Bimal Roy: “A Pioneer of Realistic Social Cinema in India”
The history of Indian cinema is over a hundred years old. From the release of ‘Shree Pundalik’, the first Indian feature film in 1912 to now, in 2021, Indian film industry has produced many great artists that have represented India on the global platform. Bimal Roy was one of the first Indian directors who took Indian cinema to the global stage and gained a critical appreciation for his work. Films of Bimal Roy were appreciated by critics worldwide and were also colossal box office hits of their time.
Bimal Roy was born on 12 July 1909 in a Bengali Baidya zamindar family in Saupur, Dhaka, East Bengal (now in Bangladesh). Although Roy was born in a wealthy family, his life was not lavish and smooth because, after the demise of Roy’s father, his estate manager grabbed hold of all the property and the capital by fraud. After this incident, Roy, with his younger brothers and mother, moved to Kolkata.
During this phase of life, they had to bear a grave financial crisis. In those days of pre-independent India, the ‘New Theatres’ ’ of Kolkata was at its peak. Many of the great filmmakers, cameramen, cinematographers had started their careers working for this banner. Bimal Roy also began his film career with the New Theatres as a still photographer for PC Barua’s silent film “Ekoda.”
Later, Roy continued to work for the ‘New Theatres’ as a cameraman. In 1943, the British Government asked BN Sircar, founder of New Theaters, to document the Bengal Famine. BN Sircar called Bimal Roy to work as a cameraman for this project. In the early 30s, Bimal Roy aspired to become an actor. He even played a role in the film ‘Mahua’ released in 1934 by Hiren Bose.
But later, he joined New Theatres’s Camera and Cinematography department on the advice of Nitin Bose, a cameraman who had been called to shoot ‘Mahua’. Nitin Bose was impressed with Bimal Roy’s interests and skills in the field. Bimal Roy’s camera work in PC Barua’s film ‘Mukti’ (1937) is recognized as one of the most innovative opening film sequences ever shot in any Indian film. It shows a man opening a series of doors thereby justifying the title of the film.
Bharti Devi’s still photograph clicked by Bimal Roy for Nitin Bose
Bimal Roy’s first film as a director was a Bengali film, ‘Udayer Pathey,’ released in 1944.
This film gained instant success in Bengal. The film's plot dealt with the social stratification of Bengali society during World War II. This film includes three songs by Rabindranath Tagore, out of which the most significant one is ‘Jana Gana Mana’. This is the original song in Bengali, which later got translated into Hindi and became our national anthem.
In the year 1945, he remade ‘Udayer Pathey’ in Hindi with the title ‘Hamrahi,’ which became his first Hindi film. The social context in the films of Bimal Roy can be observed in his later filmography as well. Roy’s wife, Manobina Roy, says that the socio-cultural references in his films are a result of his upbringing in a zamindar family, where he saw the class differences and problems faced by poor landless peasants, very early in his childhood.
In the year 1950, after the independence of India, New Theatres wanted to make a film on ‘Netaji’ Subhash Chandra Bose, and they gave the director’s chair to none other than Bimal Roy. His film was appreciated and well received by the masses and the critics as well. Everybody was amazed to see such realistic battle scenes, which were shot in an indoor studio.
Following the Independence of India, we witnessed an economic depression that affected the cinema industry, alongside the other sectors. New Theatres of Kolkata faced financial losses. So Bimal Roy and his family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). Here, Devika Rani asked Roy to make a film called ‘Maa’ for the ‘Bombay Talkies’. This movie was released in 1952.
The year 1954 became a landmark year in Roy's life. He founded Bimal Roy Productions. ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ was the first film Roy directed for his own production house. Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy played the lead roles for this film. The film was based on a Bengali poem ‘Dui Bigha Jomi’ by Rabindranath Tagore, which borrowed its title from the story ‘Rickshawala’ by Salil Chowdhury. At that time, Bimal Roy was under the huge influence of Italian neo-realistic cinema, particularly of Vittori De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948). One could clearly observe the direct influence of the characters of ‘Bicycle Thieves’ in the characters of ‘Do Bigha Zameen’.
Themes like the father-son relationship and the influence of socio-economic situations on a person's moral values were common in both films. Roy Indianized the film by adding key elements such as ‘zamindari’ and the rural development programs that were introduced in post-independence India. Big capitalists exploit both land and labour, to serve their own interests. We can clearly see Roy’s tilt towards socialist ideas through this film. The film gained huge success and critical appreciation across the globe.
It grabbed many awards that year on different national and international platforms. It was the first Indian film to win the International Prize at Cannes Film Festival and the second Indian film to win Palme d’Or grand prize after ‘Neecha Nagar’. In addition to this, it also won two Filmfare Awards: Best Film and the Best Director. It also won a National Award for the Best Film.
‘Do Bigha Zameen’ is definitely Roy’s finest work and through this film, he introduced a whole new genre of Indian neo-realistic cinema. Later, his work became a trendsetter in the parallel cinema, inspiring directors such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, and Shyam Benegal. This film continues to be an inspiration to many filmmakers even now. Ashutosh Gowarikar has said that the rain sequence in his ‘Lagaan’ was heavily influenced by the opening rain sequence of ‘Do Bigha Zameen’.
Javed Akhtar has said that the Rickshaw pulling scene by Balraj Sahni, where Shambu is pulling his rickshaw and chasing another rickshaw, is, if not the best, then it must be in the top five best scenes in Hindi film history.
Shambu with his son, resting on the side of a road. This is after Shambu comes to Kolkata to seek a job and to clear the debt of the zamindar. He wants to take back his 2 acres of land. (Do Bigha Zameen, 1953)
Antonio with his son, resting on the side of the road, exhausted after trying to find his stolen bicycle in the city. (Bicycle Thieves, 1948)
Next year in 1954, Roy again won the Filmfare award for the best director and a National Award for the best feature film for his film ‘Biraj Bahu.’ Kamini Kaushal won the Filmfare award for the best actress for her role as Biraj Chakravorty in the film. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay. When Roy was in New Theatres, he saw PC Barua’s ‘Devdas,’ and at that time, he got inspired to make a film on the novel ‘Devdas’ by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay.
His dream came true in 1955 when he made his own ‘Devdas’ starring Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, and Suchitra Sen, who made her debut with this film. The film experimented with lighting and cinematography under the supervision of cinematographer Kamal Bose, who enhanced the intensity and the depth of the misery the main protagonist faces. The film was narrated by Bimal Roy himself and the music was given by SD Burman. The lyrics of the songs were penned by Sahir Ludhianvi and the music of the film was inspired by the ‘Baul tradition’.
The Bauls constitute a heterogeneous group of people, mostly Vaishnava, Sahajiyas, and Sufi Muslims. The music of the film also includes ‘Thumri’ songs which are basically songs connected with dance and folk culture. The film won many awards such as the National Award for the third-best film of the year, the Filmfare award for the best actor (Dilip Kumar), the supporting actor (Motilal), and the supporting actress (Vjayanthimala). Forbes included Dilip Kumar’s performance in the film in its list called “25 Greatest Acting performances of Indian Cinema”.
After Devdas, Bimal Roy was at the peak of his career, but his biggest blockbuster was yet to come. It was 'Madhumati’ which was released in 1958. The film was the highest-grossing film in that year and it broke all the records of its time by receiving nine Filmfare awards. What makes ‘Madhumati’ so special is its story and screenplay by Ritwik Ghatak, its music by Salil Chowdhury, and its direction done by Bimal Roy himself.
Ritwik Ghatak did not pen down just a normal romantic screenplay for this film, but he included elements of gothic fiction, reincarnation, tribal culture, and zamindari. The film beautifully depicts the tribes of Himalaya and their culture, and how deforestation led to a conflict between the zamindars and the local tribes. All these things are shown in such a way that it keeps you engaged till the end of the film.
Ritwik Ghatak admired Bimal Roy and, in his compilation of essays titled ‘Movies, Men and Other Things’, he wrote that he learned many cinematic techniques from Bimal-Da. Technically, the film also did some new things such as depicting artificial fog by using gas bombs. Most of the shooting was done on real locations near Nainital, which caused an over-budget issue. Later, Roy decided to forego the 70,000 rupees of his director’s fee to make up for the loss. Another remarkable thing about this film is its music by Salil Chowdhury. He used Assamese folk music to compose the songs of this film.
The Artificial fog used in Madhumati,(1958)
After ‘Madhumati,’ Bimal Roy became the most successful director of his time. His journey of success continued even beyond that, In 1959 with ‘Sujata’ and in 1960 with ‘Parak’. He won the Filmfare award for the Best Director for three consecutive years. After ‘Madhumati’, with these two films, Roy re-entered into his social-realistic genre of films. Through ‘Sujata,’ he explored caste discrimination in India. In the film, a Brahmin couple, Upen and Charu, bring up the orphaned Sujata. Although Upen is fond of the adopted child, his wife Charu never embraced her as a child because she is an untouchable.
The film got many awards, including the National Award for the third-best film and the Filmfare award (for?). Nutan also won the Filmfare award for the best actress for her role as Sujata. This film has one of the sweetest lullabies ever made, ‘Hawa Dheere Ana’ which was composed by SD Burman and sung by Geeta Dutt. ‘Parakh,’ on the other hand, also deserves a special mention for its direction done by Bimal Roy and its story written by the musical genius Salil Chowdhury and the lyricist Shailendra.
In 'Bandini', Roy cast Nutan, Ashok Kumar, and Dharmendra in leading roles. To direct a woman-centric film in the 60s that endorsed feminist ideas, clearly shows how progressive Roy was at that time. Nutan, in this film, gave one of the finest performances of her entire film career. In one of her interviews, she recalled that Bimal Roy was a master of all traits, and the way he handled women-centric issues with such meticulous care, was unparalleled in his time. ‘Bandini’ also was the first film of Gulzar as a lyricist. He wrote only one song called ‘Mora Gora Ang Laile’ for the film and the song achieved a cult status among the Indian audience.
He was also included as an assistant director for the film. Gulzar said that "Bimalda gave me confidence that I can write a song, and he was like a father figure for me." The soundtrack work was done by SD Burman and it is still recognised as one of the best works done in Indian cinema. The film won six Filmfare awards: Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best story. It also won the National Award for Best Feature Film of that year. On 8 January 1966, Bimal Roy left this world at the age of 56. His achievements and contribution to Indian Cinema will always be remembered.
Bimal Roy has been acknowledged and praised by many artists for being a guardian or a mentor in their life. This list includes Ritwik Ghatak, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Kamal Bose, Asit Sen, Nabendu Ghosh, Salil Chowdhury, Tapan Sinha, and many more. He was one of the first Indian filmmakers who gained a critical appreciation not only in India but globally as well. His socialist-leaning films were quite popular in the socialist states like USSR and China. He was a member of the first Indian film delegation to the former USSR.
He earned a number of awards in his film career: 11 Filmfare awards, 6 National Film Awards, and the International Film Award of Cannes. His most significant contribution has been in shaping and guiding the Indian film industry in its initial days. Shyam Benegal said that during his time, there were only three big names in the Bombay film industry Mehboob Khan, V Shantaram, and Bimal Roy.
Apart from being a great filmmaker and cameraman he was a great human being who was rational, had great ideas, and wanted to convey those ideas to the masses through his films. Most of the artists, like Dilip Kumar, Tapan Sinha, Nutan, and Dharmendra, who worked with Bimal, said that he was a quiet person and did not talk very much. Whatever he felt the need to say, he said it through his films. A personality like Bimal Roy never dies. They continue to exist forever in the ideas and the meaningful cinema that they made.
Author Biographical Note: The author is pursuing graduation in Physics (Hons) from Ramjas College, University of Delhi, India. He is working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern.
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