An acclaimed Indian filmmaker whose work displayed a strong social conscience, Bimal Chandra Roy was born on July 12, 1909 in East Bengal’s Suapur village (now a part of Bangladesh). When he died on January 7, 1966, he left behind a formidable body of work that includes such cinematic classics as ‘Sujata’, ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, ‘Devdas’, and ‘Bandini’.
Roy and his six brothers belonged to a zamindar family. He initially studied at home but later went to Dacca(now Dhaka). Those days travelling within East Bengal meant crossing several water bodies, and according to some accounts the beautiful landscape he encountered left a strong visual impression on him. He also dabbled with photography and took part in plays in school.
After his father’s death, however, the family fell on bad times and eventually all brothers migrated to Calcutta. An interest in films and all things visual led him to work as a publicity photographer. He went on to assist cameraman Nitin Bose at the then-famous New Theatres Studios in Calcutta.
He worked independently as cameraman for the 1935 film ‘Devdas’, directed by P.C. Barua. He continued to be cameraman for many other New Theatres’ productions such as ‘Grihadaha’, ‘Mukti’ and ‘Abhinetri’ before making his debut as director in the film ‘Udayer Pathey’. This 1944 Bengali feature had all the characteristics, including a deep social concern and acute awareness of class discrimination, of much of his later work.
The film critic Nivedita Ramakrishnan wrote in dearcinema.com in January 2013: “‘Udayer Pathey’ was, at various levels, an innovative film and one that set the standards for realism in Indian cinema. It was the first New Theatres film to touch upon the theme of socialism and, although the film’s decidedly black-and-white treatment of the rich-poor divide does seem rather simplistic…the exposition of class differences was relevant at a time of rising national consciousness…”
Technically, too, it was much more polished than the average Bengali film of the time. As the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray remarked: “With his very first film ‘Udayer Pathey’, Bimal Roy was able to sweep aside the cobwebs of the old tradition and introduce a realism and subtlety that was wholly suited to the cinema.”
Roy left Calcutta in 1950 for Bombay, where he established his own Bimal Roy Productions within two years. Among his first films under the new banner was the critically-acclaimed ‘Do Bigah Zamin’. The film, based on a story by Salil Choudhury, has been compared to Italian Neo-realistic cinema for its stark mood and style. The plot revolves around Sambhu (Balraj Sahni in a solid performance as a rickshaw-puller) and his son Kanhaiya who are forced to work in Calcuttato repay their zamindar’s debt.
Its cinematic technique has been praised as much as its plot and theme. As Dinesh Raheja wrote in rediff.com: “‘Do Bigha Zamin’ did not rely purely on dialogue, it also had a rich cinematic vocabulary. Its richly textured black-and-white imagery is justifiably famous, especially the last shot where the peasant family return only to wretchedly gape at a factory standing on their do bigha zamin.”
The film was screened in several countries and won a prize at the Cannes festival.
Roy’s other famous films include ‘Parineeta’, ‘Biraj Bahu’ (1954), ‘Devdas’ (1955), ‘Sujata’ and ‘Bandini’.
A tragic love story written by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the novel Devdas has inspired many films in India. Several critics regard Roy’s version (starring Dilip Kumar as Devdas, Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi and Suchitra Sen as Paro) as the most accomplished.
‘Sujata’, which was nominated for the Golden Palm award at Cannes, features a love story between an upper caste man Adheer (played by Sunil Dutt) and a lower-caste woman Sujata (played by Nutan). ‘Bandini’, an unusual story, is about a female prisoner (played by Nutan) and the two men in her life — the caring prison doctor (played by Dharmendra), and Bikash (played by Ashok Kumar) who belongs to her past.
In a tribute to Roy in The Tribune, Abhilaksh Likhi wrote in January 1999: [F]ilms like ‘Parineeta’ (1953), ‘Sujata’ (1959) and Bandini (1963) outlined Bimal Roy’s quest for a lasting answer to the recurring human tragedy of social inequalities in a moribund, superstitious society. But what is distinctive is that he does not indulge in any platform moralising as there was always the danger of the same in his themes. He has approached his themes with an exceptionally intuitive visual sense and very restrained histrionics.”
Recounting her experience in acting in a Bimal Roy film, Kamini Kaushal was quoted as saying: “Before we started filming Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Biraj Bahu’, Bimal da asked me how many times I had read the novel. ‘Twice’, I said. He told me to read it 20 times. I read it over and over again. What a revelation that was! Here was a literary character one could not play around with…Working with him [Roy] only once as I did, I learnt so much. He was such a sensitive, beautiful human being…”
Roy was working on a film that would tentatively star Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore when he died in 1966 after losing a battle with cancer. He was 55.
Roy, who won several Filmfare and national awards, had become somewhat of a legend in his lifetime. In a 2008 essay on the filmmaker, the author and academic Vinay Lal wrote: “Though Bimal Roy earned more than his share of the greatest accolades conferred by the industry in India…and ample international recognition, such awards cannot convey his obvious love of the cinema, the very high standards he set for himself, or the magnitude of his accomplishments. He is one of the few people to have understood that the ontology of the oppressed is superior to the ontology of the oppressor.”
Also on this day:
1948 — Shobhaa De, columnist and novelist, was born
1957 — Reena Roy, Hindi film actress, was born
1979 — Bipasha Basu, film actress and model, was born