Bimal Roy during the shooting of Sujata at Gandhi Ghat, Calcutta. Image Courtesy: Rinki Roy Bhattacharya
There is very little information available on my father, Bimal Roy. According to the Screen Yearbook 1956, my father's date of birth is 12 July 1909. Family elders argued but since no other record exists, we settled on that. Those who could share stories on the early chapters of his life have long ceased to be. Writing an elaborate biography, sadly, does not seem a remote possibility. Then there is the additional risk – writing the biography of one's parents may inevitably lead the writer into the realm of the autobiography.
Thinking of my father, what I immediately recall is the silent film he liked to watch. As if we are both caught in a timeless wrap, watching the film together, repeatedly. My earliest exposure to cinema was watching films at home. The projector's familiar whirr made us leave dinner midway, rush to the drawing room of our Calcutta home at P 92 Sardar Sankar Road. Meanwhile, Baba had returned home quietly. He was busy setting up the second-hand 16mm projector acquired from the Army disposable lot. The blank wall was a picture screen. We girls sat on the floor waiting excitedly for moving images to pour out from the whirring machine behind. The wall filled with images of a ship surrounded by a group of agitated sailors. Hoping to see fairies or Donald Duck, these mute images of angry sailors disappointed us as did Baba's choice of film. Sailors assembled before a hanging leg of meat crawling with maggots that sparked the October naval mutiny in Battleship Potemkin. For us children, it was a horrible movie. Baba watched Battleship Potemkin every other night with undivided attention! I concluded, naturally, that there was something wrong with my father to like such a horrific film. Decades later, after Baba had passed away, his fascination with the film struck a chord. His generation had learnt about the new medium of cinema by watching celebrated world maestros. Baba's meditative viewing sessions were a lesson in self-orientation. Without any overt effort on his part, he had managed to initiate us into the world of sound and picture.
Thinking of my father, what I immediately recall is the silent film he liked to watch. As if we are both caught in a timeless wrap, watching the film together, repeatedly.
My biographical note is going to be little more than a sketch of my father, reconstructed from personal and collective memories, through sound bites from the past, unconnected anecdotes, and some closely guarded family secrets about our ancestors who came from a tiny village Suapur, in Dhamrai Thana, about 40-odd kilometres from Dhaka. Conflicting stories, with amusing versions invented by relatives, may confuse readers about Baba's forerunners. But the basic premise remains unchanged. Our ancestors were a landholding family in the village of Suapur, in former East Bengal. My grandmother Kironmoyee came from Manikganj, a larger and better-known town. One branch of our family even believes that we belong to the famous Ramna area of Dhaka. Baba was the sixth of his parents' eight surviving children.
Our ancestors were a landholding family in the village of Suapur, in former East Bengal. My grandmother Kironmoyee came from Manikganj, a larger and better-known town. One branch of our family even believes that we belong to the famous Ramna area of Dhaka. Baba was the sixth of his parents' eight surviving children.
There was an older stepsister with the romantic name Roshenara, about whose beauty we had heard but no one had seen the lady. Incidentally, aunt Roshenara was married to one Adinath Sen from a noted Bengali family. She died at childbirth. I mention her for an interesting film connect. Adinath Sen later remarried and his son by the second marriage, one Dibanath Sen, was the husband of actress Suchitra Sen. When Suchitra came to work in Devdas, I remember her addressing my father as Bimal mamu by virtue of that old family connection.
What I also remember overhearing is that father was going to be adopted by his childless uncle Jogeshchandra Roy. Apparently, his formal adoption was stalled at my grandmother's request. One is not sure of the credentials of the adoption story. However, if a senior relative is to be believed, the Suapur zamindars lived the life of indolent feudal lords. 'There were at least a hundred people to feed daily,' boasted an uncle recalling our huge joint family.
The same uncle mentioned that most evenings in the Suapur estate were spent at the kotha baari adjacent to our house. Singers and nautch girls were hired to entertain the zamindars all night. The two brothers, Hemchandra and Jogeshchandra, were obviously fond of the good life. This included branded Scotch whisky flowing freely during nocturnal sessions. My father's strong aversion to alcohol may have originated from this. He never drank, and it was a taboo in our home to even mention it. The Bimal Roy home, in that sense, had the least filmy pretentions in the entire Bombay movie industry.
Father's serene personality made him stand out. He was a reclusive man, a man of few words.
Father's serene personality made him stand out. He was a reclusive man, a man of few words. This is how everyone remembered father, saying he spoke little but smoked a great deal. 'Cigarette was his alcohol,' scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh would often say, sighing. Cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes went into the suitcase before any journey Baba undertook. In most photographs he is seen smoking rather stylishly.
There was every bit of the ordinary Bengali bhadralok in Baba. He woke up early before the rest of our household even stirred. Made his cup of raw tea with a slice of lime. Took a leisurely walk in the garden. During the walk, he plucked seasonal vegetables from our patch. When we woke up, he would show off a cabbage, pumpkin or papaya beaming with paternal pride. His lifestyle was simple, regular and uncomplicated – even boring one may add – compared to the rich and famous homes of the big movie world.
One story about our ancestors that intrigues me, appealing to my cinematic sensibility, concerns father's uncle, Jogeshchandra Roy, the man said to be the original template for Ugranarayan, the villain immortalized by Pran in Madhumati.
One story about our ancestors that intrigues me, appealing to my cinematic sensibility, concerns father's uncle, Jogeshchandra Roy, the man said to be the original template for Ugranarayan, the villain immortalized by Pran in Madhumati. He is said to have had a proclivity to chase or abduct any woman he took a fancy to! No one can vouch for this, but it amuses me to imagine that there were both lecherous villains and freedom fighters in Baba's own family. Soon after watching Bandini, a relative suddenly pulled out the story of a distant uncle who escaped being convicted for terrorist activities against the British.
Oddly enough, Baba's films throw up situations and characters easy to identify from his own life. The lush pastoral landscapes of village life is etched by evocative strokes as the camera dwells indulgently on mango groves casting long shadows across the land. The soundtrack picks up plaintive calls of mating cuckoos echoing love songs or the boatman's haunting melody that completes the rustic imagery.
The whip-cracking schoolmaster in Devdas could have been modelled on Headmaster Collins of Armanitola Boys School where Baba studied.
The whip-cracking schoolmaster in Devdas could have been modelled on Headmaster Collins of Armanitola Boys School where Baba studied. Hitu kaka (his classmate and producer, Hiten Chaudhuri) had mentioned graphic details: 'Bimal would turn crimson with each lash of the headmaster's whip over any imaginary slip.' It is believed Baba and his brothers were mortally afraid of their father. These bring to mind images of Devdas's authoritarian father or the arrogant father in Parineeta, not to forget the imposing patriarch from Udayer Pathe whose iconic last lines to his son, 'Oke jete dao, Souren...'(let her leave), is one that echoes long after the film ends. These few motifs recreate the landscape of father's childhood.
I have often thought it is not difficult to reconstruct Baba's life with scenes from his films. The genteel portrait of Sujata's affectionate foster father, Upen, for example, comes close to Baba. This is true of the postmaster father Nivaran (Parakh). His silent bonding with his daughter Seema is no empty gesture. Take the case of his decision to film Tagore's Kabuliwala. The latter's yearning for his little daughter in distant Afghanistan clearly establishes Baba's profound regard for enduring human relations, essentially, his faith in lasting family values.
His depictions of the feudal class often raise uneasy questions. The same is true about the literature he unerringly selected, stories with abiding human interest, engaging with the film medium as a social document.
His depictions of the feudal class often raise uneasy questions. The same is true about the literature he unerringly selected, stories with abiding human interest, engaging with the film medium as a social document. However, the recurring portrayals of the zamindar class, at times endorsed by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's works, as exploitative, oppressive and indolent, makes one wonder: was this negative projection of the ruling class a mere coincidence? Was it perhaps a social critique of his own class? Or, was this an unconscious gesture to liberate his spirit from the shackles of a feudal legacy he had come to mistrust, even disown?
Aurobindo Mukherjee revealed an unknown side of my father: his experiments as a minor actor in the forgotten Bengali film Mohua and his ghost-directing the film Barididi (Amar Mullick was credited as director).
Aurobindo Mukherjee revealed an unknown side of my father: his experiments as a minor actor in the forgotten Bengali film Mohua and his ghost-directing the film Barididi (Amar Mullick was credited as director). Which brings me to my favourite story ... Baba was looking for an actor to play the charismatic hero of Udayer Pathe. Many at New Theatres wondered: 'Why is Bimal babu looking for a hero? He is most suitable to play the hero!' But Aurobindo Mukherjee's best story about Baba was about the time when a studio worker's daughter was getting married. B.N. Sircar, the New Theatres boss, asked everyone to contribute. Everyone did. Except Baba, it seems. This was duly reported to Sircar saheb who replied: 'But Bimal was the first to contribute.' This incident reclaims Baba's unfailing generosity. He gave without any expectations and without going to town about it.
My parents were activists in their own way. Baba helped raise funds for the Vishwa-Bharati and Bombay Ramakrishna Mission. Few know that Baba and Sadashiv Row Kavi laid the blueprint for Film City. My photographer mother ran her own women's centre.
My parents were activists in their own way. Baba helped raise funds for the Vishwa-Bharati and Bombay Ramakrishna Mission. Few know that Baba and Sadashiv Row Kavi laid the blueprint for Film City. My photographer mother ran her own women's centre. Both shared a fine sense of aesthetics. Our home and Baba's studio bore the stamp. Fresh flowers filled shining brass vases. Paintings and photographs adorned walls. Baba's flawless taste for furniture artefacts lent our home its elegance. I recall the grey-haired carpenter pottering in the Godiwala garage round the year. Father personally supervised our puja shopping and chose costumes for his actors. Film posters of Bimal Roy Productions were outsourced to renowned commercial artist O.C. Gangoly.
In every sphere of his life, it was evident that Baba was a proud Bengali ... his partiality to our traditional cuisine, his choice of wardrobe, theatre, his passion for football matches. Photographs from his Moscow trip in bitter winter show him in spotless dhuti kurta. Being an enthusiastic gourmet, Ma trained a retinue of chefs with fine dining skills. Home lunch was sent daily to Mohan Studio in Kurla. So popular were its contents that his tiffin carrier grew visibly larger.
Once, Dilip Kumar was invited home for dinner. He relished the feast greatly, complimenting Ma in chaste Urdu. Before leaving, he asked Ma her secret of filling the right amount of air into each puri! Ma almost fell down laughing and Dilip Kumar's query about the puri remained ma's favourite joke.
I am often asked how my parents met. Ma was studying for her matriculation in Ramnagar. Baba was working in Calcutta. The link came through Baba's sister, who was married to ma's uncle, a surgeon in Banaras. Baba would visit his sister who did not waste time to play matchmaker. The rest is history. My parents married in 1933. Their Calcutta reception was a star-studded affair. Indian cinema's royalty – P.C. Barua, Kanan Devi, Pankaj Mullick, K.L. Saigal, R.C. Boral, Nitin Bose – were present to bless the newly-weds, Mrs Nitin Bose proudly informed me.
Rarely has any film banner displayed the name of a cinematographer on the billboard. This phenomenon happened with P.C. Barua's Mukti. Filmfare editor B.K. Karanjia observed: 'After a period of apprenticeship under Nitin Bose, a Dacca-born cinematographer, Bimal Roy, was put at the helm in Daku Mansoor (1934). A string of films followed, including Devdas, Manzil, Maya. But it was the evocative outdoor camerawork for Barua's Mukti that made Bimal Roy a star.' The name Bimal Roy twinkled amongst stars.
'It was the evocative outdoor camerawork for Barua's Mukti that made Bimal Roy a star.' The name Bimal Roy twinkled amongst stars
The period between 1944 and 1952 was about to bring a sea change in Baba's professional and our personal life. The phenomenal success of Udayer Pathe had made him a cult figure. He was hero-worshipped by many including young aspiring film-makers. Amongst them were future luminaries Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Ghatak claimed, 'Bimal-da literally pulled Bengali cinema out of the abyss.'
Ghatak claimed, 'Bimal-da literally pulled Bengali cinema out of the abyss.'
Despite the adulation, despite his secure position in the Calcutta film industry, the decline of the industry with the birth of East Pakistan was a matter of grave concern. It forced Bengali film-makers to migrate to Bombay. Confronting my father were serious economic challenges he could not ignore. During the Bombay premiere of Pehla Admi, Baba had shared his concern with good friend Hiten Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri at once asked Savak S. Vacha and Ashok Kumar, both majority shareholders in Bombay Talkies Studios, to sign Baba for the renowned studio. Baba was assigned Maa for either Rs 25,000 or Rs 30,000, a formidable figure at the time.
Leaving Calcutta wrenched us away from everything that was familiar. Along with us travelled four of Baba's assistants, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Paul Mahendra, Asit Sen and Nabendu Ghosh.
Leaving Calcutta wrenched us away from everything that was familiar. Along with us travelled four of Baba's assistants, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Paul Mahendra, Asit Sen and Nabendu Ghosh. We arrived on the day of Saraswati Puja, 6 February 1951, at Victoria Terminus. I doubt if any of us realized we had travelled virtually on a one-way ticket. Our Bombay home was a single-storey tiled cottage popularly known as Devika Rani's bungalow, 57 Dadyseth Road, Malad. We were thrilled to hear that the bungalow was haunted.
The question of rootlessness, of dispossession recurs often in Baba's work. Madhumati, considered his most commercial adventure, gently weaves into the love story a parallel narrative of the tribal community's displacement.
The question of rootlessness, of dispossession recurs often in Baba's work. Madhumati, considered his most commercial adventure, gently weaves into the love story a parallel narrative of the tribal community's displacement. The heroine, Madhumati, is the daughter of tribal king Paanraja whose kingdom has been appropriated by a promoter for the city. Exile, I believe, excites the imagination of migrant artists while it nurtures their creativity. This was true of my father. His landmark Bengali film Udayer Pathe was created in exile. In his second stage of exile, he created Do Bigha Zamin. As the narrator, Baba was never the detached observer. His affection for the rickshaw puller is apparent. He never hesitated to take sides.
Baba's Bombay debut, Maa, starred the Bombay Talkies star Leela Chitnis with a host of unknowns like Shyama, Bharat Bhushan, Nazir Hussain. It was a Hindi adaptation of a Hollywood sentimental Over the Hills by William Fox. The loneliness of the elderly, the neglect they suffer and their dependence on the young was the main theme. Baba was preparing to pack his bags when Ashok Kumar signed him to make Saratchandra's Parineeta under his banner. The making of Parineeta and the First International Film Festival held in Bombay dramatically changed our destiny. It opened new vistas for the entire Bimal Roy team.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee shares the incredible story of how Bimal Roy Productions was born: 'After watching Kurosawa's Rashomon at Eros cinema we were returning home to Malad in a double-decker BEST bus. The film had left a tremendous impact on us. We were silent ... and I remember thinking, "Why can't we make films like this?"
Hrishikesh Mukherjee shares the incredible story of how Bimal Roy Productions was born: 'After watching Kurosawa's Rashomon at Eros cinema we were returning home to Malad in a double-decker BEST bus. The film had left a tremendous impact on us. We were silent ... and I remember thinking, "Why can't we make films like this?" I could not help asking Bimal-da. He was quiet at first. But suddenly exclaimed, "Who will write the film?" I promptly offered to write. We decided that unit members will have a share in the production company. This is how Bimal Roy Productions was born inside a double-decker BEST bus!'
Do Bigha Zamin took the world by storm. Remember it was the first Indian film to secure a theatrical release at the Metro reserved only for overseas films. Arguably, Do Bigha Zamin is inspired by De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. The film ushered in neo-realism. But the story Baba made was written by Salil Chowdhury. Ritwik Ghatak had taken Baba to see a new Bengali film, Rickshawala, by director Satyen Bose written by Salil Chowdhury. The story appealed to Baba. On 14 August 1952, the day Salil Chowdhury was getting married, he received a telegram asking him to meet Bimal Roy in Bombay. An incident Mrs Jyoti Chowdhury recalls fondly even today. What happened after that is history.
Do Bigha Zamin took the world by storm. Remember it was the first Indian film to secure a theatrical release at the Metro reserved only for overseas films. Arguably, Do Bigha Zamin is inspired by De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. The film ushered in neo-realism.
The actor who played the hero in Udayer Pathe, Radhamohan Bhattacharya (then film critic of the Statesman), in his review on 17 June 1953 predicted: 'Those who have been asking to see a truly representative Indian film, Do Bigha Zamin is a delightful answer.' Do Bigha Zamin established Bimal Roy Productions.
Baba shot Do Bigha Zamin by night and Parineeta by day. He had the responsibility of the welfare of several families as his technicians had moved to Bombay. He was aware that his productions house had to bring prestige and succeed at the box office. Not all were to turn to box-office gold like Parineeta. In an industry where the success rate is 5 per cent, debacles wait to happen. The film Baap Beti, produced by a fly-by-night operator, Munshiji, was one such. He could not pay the technicians. In a rare burst of anger, Baba ordered his assistants to pick up the furniture from the sets of Baap Beti and furnish their homes.
Looking back, our childhood appears enchanted, filled with radiance. One way to describe Baba would be as a contented householder. His concern for the family took priority. Fame, success never clouded his vision. On weekends, he took us to swim in Anderson's pool. By evening, we headed for treats to the Outram Ghat Café serving Calcutta's best chicken sandwich. He would plan my birthday a month ahead. We accompanied our parents to the finest cultural events – watched Uday Shankar dance with the ravishing Madam Simki, saw the Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake, heard Ustad Ali Akbar's divine sarod. Thanks to him, we were exposed to the best. Family trips to the enchanting Nilgiris, to Darjeeling. Perhaps we were too young to savour the exquisite art of great artists or even appreciate the places we visited. But these images and sounds absorbed at an impressionable age enriched our life. The one thing I have lived to regret bitterly was rejecting Baba's generous offer to study at Oxford. In 1959, he took me on a trip to see colleges in Oxford. Being an adamant teenager, I had turned down this brilliant prospect.
My father's cinema was never the obvious boy-meets-girl-romance variety – they are layered with social legitimacy.
My father's cinema was never the obvious boy-meets-girl-romance variety – they are layered with social legitimacy. What inspired him about maestros like Sergei Eisenstein, De Sica, Tagore, Chaplin – his kindred souls across the globe – was their profound regard for humanism and human dignity. And in turn, he inspired the younger generation of film-makers, Ray, Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Jahnu Barua, Ashutosh Gowarikar. This established my father as a pioneer par excellence. In his own words, in his jury address in Moscow, 1959 he concluded:, 'Cinema is an asset to promote understanding among people of different cultures. In our generation the world has grown smaller with distance conquered by technology, cinema is the most important medium to help man understand his responsibilities and potentials, to identify new areas of activity to enjoy the beauty of new relations amongst various people – for there exists an universal kinship.'
In a brief lifetime accorded to a human being, my father, Bimal Roy, was able to transform the profile of Indian cinema and touch the collective consciousness with his celluloid parables. He was a sage of cinema. One of his great admirers once told me, he is to cinema what Tagore was to literature. He truly was.
This feature is a modified and expanded version of an essay appearing in Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures published by Penguin Group, 2009.
The original essay did not feature any of the images.
None of the information and/or images in the feature may be reprinted/replicated without the author's permission.
Ms Rinki Roy Bhattacharya is a published author of Penguin/Random house, HarperCollins, and SAGE India, besides being a veteran journalist and documentary film maker. She has been a freelance journalist for reputed publications like Times of India and Indian Express. She has been the recipient of several prestigious scholarships including research fellowships & honorary doctorates. She has been invited on prestigious International and domestic Jurylike the Mumbai International Film Festival and Amsterdam Documentary Festival.. An acknowledged specialist on women and film studies, she is frequently invited to take master classes at reputed educational Institutions like Berkley, SOAS,TISS, NFAI, SNDT ,Sophia college amongst other places. She has been the Vice Chairperson of the Children's Film Society of India. She has been the recipient of multiple honours from the School of Oriental and African Studies in the U.K., TISS, Rotary Club and the Bangladesh government. She has co-directed the doucmentary Char Diwari and the short film Janani. She has edited multiple publications like Behind Closed Doors/Domestic Violence in India, Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood and Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures and authored Bimal Roy, A Man of Silence, Bimal Roy's Madhumati: Tales From Behind The Scenes and Bengal Spices.