Maya Roy: The Forgotten Star of Silent Era
This year marks the 120th birth anniversary of the silent-era star Maya Roy (1901-1961). Those who are interested in the early years of Indian cinema would remember her husband, Charu Roy (1890-1971), or his colleagues like Franz Osten (1876-1956), who made classics like Light of Asia (1925), Achhut Kanya (1936), and Kangan (1939), and Himanshu Rai (1892-1940), who founded Bombay Talkies. But history has mostly ignored female names like Maya Roy, Patience Cooper, and Sita Devi, whose real name was Rainey Smith.
During this period, society saw female actors on the stage and film as morally questionable. This is why these actors were treated with disdain. Now, there were few notable exceptions in Bombay (Devika Rani, MM Subbulakshmi), Madras (M S Subbulakshmi), and Kolkata (Kanan Devi). But they were guided and promoted by influential sponsors, among other things.
It is thanks to the tireless efforts of Debiprosad Ghosh that even Bengali film aficionados, as well as those in other parts of the country, are aware of Maya Roy's pioneering role as an actor and as a perceptive writer on film and social issues during the 1930s, both in Bengali and English.
Ghosh, who turned 70 in August, has finally collected all of Maya Roy's published works into a tiny volume of about 50 pages, titled Jiboner Ek Pata o Ananya (A Page from Life and Others). A collection of articles in Bengali and one in English describing the working conditions of Bengali cinema professionals provide context for the reader.
Maya Roy was born in 1901, to Jagadish Chandra Sengupta and Nagendrabala Sengupta in Madras, India. Maya's first exposure to spoken and written English came in a convent school in Madras. In later years, when the family relocated to Calcutta, she was enrolled in Victoria Institute by her parents, where she graduated in 1920 with honors. Maya's marriage to Charu Roy, an acclaimed art director, actor, film-maker, and editor of a news newspaper, was customary among educated households at the time.
Maya's drive for formal education could not be quenched, even if she was constrained by her early marriage. Later, she enrolled in Bethune College, Calcutta's famous women's college in the city's culturally rich northern portion, to continue her education. The increasing demands of family life, however, hampered her scholastic development. Instead, Maya joined the crew of her husband's film project, as if by design.
She appeared in Charu Roy's 1928 film Shiraz as a supporting actress. She then appeared in the intriguingly titled The Loves of a Moghul Prince (1929) as a leading lady . Directed by Charu Roy, this film was produced by Eastern Film Company and starred the filmmaker and his wife. Despite the fact that silent cinema was still in its infancy at the time, these two films show what can be achieved when the medium is practiced by skilled and dedicated artists.
Even though Maya decided to give up acting after her second and third appearances, she couldn't bear the thought of being cut off from the exciting world of films, sets, costumes, and arc lights altogether.But, this time, she chose a role that was some distance away from the hurly-burly of active film participation—she took up the pen to express herself on varied film-related subjects.
Maya Roy also had two kids, on whom she lavished love and attention. In the end, it turned out that none of them would have a lengthy life. The older son perished away while still a youngster, but the younger boy died as an adult in front of his devastated parents. She was heartbroken by her sons' deaths, and as a result, she began to display signs of depression that would eventually lead to her mental collapse. Ranchi Central Nursing Home was the ultimate resting place for her before she died on January 16, 1961, at the age of 60.
Her life, which began with so much promise, came to an end in an unimaginable state of loneliness and sorrow.
Debiprosad Ghosh has created for his readers a life that is both victorious and tragic by scouring the dust-covered shelves of various old libraries in Kolkata in quest of essential information contained in disintegrating journals. Ghosh has earned the gratitude of future generations of film enthusiasts by rediscovering Maya Roy's writings, which she had left for posterity. It took Ghosh at least five years to find Maya Roy's writings, and he relied only on his meager personal earnings for that time period. However, by Ghosh's own admission, they brought him incredible happiness.
The National Library, the Chaitanya Library, the Reeta Ray Memorial Library, the Ritwik Memorial Library, and the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, all in Kolkata, were some of the institutions he visited in quest of publications at least 70 years old. With great care, Ghosh spent hours sifting through hundreds of vintage film magazines to get a clearer picture of Maya Roy's beliefs.
Maya Roy wrote for a variety of publications, including Chitralekha, Chitraponji, Bioscope, Dipali, Kheyali, Amode, and Insurance World, where she received praise in some cases but was criticized by men who were uncomfortable with women standing up for their rights as workers, citizens, or simply human beings.
Among the topics that Maya Roy addressed in her writings were the difficulties that actors, particularly women, face in the industry, the tension between fiction and reality in the film industry, and the necessity for artists to save a portion of their earnings for the future, i.e. for the times when no one will actively support them.
Despite the obvious pride expressed in these writings, there is a distinct sense of dread about the fate of performers and actresses when they get older or are taken from us by illness or accident.
Maya Roy was at pioneer in film journalism during a time when there was virtually no such thing as professional coverage of the film industry, according to Debiprosad Ghosh in the book's afterword. Writing on film production, exhibition, acting, audience expectations, and a number of related topics, she did it with a great deal of responsibility and with the expertise of someone who has worked in the industry for years.
Her writing lacked the smell of sensationalism or hearsay or bazaar gossip. At a period when women were not expected to think for themselves, let alone write about it, her short but insightful and outspoken works should be studied by film scholars and feminists.
When it comes to being a trail-blazer in any field, Maya Roy had the courage and conviction to make her readers understand the hostile social conditions in which film people worked day in and day out to entertain them with mythological and historical fantasies, and the everyday dramas of life and death.
In the end, one wonders what Charu Roy's twilight years were like for him as he battled the demons of memory. Charu Roy resided in a three-story house he had painstakingly built on Motilal Nehru Road in Kolkata's affluent southern suburbs for ten years following the loss of his beautiful wife.
Debiprosad Ghosh, who collected them like sacred relics, has preserved so many individual and social histories in just a few pages.