writer (screenplay) 1944
- Towards the Light – Director, Cinematographer, Writer (screenplay) 1944
- Bengal Famine (documentary) – Director 1943
- Meenakshi – Cinematographer 1942
- Tins for India (documentary short) – Director, Cinematographer 1941
- Abhinetri – Cinematographer 1940
- Haar Jeet – Cinematographer 1940
- Badi Didi – Cinematographer 1939
- Bardidi – Cinematographer 1939
- Abhagin – Cinematographer 1938
- Abhigyan – Cinematographer 1938
- Mukti – Cinematographer 1937
- Mukti – Cinematographer 1937
- Devdas – Cinematographer 1936
- Grihadah – Cinematographer 1936
- Destination – Cinematographer 1936
- Maya – Cinematographer 1936
- Maya – Cinematographer 1936
- Daku Mansur – Cinematographer 1934
- Radio Girl – Director (as B. Roy) 1929
Article by: Shoma A. Chatterji