Bimal Roy: The Eastern Mystic Who Made Films
Bimal Roy’s films refrained from preaching even as they handled problems of such serious dimension as the abuse and exploitation of farmers (Do Bigha Zameen) or the untouchability (Sujata). Vijay Kumar explores the deeper existential layers of thoughts, views, emotions and relationships in Bimal Roy’s iconic films.
With his first directorial essay – Udayer Pathey – Bimal Roy brought a paradigm shift in film making. His effort was refreshingly free from the mire of melodrama that hitherto characterized Indian films. His characters on screen were so true to life that the audience instantly related to them or empathized with them.
Each of his characters had the shades of good and bad. There was no contrived divinity or villainy in them. Perhaps for the sole exception of Ugra Narayan (Pran in Madhumati), none of his other films had a villain out of the ordinary. But, then, Madhumati, qualifies as a stand-alone effort of Roy, made with quasi-commercial intent, to eventually bolster the finances of the Bimal Roy Productions.
Yet, unlike the films of the parallel cinema of the later years, which apparently were made with connoisseurs in view, Roy’s films easily related to the mainstream cinema and succeeded too. There could be several reasons for this. One reason that one can discern is that his films refrained from preaching even as they handled problems of such serious dimension as the abuse and exploitation of farmers (Do Bigha Zameen) or the untouchability (Sujata). Roy instead left the questions to the conscience of the viewers. Parakh, a beautiful movie, tended to, even if just, play up the preaching part. Perhaps, this was one reason that the film failed to make the desired box office impact.
Another reason, perhaps more important, is the fact that his films were never prosaic – never a third party handling of the story and its realities which is so typical in a documentary film. Roy, on the other hand, seemed to be directing his characters from within them and not from without. He appeared subsumed in each character, giving him / her no choice but to express as required. Dilip Kumar became synonym for Devdas because the Master took charge of him, to take him forward. Before Devdas, Dilip would pass only as a good actor but not the one great.
Roy’s involvement in his characters made his films poetry on celluloid.
A third reason could be, and again an important one, that Roy’s realism did not shun music. In fact, Roy brought to bear on his films the natural music proclivity of an easterner – almost as an existential aspect.
Roy’s films have an exceptional balance of literature and music. But what distinguished him from the others is the fact that his musical scores never appeared interpolated or grafted in the general run of the story. In fact, each score furthered the story or heightened the impact of an episode, or alluded to the circumstances of the character – his / her angst, existential predicament or elation.
Roy was also not unduly enamoured with the idea of his lead characters lip-syncing the scores. No wonder therefore that some of the most meaningful and also popular songs are either in the background or filmed on relatively less known artistes. Arguably the best lullaby in Hindi films – Aa ja ri nindiya (Do Bigha Zameen) – is lip-synced by Meena Kumari in a guest appearance.
Aa ja ri nindiya (Do Bigha Zamin, 1953)
Salil Chowdhury / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar, Chorus
Apani kahani chod ja
And that timeless classic – Apani kahani chhod ja – is filmed on a clutch of farm labourers, tilling / cultivating land or fetching water. Roy, I guess, also had the choice of playing this number in the background, for the importance of this song is not as much in as to who rendered it but in the fact that it multiplied the impact of Shambhu Mahto’s shift to the city, which changed his life irreversibly.
The transcending import and impact of the song is self-evident as one does not even notice that unlettered labourers are articulating the life-death metaphysics, that love alone is non-ephemeral – beej bicha le pyaar ke, that life is all about celebrating the moment – man ki bansi par koi dhun gunguna le. It stops Shambhu in his tracks but just for a moment. And suddenly the wheels of a train with their non-melodious roar take over – a shot of great symbolic value – a directorial high – the insensate city-bound wheels taking over!
Dharti kahe pukar ke (Do Bigha Zamin, 1953)
Salil Chowdhury / Shailendra / Manna Dey, Lata Mangeshkar, Chorus
Sun mere bandhu re…
Call it a bhatiyali (a boatman’s song ) or the song of a Sufi, or an ode to love sublime, it certainly has two eastern mystics – Bimal and Sachin – in full bloom. And that must have rubbed on Majrooh who gave words of such beauty and import.
The boatman’s cry, undulating on the waves, seeking surrender to the Source, is in complete accord with the surging emotions of the two lovers ashore. The Director’s conception of this scene and its execution is mesmerizing. The night, the diffused glimmering lights, the rains, a river in flow, all swept by a strong breeze – the setting with a bhatiyali to attend on it is just ethereal. And the two lovers completely subsumed in this ecstatic ethereality.
sun mere bandhu re, sun mere mitavaa
sun mere saathi re
hota tu pipal, mai hoti amar lata teri
tere gale malaa ban ke, padi musakaati re
sun mere sathi re
sun mere badhu re
jiya kahe tu sagar, mai hoti teri nadiyaa
lahar bahar kar tu apane piyaa se mil jati re
sun mere saathi re
Sun mere bandhu re (Sujata, 1959)
SD Burman / Majrooh Sultanpuri / SD Burman
Mere man ke diye
In my humble opinion, Roy did one better in this number from Parakh.
If one looks at the song visual with audio muted, it is a plain sandhya-archana being performed by Seema (Sadhana). There is one thing conspicuous though. When Seema bows her head before the deity, the flickering flame emanating from the diya casts its shadow on the hair parting normally used by married Hindu women to fill with sindoor (vermillion) – as a mark of their being married. The shadow has an illuminating effect, giving a notion that Seema is married, or so is she psyched into thinking. But the fact is, she is not.
This shot of mesmerizing simplicity, integrity and depth is an unbelievable directorial conception – centered around a flickering flame. By making the flickering flame to double up as glowing sindoor, Roy in one sub-shot of ten seconds brings out the yearn of Seema to be in the wedlock with the man she loves. This is symbolic. And it is equally symbolic that the ‘fiery’ sindoor points to the difficulties inherent in the formalization of the relationship.
There is yet another and a deeper layer of symbolism. The flickering flame coinciding, in its shadow, with the sindoor space signifies the yearn of a companionship sans sensuous. For, it is the fire that ultimately cremates all mundane trappings. And this fire has an added glow of sublimity as emanating from a diya offered to the deity being prayed.
It is in this backdrop that the quasi lament – the song of love-related despair and pain – acquires a different meaning – that Bimal Roy has not committed a sacrilege by playing a love song in the sanctorum and the sanctity of a place of worship! On the other hand, he strongly conveys, and succeeds too, that here is a sentiment of love that does not covet, does not possess but just self-efface, just surrenders, and not surprisingly impacts as an invocation of HIM. Consider the words:
aag ke phool,
aanchal mein daale huye
kab se jalataa hai wo aasmaan dekhle
Don’t they sound amazingly similar to tere mandir ka hoon deepak jal raha / aag jeevan mein bhar kar jal raha… in the time-defying celebrated bhakti geet rendered by Pankaj Mullick.
Also consider the mukhda and the first antara:
mere man ke diye
yoonhi ghut ghut ke jal tu mere laadle
o mere laadle
khaaq ho jaaye,
ham pyaar ke naam par
khaaq ho jaaye,
ham pyaar ke naam par
pyaar ki raah mein roshni to rahi
It approximately translates to:
O my hope, my aspirations within
Remain lighted even if just
Despite a choking mope without…
No matter if I am effaced in love
But thou shall yet illuminate its path….
Bimal Roy’s genius, his loftiness seems to have rubbed on every single person involved in the making of this song. Sadhana’s illuminated grimness gives the song-essence a physical form. She looks reverentially beautiful. Lata’s tad muffled singing is breathtaking, has the touch of divinity, on a masterly Salil lilt. And Shailendra is very deep in his poem so admirably responding to the cinematic context and requirement. But Bimal Roy is so easily the master puppeteer.
Mere man ke diye (Parakh, 1960) Salil Chowdhury / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar
Devdas and Bandini
Devdas and Bandini are the two apexes in Roy’s illustrious innings as director, spanning over two decades. His handling of the two characters – Devdas and Kalyani – and their behavioural conundrum is flawless, masterly.
At the crunch moment, when the predicament to-be-or-not-to-be could no longer linger, Devdas the lover is supplanted by Devdas the escapist. But as soon as he sends the missive to Paro disclaiming any love for her – a blatant falsehood bordering on a sin – a consuming remorse possesses him. He loses his existential tether and momentum. Cometh another tryst, this time Chandramukhi is his love. But yet again the escapist in him gets the better of the lover. And thereafter, the long drift and ebb, before Devdas delivers himself dead at the doorstep of his first love Paro with no means to escape, finally!
Every frame, every scene of this classic is chiselled, relevant and engaging. But three episodes just stand out.
Manzil Ki Chah Mein – Rahi O Rahi… when Paro and Chandramukhi exchange glances.
The scene is one of the apex points of the film. The song in the background takes off almost as a simmer, builds up gradually and overflows with emotions as the two otherwise-not-to-meet ladies – Paro and Chandramukhi – pass by with an exchange of curious looks. The song falls the way it ascends, with the fading figures of the ladies in two opposite horizons.
Sahir’s philosophical muse is contextual, as also transcendental. But the words soar and emote on SD Burman’s masterly lilt and Rafi’s pristine singing.
The scene has the deep imprint of Master Bimal Roy – no word spoken between the two ladies – yet the silence is so eloquent ! And yet an inexplicable hazy yet shared feeling, that they are connected!
Manzil ki chaah mein (Devdas, 1955) SD Burman / Sahir Ludhianvi / Mohd Rafi
Woh na aayenge palat kar, unhe laakh hum bulaayein
This scene – the final meeting of Chandramukhi and Devdas – could well be taken as the penultimate climax of the film……. Chandramukhi, overwhelmed by the occasion, touches the feet of Devdas, announcing, without speaking a word, that you are my man! Devdas, on a point of no return, says, almost with a sigh of sadness, that the two will not remain separated in the next birth if there would be one.
Woh na ayenge palat ke … This number in the background says what a reticent, self-repressed Chandramukhi is going through in her surcharged though rather frugal exchange with Devdas – the imploding cry of “why this to me?!” on her intuitive realization that the man she is besotted with will never ever return.
Agar iss jahan kaa malik kahee mil sake toh puchhe
Milee kaun see khata par hame iss kadar sajaye
Woh naa aayenge palat kar unhe lakh ham bulaye
I rate Vyjyanthimala’s performance in this film as one of her best. She acted a character who was in the throes of an unmitigating existential predicament – to be or not to be – to tell Devdas of her emotions or remain bottled up. Her role had a compounding dimension too as she also had to handle and heal, in the midst of her sufferance, an escapist Devdas. She handled that all with sensitivity, poise and consummate skill. The Midas touch of Bimal Roy turned her into gold.
Paro, I have reached!
The last twenty minutes of Devdas is the pinnacle of synergic creativity of Bimal Roy and Dilip Kumar.
A terminally ill Devdas trying to run away from himself, ironically. But his past, its trysts and trails, chasing him relentlessly, symbolically in pace with the commoting movement of the carriage without. Chuni Babu’s brief incursion and Devdas’ return to bottle fuelling the last smouldering ember within to create a proverbial last flicker! It all happens as if fated to hasten the end of his ebb and his drift.
But the moment Devdas realizes that the death will be fast upon him – symbolized by his vomiting blood and a moan escaping his being – he for once becomes resolute that his last destination is Manikpur encapsulated by his enquiry: Bhai gaadiwale, Manikpur chaloge! For once he is not in a drift but in a hurry to reach Paro. Recall Devdas’ expectant facial expression when he had only a few exhalations to live for. For once, Devdas is not an escapist!
The final two minutes of the film belongs to Paro. The news that Devdas is no more renders her oblivious to her own station, her own maryada as she rushes, with her body cover – the saree – trailing her, to meet her Devdas – but the huge gates shuts on her for a final estoppel! And with the death of Devdas, something in Paro dies too, symbolized by her being carried as if a body dead, concurrent with Devdas’ journey to the funeral pyre!
Last scene (Devdas, 1955) Play it from 2:25:26
Bandini was the last film that Roy directed. Many will argue that this was his best effort, even better than Devdas. They will also argue that Nutan almost carried the film alone as Ashok Kumar and Dharmendra were in support cast at best, unlike Dilip who had Suchitra and Vyajyntimala in substantive roles to complement him.
Roy’s choice of Nutan for Kalyani was a master stroke. If Dilip was born to act Devdas, Nutan was born to act Kalyani. Her persona had a quiet dignity and a natural poise. Her face had a vulnerable innocence that gave her an irresistible cine presence. Her dusky aura seemed well merging with the black and white cinema. What set Nutan apart as an actress was her ability to convey the character with minimal histrionics and bodily expressions. She had an uncanny gift of speaking through her eyes and had a silence that was eloquent.
The characters – Devdas and Kalyani – could be a study in contrast. While Devdas bolts at crunch moments, Kalyani, at the critical moments, betrays incredible ability to take risks, punishment and sufferance, much in disconnect with her countenance of obvious innocence and apparent vulnerability. But at most of the other times, her angst, her feelings remain internalized, bottled up. A quietude informs her persona. Roy yet needed to unravel Kalyani from time to time, to the audience. Roy also knew that a beaten-in-life Kalyani could not lip-sync a song. What therefore he did was a brilliant directorial conception. He created four song situations, each alluding to the then mental station of Kalyani.
O jaane wale ho sake to laut ke aana….Kalyani breaking loose from her father, as also the society that taunts and humiliates her. She knows her break is final, irreversible. Yet a part of her being rooted in and drawing emotional sustenance from the milieu hitherto cries out mute! But Roy brings in Mukesh in the background to give it a voice, to make the pain of the moment palpable.
O jaane waale (Bandini, 1963) SD Burman / Shailendra / Mohd Rafi
O panchi pyaare and Ab ke baras…
The two scores bring out so tellingly the wistfulness of the convicts – a wistfulness that has the pain of their damning circumstances intertwined. In the first song, Roy focuses the camera on Kalyani briefly, concurrent with the stanza: mai to panchhi pinjare ki maina / pankh mere bekar / beech hamare saat re sagar / kaaise chaloon uss paar… and Kalyani receives it impassively breaking into a slight or rather notion of a smile, as if holding her own circumstances in disdain, almost conveying as if her sufferance is more of a penance, a spiritual purge !
But Ab ke baras bhej bhaiya ko babul... portrays a different Kalyani picture. Roy shows her in a profile frame, largely; enveloped by a sadness, her gaze on the daunting prison wall. For this wistfulness of a song, bordering on a lament, seems to remind Kalyani that even if she were free and in a wedlock, there still would be no brother to fetch her from her father’s place!
O mere manjhi...The final scene of Bandini is a class act. The chance in life throws Kalyani in an existential predicament – to choose between her first love (Ashok Kumar) and the one who has pledged a whole new world to her (Dharmendra). Her desperation, her restlessness, her helplessness linked to her inability to decide grows by the moment, to reach a crescendo with the final-call siren from the look-sick steamer, when it snaps in an overcoming emotion to streak and to be at the feet of an ebbing, disease-stricken old flame.
For sheer visual impact and intensity, Paro (in Devdas) will come the nearest, when she runs for Devdas realizing that he is dead. The scene in Bandini gets reinforced in its emotional contents with a lilting musical narrative of the predicament in the peerless voice of Burman. It also, at a deeper level, symbolizes Kalyani’s redemption – from the one who consumed by jealousy and vengefulness commits a murder to the one who defines her own freedom… Without a doubt, this scene remains unparalleled in the annals of Hindi cinema for its impact and directorial finesse.
Ore maajhi (Bandini, 1963) SD Burman / Shailendra / SD Burman
The Poison Scene
However, an acclaim of Bandini will not be complete without a reference to the poison scene.
With heaps of abuses hurled on her relentlessly, day in and day out, by the one who had ‘robbed’ her of her love, Kalyani decides to take her revenge. And here Bimal Roy creates a cinematic master-piece. Please recall the scene. With no words uttered, Kalyani becomes the physical form of pain, poignancy and wretchedness that must characterize mutation of innocence into a consuming murderous intent. The ascending sound and spark of a welding process employed to symbolize the precipitating tumult within her. The scene is yet to find a parallel in its genre.
Kalyani’s revenge (Bandini, 1963)
It is said that Bimal Roy made this film to strengthen his company financially. It was a fantasy – unlike all his films before or after. The significance of this film is manifold. First, it achieved its avowed purpose, to give Roy money for his future efforts. The film was the biggest grosser of the year. Second, aesthetics could be commercially sustainable. The film won an unprecedented nine Filmfare Awards. Third, it demonstrated the range, sweep and versatility of Roy. Without Madhumati, Roy’s genius and impact would have been acclaimed but in a relatively narrow domain.
There was no film before Madhumati, nor after it that handled a story based on the doctrine of reincarnation with so much of conviction, with so much of popular appeal. The reason is not far to seek. It is one of the finest love stories, presented in terms of a recall from the previous birth. Even though it is surreal, the story mutates into one with a happy beginning and a happy ending owing to its ‘rebirth’ connect. The film, as it ends, leaves the viewers in a happy frame.
The beauty of the film is that it does not scare when it is handling the spirit. It does not resort to the grotesque, yet is able to convey the eerie feeling incidental to a supernatural presence. Roy is able to draw a nuanced difference between Madhavi (the look-alike of Madhu) and the spirit of Madhu in human form.
Recall the scene when the spirit of Madhu spellbinds Anand and beckons him to the terrace, to the point Madhu jumped from to save her honour, and induces him to jump likewise and give up his life for a ’spirited’ reunion. The episode keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, totally soaked in its eeriness. This is more than a directorial brilliance. Bimal Roy seems to be drawing from a deeply ingrained belief system to infuse life in the going-on between Anand, Ugra Narayan and Madhu.
Roy communicates, in this film, as much through the elements as through its star cast. Somehow, Roy is able to create a ‘feeling’ natural ambience – that shares elation, and at times conveys a sadness as if it has the premonition of a tragedy!
Roy was never inhibited by the precedent, by the beaten path. His decisions were driven by the story / film in hand. It must have surprised some when he chose himself to be the choreographer of Madhumati and picked Ritwik Ghatak – a known leftist and presumably therefore a non-believer – to write its story that draws upon the doctrine of rebirth! And the result is there to be seen. The songs and dances of Madhumati do not look interpolated but have a directorial continuity instead. The music of Madhumati is arguably the most enthralling, most engaging, for it seems to emanate from the elements.
Dil tadap tadap ke keh raha hai (Madhumati, 1958) Salil Chowdhury / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh
Mahabharat and Maha Kumbh
Bimal Roy died young, very young. He was not even 56 years of age. His passing away was country’s loss, for his creativity was still on ascension. At the point of his death, he was working on two projects: Mahabharat and Maha Kumbh. I guess, the two subjects were very close to his heart. The sage, the mystic within him would have been at home handling the two subjects. In his death, the country missed out, on celluloid, what would have been the most authentic deconstruction and interpretation of the greatest epic, namely Mahabharat, and an understanding and exposition of the largest human congregation on the face of Earth, namely Maha Kumbh.
As I think of Bimal Roy, I get a persisting image of a sage making films. His persona, his life and his creativity seem to find a connect in the ode to Ganga in the film Kabuliwala:
Ganga aaye kahan se / Ganga jaaye kahan se / Lehraye pani mein / Jaise dhoop chhanv re…
This mukhra is a muse over the larger question of human destination or rather on its un-knowability. Discern the three layers: Ganga (the essence) is different from the body of water (the form) and the two combining to create the third layer – the waves ( the manifestation ). Gulzar is at his subtlest best when he likens the undulating waves to the light and the shadow – the brighter and the seamy sides of life. Bimal Roy, a great soul, too assumed a form for a manifestation, to handle, on celluloid, the ups and downs of life.
O Ganga aaye kahan se (Kabuliwala, 1961) Salil Chowdhury / Gulzar / Hemant Kumar
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