Udayer Pathe, Bimal Roy’s first film, revolutionized Indian cinema. Hailed as a pioneer by Satyajit Ray, he was perhaps the first to bring shades of grey to the black-and-white screen. Roy’s spare storytelling and nuanced understanding of the human condition are reflected in classics like Devdas, Sujata and Madhumari. His ability to illuminate ordinary characters, like Shambhu in Do Bigha Zamin and Kalyani in Bandini, is attested to by their being a part of popular memory even to this day.
The Man Who Spoke in Pictures is not just a eulogy to this great director, but also an insight into Roy, the man, the director and his art. The auteur’s little-known Bengal phase is chronicled by Mahasweta Devi and Amit Chaudhuri, as well as Tapan Sinha, Amit Bose and other greats of cinema who trace his journey from cinematographer to director. His Bombay years are recorded through a collection of analyses and anecdotes from leading literary and cinematic luminaries, including Nayantara Sahgal, Gulzar, Naseeruddin Shah and Khalid Mohamed. The final section examines Roy from the outsider’s perspective, with articles by Meghnad Desai, Rachel Dwyer and Paula H. Mayhew.
A must-have for any serious film buff, this centenary tribute is a fitting homage to the man who changed the way we saw films.
Rinki Roy Bhattacharya has cinema in her veins. Daughter of Bimal Roy, she married Basu Bhattacharya and collaborated on his films. She has had a distinguished career as a freelance journalist, writing extensively for well known publications of the Times group, the Telegraph, the Hindu and the Indian Express on films, theatre, art and feminist issues.
She has co-directed the documentary Char Diwari and the short film Janani, and has also edited the books Behind Closed Doors, on domestic violence, and Janani, an anthology of stories on the mother-daughter relationship.
The seed of this book, I strongly believe, lay dormant, maturing quietly. Nothing else explains the eagerness with which I collected anecdotes, material, memorabilia from my father’s colleagues, his stars and others who had known him. Had the book been written—not contemplated— the Bimal Roy volume would have preceded my other published works. But books do not follow the author’s orders always. Just as well. The book is in time for my father’s birth centenary.
Baba’s death in 1966 had overwhelmed me profoundly, and the grief numbed my senses. Ever since his death I had felt a strong compulsion to meet his colleagues, share memories of my father to recover from his absence. Being Bimal Roy’s daughter, this was not difficult at all. I met many of Bengal’s great stars—Kanan Devi, Asit Baran, Nitin Bose, Vasant Chaudhury, Bharati Devi and Tapan Sinha. Extracts of my conversations with some of these screen legends that survived in my diary have been included in the present collection.
Meeting Kanan Devi was a revelation, an experience I would like to savour with readers. Kanan Devi reflected on two important aspects about my father both are relevant to this book, She confirmed the fond affection my father’s contemporaries had for him. More importantly, she gave me a keyhole view into his exceptional gift as a still photographer, especially as a portraitist extraordinaire. Finer details about father’s still photography are absent from the book’s content. His grandson Aditya—a versatile photographer himself—was briefed to discuss Bimal Roy’s photography but preferred instead to write an intimate portrait of Bimal Roy as the best dadu.
Late one summer evening, at the appointed time I reached Kanan Devi’s spacious Regent Park residence in Tollygunje. She was busy, we were told, performing the evening prayers, sandhya arati. We waited in her sitting room; the auspicious conch shell sounded thrice in the background. It was a familiar sound from my childhood memories of twilight hours in Calcutta, Soon after this Kanan Devi came out of the puja room. She was dressed in a worn-out matka silk saree. Every inch the graceful hostess, Kanan Devi made us comfortable with her entry. She was in her seventies but the voice that had thrilled millions with her signature number ‘Too fan mail’, the song from the 1942 M.R Productions film Jawaab, had not lost its fluty cadence or sweetness. Kanan Devi, it seemed, could not get over the joy of meeting ‘amader Bimalbabur meye’ (our Bimalbabu’s daughter). The affection that she felt for my father was generously bestowed on me. Her presence held me in a nostalgic spell the entire evening as she related quaint anecdotes about Baba. Before I took leave of her, Kanan Devi eloquently praised my father’s photography saying, ‘Tomar baba amake jato sundar dekhiyechhen tar camera diye Mukti chhobi te, ta aar keu dekhate pare ni—ami kintu ato sundar noi’ (the way your father’s camera captured me in Mukti, no one else has matched that beauty—neither am I as beautiful).
Fondly recalling the time they worked together in New Theatres Studios, she added, ‘After the days shooting was over, all New Theatres heroines— Kamlesh Kumari, Chandrabati, Malina Devi, Bharati and even I—would queue up to be photographed by your father. We literally surrounded the shy man. When we teased him with our chatterdemanding to know “Amar chhobi kabe tulben? Amake sundari dekhaben to?” [When will you photograph me? Will you make me look pretty?]. Poor Bimalbabul He would turn red, almost the colour of sindoor. I still remember it so well.’
Recalling these nuggets from Kanan Devi, I realize that perhaps, unconsciously I was collecting anecdotes for a future biography.
Then work on this book began—a little tentatively—three years ago. By 2006, I was convinced a Bimal Roy volume had to be published. My conviction quickly gathered momentum as his birth centenary approached. A few publishers asked me to write a book on Bimal Roy. My intention was entirely different. A single-author book did not appeal to me. I imagined a book that would be representative of my father—of the man and his art. Above all, the text would have to essentially revisit the site of Bimal Roy’s cinema. I proceeded to shortlist writers from diverse disciplines—film practitioners, critics, academics and artists—with the intention of inviting them to contribute exclusive essays exploring multiple facets of Bimal Roy’s cinema from their distinctive points of view. This, I believed, would ensure a richly layered approach to the body of the film-maker’s work. It is important to point out here that no publication on the entire body of Bimal Roy’s work exists. To the best of my knowledge the following are the few publications available on Bimal Roy: a forthcoming monograph by Feroze Rangoonwala (for the National Film Archive of India, Pune), a Hindi anthology titled 0 Re Ma/hi by Professor Prahlad Agarwal, a recent Marathi edition by Sashikant Kinikar, the Devdas script and my own edited volume, Bimal Roy: A Man Of Silence. Considering the undisputed fact that Bimal Roy is acknowledged as a path-breaking pioneer, held in veneration, hailed as the first modern Indian film-maker, this disclosure came as an unpleasant surprise. With the publication of this book, I hoped to plug that regrettable gap.
My concern in this book has been to make it accessible to a wide readership. Contributing to the volume are several eminent academics, but there was a conscious attempt on my part not to make the content too academic in tone. My friends from the academic circle—Tutun Mukherjee, Clare Wilkinson, Paula Mayhew and Rachel Dwyer have been extremely accommodating and considerate to keep this request in mind. I believe that Bimal Roy and his cinema have survived the acid test of time, largely due to the enduring appeal of his films and the judicious selection of subjects. Their appeal cuts across class, gender and cultures and is not just limited to the intelligentsia. Director Jahnu Barua explains the phenomenon by observing that a ‘reading of Bimal Roy’s filmography informs us that every single subject he selected was chosen for its human quality.’
In ‘My Film Guru’ script writer—director Nabendu Ghosh provides an apt instance. Akbar, the driver of a friend of his, had seen Sujata twice, but wanted to watch it again for he felt that ‘Sujata dekhne se dil ko thandak pahunchta ha!’ (Watching sujata calms the heart). Akbar’s simple explanation endorses Barua’s view about the powerful human content in Bimal Roy’s work that moves collective consciousness.
To return to the subject of the evolution of this book, it was important to have the concept note in place to convey the relevance of the centenary volume. I was aware that the note would be best drafted by an individual who was sufficiently involved yet detached. I was confident my daughter Anwesha Arya, (currently writing her PhD in London) could be relied upon for this difficult work. She was quick to respond, writing a crisp and precise concept draft. We agreed to structure the volume into three major sections—Bengal, Bombay and Beyond Borders. The first two sections—Bengal and Bombay—had enormous creative potential, we felt. The two regions had been my father’s work stations. I was confident of excellent contributors for both sections.
By August 2007 I was in earnest pursuit of contributors. Two of my father’s ex-colleagues, Nabendu Ghosh and Tapan Sinha, I felt, would give significant perspective on his Bengal phase. Ghosh had been the screenplay writer of Bimal Roy since 1950 and the renowned auteur, Tapan Sinha, had worked as the sound recordist for Roy’s Anjangarh. One of my first tasks was to collect the essays from these two writers. Nabendu Chosh’s lively piece was originally written as a keynote address for the Bimal Roy Memorial lecture in April 2006. He was persuaded to update the piece for the present collection. He accomplished this in record time. And I had already informally interviewed Tapan Sinha. At my request, his photographer, Sukumar Roy, kindly agreed to update my old conversational piece with additional inputs from the ailing legend. The two stalwarts passed away recently.
Amit Bose, Baba’s former editor lives in the UK. I had been pressing him relentlessly with the hope of securing a first-hand account of Bimal Roy’s editing pattern. Amit, a Bimal Roy devotee, has placed my father on a permanent pedestal and is reluctant to shift from that position. After a great deal of fuss and inordinate delay, I could extract an anecdotal droll but unfinished account from Amit. The writer Amit Chaudhuri, on the other hand, needed no persuasion. Watching Udayer Pathe at a special Kolkata screening convinced Chaudhuri that he was viewing ‘a landmark film in the history of Indian cinema; but its time, we sensed, had finally come.’ Reproduced here is Amit’s column in the Telegraph written soon after the January 2002 screening held in Kolkata.
Besides personal conversations with Asit Baran, Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Nitin Bose, Shashi Kapoor and others, the Bimal Roy Memorial archives had collected short reminiscences published in its annual brochure. The writings of CS. Lakshmi, Chidananda Das Gupta, Mahasweta Devi and
Iqbal Masud are from the Memorial’s collection. Maithili Rao’s evocative piece, ‘Madhura Bhakti’, was originally published in a special Bimal Roy Memorial brochure of 1999. She worked on her essay adding cherished personal reminiscences, and chiselled and polished the text until it glistens with a quiet inner grace.
Tutun Mukherjee and Maithili Rao are, after all, my good friends. They had supported Janani, the motherhood project earlier. I respect both as serious writers and film critics. They share an astute understanding of cinema. From the start of this centenary project, both were on the shortlist. I was confident their contribution would be invaluable to the book.
Tutun’s observation that Bimal Roy’s films are memorable film texts because they provide the aesthetic foundation for meaningful cinema’ speaks of her special regard for him.
My approach to the Bombay section had a more experimental thrust, especially in terms of the choice of contributors. Initially, I avoided writers who were professionally connected with my father, with the three notable exceptions—Amit Bose, Nabendu Ghosh and Tapan Sinha. Gulzar, though a generation younger, had worked with Bimal Roy as well. It was important to include his poignant reminiscence of Bimalda that gives a rare insight into the creation of an unfinished Bimal Roy film under the shadow of death.
For the Bombay and Beyond Borders sections, I intended to find writers who have known Bimal Roy’s cinema or Roy, the auteur—not the man. The decision yielded extraordinary, if not dramatic, results. One of the first persons I invited to write was poet Sampurna Chattarji. Written with a delicate poise, her fresh review of Roy’s Bandini reveals the film’s nuanced qualities. I discovered that Naseeruddin Shah, the great actor, was a serious prose writer in disguise and entrusted the formidable subject of performance in Bimal Roy’s films to his incisive critical faculty. And who would have expected composer Shantanu Moitra (of Parineeta, Munnabhai fame) to don a writer’s garb instead of composing a soothing melody? Both surprised me with their spontaneous flair for writing and their professional approach.
Lyrics—and music—in Bimal Roy’s films were never extraneous but integral to the layered narrative, an aspect that deserved discussion. One has only to recall the outstanding poets—Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Prem Dhawan and later Gulzar—who penned the memorable lyrics for Bimal Roy’s films. Prasoon Joshi shares the viewpoint that these finer aspects add to the cinematic excellence of Bimal Roy’s films. Joshi writes about the impact of lyrics in the creation of film narrative with special reference to Bimal Roy’s works.
Art and music critic Kishore Chatterjee is a self-confessed Hindi-film baiter. Chatterjee’s brief love affair with Hindi film music began—and ended—with the Madhumati folk song ‘Bichhua’. Chatterjee detected strains of Mozart’s melodic rhythm, particularly in the composition by Saul Chowdhury and offers his argument based on that delightful discovery.
One easily tends to forget that Bimal Roy’s meteoric rise began from the time he was a cinematographer—imaging P.C. Barua’s Mukti, Devdas, Grihadaha and other New Theatres film classics. His contribution to evocative cinematography has been referenced in passing by Tapan Sinha. An analytical discussion by a contemporary author would further validate this. A few names had flashed in my mind and it is the gifted cinematographer A.K. Bir who delves into Bimal Roy’s cinematic sensibility through his strong and lyrical execution of the cinematographic craft’.
As the volume grew, my hopes soared. At the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2008, I met Nayantara Sahgal. After her moving keynote address, I grabbed the opportunity to foist on her my request to write for the Bimal Roy anthology. But I found it unbelievable when she said that she had not seen a single Bimal Roy film. One could turn that to advantage— I dared to argue. My request made Sahgal watch Bimal Roy’s films, half a century after they were made. What better way to discover if his magic had survived or faded! Nayantara Sahgal approaches Roy’s cinema through the prism of India’s national history. She reads in Do Bigha Zamin a contemporary sensibility. Her pertinent observations connect the film to a current phenomenon of farmers’ suicide. Tamil film-maker Soudhamini too is a first-time audience to his cinema. This explains the beguiling freshness of her style. Soudhamini reads multiple meanings in Bimal Roy’s unique treatment of love and eroticism or love and separation.
By another stroke of luck I met Meghnad Desai at the Goa International Film Festival in 2008. As cinema commentator Meghnad had always intrigued me. At breakfast with him one morning, I mentioned the forthcoming Bimal Roy book and his spontaneous offer to contribute touched me greatly. Meghnad’s essay recaptures the excitement and travails of a young quintessential Mumbai cinemagoer of the 1950s.
A serious concern in Bimal Roy’s films—as in the writings of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay—is the sensitive representation of women. In fact, most writers here have noted Bimal Roy’s remarkable, intelligent, grounded female protagonists. At a seminar, Bhawana Somaaya had read a brief paper on women in Bimal Roy’s films. Her sharp observations were received enthusiastically by the audience. Bhawana was generous to contribute the same paper for this book, where she views the representation of women in his films with a contemporary eye.
Khalid Mohamed—well-known film critic, cultural editor and filmmaker—has documented his intimacy with cinema. His tribute to Bimal Roy in typical self-deprecating, witty style, with a healthy absence of reverence, lends his inimitable touch to the text.
What excited me from the start was the idea of putting together the last section. I was curious to find out the critical response of overseas viewers to my father’s black-and-white images—my curiosity was going to be put to test, at last. I also intended to test the universality of Bimal Roy’s cinema. Indian films, mainly of the Bollywood variety, have made enormous strides gaining favour in several countries of late. But Bimal Roy is pre-Bollywood. I had serious doubts if today’s diasproic audience— including film academics—knew about Bimal Roy? Was he dated? Some of these queries demanded answers. My initial choice for this section was to look amongst authors I knew personally, Rachel Dwyer being one of them.
Clare Wilkinson-Weber’s lecture at the SNDT University impressed me at once with her sound knowledge of the Indian movie industry’s network of politics, power and rigid hierarchal structure. Her essay, looking at the larger social concerns in Bimal Roy’s cinema through costumes, I find, a uniquely original approach to establish their social relevance.
Further search for authors for this section lead to exciting new finds. I was delighted to discover in Sonja Majumdar, an ardent Madhumati fan from Hamburg. Her enduring love for this particular film is reassuring. She finds Bimal Roy’s cinema to be beyond or above cultural borders. Other overseas admirers of Bimal Roy include Rada Sesic and Manju Seal. Manju’s knowledge of Indian film music is put to great use by a comparative study of Bimal Roy’s music. Rada positions Bimal Roy’s cinema in the European humanist tradition. She discovers the same lyrical realism of post-war Italian directors in Bimal Roy’s works. Paula Mayhew is here almost by a happy accident. Keen to feature Bimal Roy’s Devdas in her course Bollywood and Beyond’ she had difficulty locating a subtitled DVD. When she e-mailed for one, I asked her to join the Bimal Roy book, and got her immediate assent. Paula says the first full-length film on her syllabus was her favourite Bimal Roy film Devdas. All this put to rest my apprehension that Bimal Roy’s films had dated. According to these writers, his cinema communicates in a universal language. Though rooted in Bengali culture, Bimal Roy’s cinema is assuredly universal, bearing a global metaphor.
Anwesha Arya reclaims her grandfather’s unique position in the diasproic context with the following passage:
Before ‘crossover cinema’ was considered a genre Bimal Roy was making cinema cross over, beyond and between borders. His ability to permeate the parameters of language using the universality of film language is what sets him apart from other film-makers of the period spanning pre-Independence and young India. This unique ability to stand at the crossroads of culture, to observe and commentate with the distant clarity of a historian is both fascinating and curious for a man steeped deeply in the essence of his own roots.
And so the journey for this book has begun, and a whole lifetime’s labour ‘is now on its way to find a niche in the marketplace, into people’s homes and other places where books are likely to travel. I have crossed the
Rubicon—from dreaming of a book on Baba to seeing it in print. It is a journey that confronts past errors and seeks future possibilities. This centenary volume reaches out into the nooks and crannies of Bimal Roy’s cinema exploring anew these engaging tales of men, women, children with ‘the Dickens touch, of making you care passionately what happens to the characters and of feeling their troubles and joys as keenly as if they were your own’ (The Daily Worker).
This book, I dedicate to my father—Bimal Roy—the best father in the world, and to the silent cinema poet and visionary of profound humanism.
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