Bimal Roy, The First Neo-Realist Auteur in Indian Cinema

It may seem strange to discover a Bengali film director whose style has been compared to Vittorio De Sica’s while popping into my friendly neighbourhood Bollywood VCD store on Lebuh Ampang. But that’s how Bimal Roy came into one Malaysian’s little life a few months ago. Having idli and dhal curry for breakfast at Lotus Restaurant came to be a culturally rewarding experience. But I’m giving away too much and prefer to selfishly guard my Hindi movie VCD supplier which has coughed up gems like…

Watching the stark simplicity of Bimal’s play with light and shadow, the flicker of nuanced expression on actress Nutan’s face, and the focus of the camera on the flight of life in the streets brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. But more than that, Bimal’s camera work gives visual expression to the classic flute and sitar compositions for the soundtrack for Ray’s Pather Panchali.

Bimal’s romantic idealism and social commentary sets his style far apart from the more commercial Hindi potboilers of the 50s and 60s. When the director succumbs to more mainstream plots like Madhumati (1958), a ghost story about reincarnation, and Yahudi (1958), they remain beautifully photographed. Both were runaway hits. (Madhumati was written by Bitwik Ghetak and the musical score composed by Salil Choudhry (which incidentally ranks as his best film score ever in Indian cinema history. Singer Lata Mangeshkar rates Choudhry’s Aaja re Pardesi among her ten favourite melodies.)

Bimal Roy was born into a family of landlords in East Bengal. He lost his father when he was a student in college in Dhaka and suffered the double misfortune of being cheated out of his ancestral property. Thus, early in his life he learnt to channel personal pain and tragedies into creative ends. He migrated to Calcutta and nursed his passion and talent for photography. Bimal’s remarkable knack for framing attracted him the notice of filmmaker PC Barua who hired him to do the publicity stills for Barua’s films. Impressed by Bimal, the senior filmmaker Barua encouraged him as an independent cinematographer. Bimal’s oeuvre during his time in Calcutta included New Theatres’ Mukti Maya, Devdas (1935 Hindi version) and Mukti (1937). His first full-length feature as a director was Udayer Pathey (1944) in Bengali, which was later remade a year later in Hindi as Humrahi.

His fascination with human relationships and the sociocultural issues faced by the layperson prompted him to make Parineeta (1953), about the oppression against women in a patriarchal society. The story is as much about silence and sacrifice, as it is about the freedom to choose in a narrowly defined social system.

Bimal migrated to Bombay after the collapse of the New Theatres and it was here that he made his first critically successful film, Do Bigha Zameen (1953). This story of an impoverished peasant pitched against a ruthless chettiar is not new. Bimal, inspired by the neo-realism of Italian cinema and in particular De Sica’s Bicycle Thief (1949), pitches the fate of the poor farmer against the wider context of urban alienation and rural poverty. The betrayal and iniquities suffered by Bimal’s lead character were inspired by his own childhood memories growing up in East Bengal. Do Bigha Zameen is considered India’s first neo-realistic film.

Although Do Bigha Zameen was only moderately successful in the box office, it won him awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. He next chose to do a remake of Barua’s Devdas, the New Theatre’s classic in the 30s. Bimal had photographed both the Hindi and Bengali versions for Barua, and knew very well the risks he was taking by being compared to the senior filmmaker. However, he felt that the Sarat Chandra text was unknown to the fresh generation of cinema goers as were the Barua versions.

It turned out that critics raved about his Devdas (1955), a story about doomed lovers, and its fresh filmic technique and acting methods. Devdas is again being remade by Sanjay Leela Bhasali who cast Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas, Aiswarya Rai as Paro and Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi.

By contrast Madumati (1958), his film about Reincarnation, was filmed in a completely different mood and style outdoors. It is the story of a tribal young girl who is driven to death by an estate owner and is now considered an Indian cinema classic.

His last film was made in 1963 and remains my favourite. The opening scene of this black and white movie of the bare walls of a women’s prison gushed by black evening shadows is beautiful in its melancholy. Bandini remains his most powerful story about a woman serving life in a prison in Tihar for murdering the wife of the man she loves. Bimal’s narrative is told by the leading character Kalyani, played with understated pathos by Nutan (one of Bimal’s favourite actresses) in a series of flashbacks that chart the evolution of a gentle human being to one driven to momentary but beautiful insanity by her circumstances. The scene in which she mixes poison into a cup of tea is memorable for the Hitchcockian hammering of an unseen welder in the background.

Bimal died in 1966 after being ill for a long time. Recently his son, Joy Bimal Roy put together footage taken by his father in 1960 into a documentary short film called Images of Kumbh Mela. This footage was thought lost until it was accidentally found by Joy and is evidence of Bimal’s genius as a cinematographer, visual story-teller and social commentator. His simplicity and lack of pretensions is how he is personally remembered. When he went up on stage to receive his first Filmfare award for Best Picture and Best Director in 1953 for Do Bigha Zameen, he upset the conservative film community by wearing only a simple dhoti, kurta and a pair of chappals.

JUNE MONG damaged her little brain by reading too much Heidegger and Derrida in her formative years as a grad student. She is nursing her grey cells slowly back to health by watching a lot of films without subtitles of actors from the Indian sub-continent cavorting around the pyramids in Giza or the chalets in the Swiss Alps. Very therapeutic.


First Published: 20.06.2002 on Kakiseni

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