Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures offers interesting tit bits for the film lover as it offers insights to scholars of cinema. A Silhouette review.
Edited by: Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Anwesha Arya
Published by: Penguin (2017)
In my film studies class at a private college in Kolkata, one of the last topics discussed before the lock down was Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen. A film made in 1952 always comes as a challenge to a teacher – will the millennial kid relate to the film? Will they find it relevant? Will the black and white aesthetics of the film appeal to their glitzy sensibilities? However, Do Bigha Zameen has been passing these tests year after year. Not only has the current politics over land acquisition made the 1952 film relevant, but Balraj Sahni’s rendering of Shambhu, his fateful rickshaw drive and other aesthetics of the film too have not dated over the years.
The students started making comparisons with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In Bicycle Thieves, father and son were on the lookout for the bicycle, without which father would lose his job. In Do Bigha Zameen father and son were on the lookout for a job, without which they would lose their tiny plot of land in the village. In both films father and son were comrades in their fight against ‘destiny’. In both films a bleak future stared in the face of father and son. The students not only pointed out the influence of Bicycle Thieves on Do Bigha Zameen, they also understood where Bimal Roy deviated from neo realism in his style. They were also quick to point out how Bimal Roy, in the shoe shine sequence of the film, had paid homage to Raj Kapoor’s Awara, a film that had set the box office on fire the year before.
The animated discussions abruptly came to an end on the 16th of March, 2020. All educational institutions were closed down to protect the students from being infected by COVID- 19. Fortunately, just before the lock down, I had received my consignment from Amazon. It was a book titled Bimal Roy: The Man who Spoke in Pictures, edited by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Anwesha Arya. I spent the first week of lockdown savouring the essays, memoirs, analyses and anecdotes related to Bimal Roy and his work, by actors, filmmakers, technicians, film buffs, film critics, teachers and Bimal Roy’s own kin.
‘The Best Dadu in the World’, written by Aditya Bhattacharya is among the first chapters of the book and ‘Bimal Roy: Master of the Erotic’ by Soudamini is one of the last chapters.
In this sweeping spectrum from intensely personal memories to incisive analytical pieces, Bimal Roy the man and the filmmaker slowly began to come alive in my mind. I began to appreciate various aspects of his creative genius as well as the humanitarian values he cherished till the end of his life. A refrain running through most of the chapters is, “Bimal Roy was a quiet man”, “Bimal Roy was a man of few words”. Amit Chaudhuri’s chapter is titled ‘A Quiet Man’. Nutan, in the chapter ‘Working with Dada’ has written, “My first impression of him was that of a very quiet person; his presence could hardly be felt in the room. In fact, no one would imagine that he was the boss if one did not recognize it was Bimal Roy.” Vasant Chaudhuri, in the chapter ‘Remembering Bimal Roy’ has narrated a hilarious incident. One day, when Roy was visiting Calcutta, Vasant Chaudhuri invited Bimal Roy and Chabi Biswas for dinner with the hope that the two stalwarts would know each other better and get interested to work together. As it happened, “At dinner there were just three of us. Two titans of cinema – both silent”.
A student of cinema, be it an acting student or cinematography student or student of direction will find a lot of enrichment fodder in the pages of this book. Shantanu Moitra and Kishore Chatterjee dwell on the music tracks in Bimal Roy’s films. Kishore Chatterjee got so obsessed with the melody of the song Bichhua that he watched Madhumati twice – once in Dehradun and once in Calcutta. Chatterjee has identified strains of Mozart in Salil Chowdhury’s composition of the melody and has urged his readers to listen to Mozart’s Haffner Serenade and his Jupiter symphonies.
Tapan Sinha, who rose to the top in the film industry of Bengal, had started his career as a sound recordist in New Theatres. He was assigned the post of the head of the sound unit in Bimal Roy’s film Anjangarh. That was his first close encounter with Roy. Tapan Sinha writes, “Bimal Roy understood film to be a technological medium. Bimal Da’s lighting – specially in close up shots – was extraordinary.”
Bimal Roy had started his career in New Theatres as a cameraman and he mastered the use the camera as a paint brush. Tapan Sinha narrates instances during the shooting of Khudito Pashan, when Bimal Roy casually dropped in the studio during the shoot, watched the proceedings quietly for a while, walked up to Tapan Sinha and asked him to lower the height of the crane by 3 ft and take it further by 3 ft. The frame, with arches in the backdrop, was magically transformed.
Of all the chapters on aspects of Bimal Roy’s craft, perhaps the chapter by Naseeruddin Shah comes as the biggest surprise. Rarely are there scholarly articles on screen acting. Naseeruddin Shah has filled the gap in his frank and honest dissection of the acting skills demonstrated by Bimal Roy’s actors. In this chapter, ‘Actors in Bimal Roy’s Films’, Shah asserts that an actor’s performance on screen is inextricably tied to the script writer and director. Just as a brilliant actor can be decimated by an indifferent script, a pompous actor can look like a buffoon in front of the Kino eye. As an actor straddling both the stage and the screen, Shah has internalized these differences. In his chapter he speaks of the continuing influence of nautanki, jatra and Parsi theatre on Indian screen actors. He writes that Bimal Roy, a modern man with a realist outlook who took up contemporary themes for his films, had to grapple with this situation and his mediocre screen writers were of no help. Shah goes on to congratulate Bimal Roy for bringing out the best in Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar. Shah’s chapter is indeed, a miniature gem in the history of evolution of acting style in Indian cinema. Coming from an ace actor, it shines with a rare sheen.
Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures is full of such pleasant surprises. I may be allowed to bring up another little gem for brief discussion. It is Maithili Rao’s chapter titled ‘Idealized Women and a Realist’s Eye’. Rao begins in a casual, anecdotal vein, narrating how one rainy afternoon in Hyderabad, she and her heavily pregnant elder sister went for a matinee show to watch Sujata. Maithili Rao, who was a teenager then, was “smitten by Talat Mahmood’s velvety blandishment of Jalte hain jiske liye”.
In her write up, Rao gradually gets more analytical and brings up the symbolic connotations of the orphaned untouchable infant Sujata’s first appearance on screen amidst wild wayside flowers. The spectator’s first glimpse of adult Sujata is also equally dramatic. “We see her silhouetted against a gently flapping sari on the terrace and she is revealed to us in all her simple beauty when she tugs at the sari from the clothes line,” writes Rao. Reading these insightful descriptions, anybody who has not watched Sujata, would be tempted to grab a DVD or search for the film on YouTube.
As a critic, Maithili Rao has watched Sujata several times and found new meanings in simple songs sung by boatmen. A feminine love song sung by a male boatman hints at blurred gender identities in modern society. Rao identifies strains of ‘madhura bhakti’ in Bimal Roy’s treatment of love and eroticism.
The book is divided into three parts – Bengal, Bombay and Beyond Borders. Bengal deals with the New Theatres phase in Bimal Roy’s life, where he flourished under the nurturing influence of B N Sircar. Bombay deals with the last 16 years of his life, from the time he shifted base to Bombay, till his untimely death in 1966. The film industry in Calcutta and Bombay come alive in these two sections through the reminiscences of many an industry stalwart of the bygone era. Many of them are no more alive, but their words conjure up in the reader’s mind the ethos of a bygone era, the golden age of Indian cinema. When Bimal Roy migrated to Bombay with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Salil Chaudhuri, he took a bit of Bengal and ‘bangaliyana’ with him – and of course, the New Theatres work ethics and values. Bombay film industry came under the spell of Bengal under Bimal Roy’s baton.
The third section ‘Beyond Borders’ projects how the world community perceives Bimal Roy today. Bimal Roy is taught in universities abroad. Paula H Mayhew describes in hilarious details how today’s students in USA revolt to Devdas’s masochistic and self-destructive antics and how they perceive Paro and Chandramukhi as mirror images of each other. Anwesha Arya has carefully curated this section from scholars and Indophiles in different universities of USA and Europe.
All the 37 chapters give unique insights into the craft, aesthetics or commerce of cinema without sounding scholarly or academic. The book offers as much interesting tit bits for the common man film lover as it offers insights to the students and scholars of cinema. Kudos to Bimal Roy’s daughter Rinki Roy Bhattacharya for painstakingly collecting the articles, goading people to write and sometimes even going to the extent of introducing Bimal Roy for the first time to writers like Nayantara Saigal.
Bimal Roy: The Man who Spoke in Pictures was published in 2017, but editor Rinki Roy Bhattacharya had started the compilation work way back in the early 1980s, when Madhya Pradesh Film Development Corporation invited her to compile a book on her father. As she started recording testimonials and memories of Bimal Roy’s stars and technicians, an oral history of an era of Indian cinema gradually got compiled. It was a priceless collection. Many of these testimonials have found their place in the 2017 book. However, Rinki Roy laments having missed out on Satyajit Ray and Kanan Devi. In her introductory note she has mentioned her visit to Kanan Devi’s home in Calcutta when the erstwhile screen siren was a septogenerian, but because of some technical glitches, the recording of the interview has been lost.
Rinki Roy confided to this author, “I was angry to start with realising that no one had written a book on this phenomenal film maker – it was utterly disappointing to find that the Bimal Roy library had been ignored. I decided to act without delay. That actually, spurred me on. I am fortunate to have done that possible.”
When Rinki Roy embarked on this challenging mission more than 35 years back, she was overcome by grief and nostalgia. But gradually she distanced herself from her painful personal memories and got back her objectivity. Scanning through the tapes of recordings and pages of submission and selecting the significant ones, chiselling them with deft editorial pen was an uphill task. Roy has many favourites among the write ups, but she has a special soft corner for CS Lakshmi’s chapter ‘Lamps in Her Eyes’. The last line of this chapter reads, ‘The film Sujata even now generates anger but it does not take away hope; hope to live, to survive, to dream.’ This is another refrain that runs through most of the chapters – Roy the optimist, dreamer and humanist.
The humanism in Bimal Roy’s cinema makes him relevant today and in years to come. The ripples that he continues to make on a global scale stand testimony to the fact that Roy will not get dated easily.
(Pictures used in this article have been provided by the author)
More to read on Bimal Roy
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