Bimal Roy was without doubt one of the greatest ever directors of Indian cinema. In his films, we see a romantic and sensitive idealist to whom any form of exploitation – social, religious or economic was unacceptable.
Today, records say that he was born on 12th July, 1909, in what was East Bengal in pre-Partition India, in a well-to-do Bengali zamindar family. But according to his daughter, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, his actual date of birth is a mystery. When she was a child, the Screen Yearbook published his birthday as July 12, 1909. Thereafter, the date became Roy’s ‘accepted birthday’! Quoting her, “If the public requires a date to honour Bimal Roy – so be it.”
Roy came over to Calcutta and entered films as a cameraman with the prestigious New Theatres studio, where he evocatively photographed some of their most well-known classic films like Devdas (1935), Maya (1936), Manzil (1936), Mukti (1937) and Meenakshi (1942). His first film as Director too came at New Theatres – Udayer Pathey (1944) in Bengali, which was then remade by him as Humrahi (1945) in Hindi. The film, an early social realist film, was a big critical success for Roy. Right from his first film, Bimalda was able to introduce a realism and subtlety suited to the cinema. He then went on to direct Anjangarh (1948) in Bengali/Hindi, Mantramugdha (1949) and Pehla Aadmi (1950), all at New Theatres even though by now, the once grand studio was beginning to flounder, its last production being Bakul (1955).
Following Pehla Aadmi, Bimalda migrated to Bombay along with editor Hrishikesh Mukherjee and composer Salil Chowdhury. His first film in the city of dreams was Maa (1952) for Bombay Talkies, a typical melodrama starring Leela Chitnis in the title role, Bharat Bhushan and Shyama. According to the critics at the time, the film was largely redeemed only by Roy’s innate reserve and good taste. He then formed his own production unit, Bimal Roy productions and made his breakthrough film, Do Bigha Zamin (1953). The film, heavily inspired from the neo-realistic films of Italy and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief (1948) in particular, was a moving tale, which Bimalda projects with sympathy and simplicity. The film followed the travails of a poor farmer who migrates to the city and works as a rickshaw puller to make ends meet and earn money to get his land back from the moneylender. After a series of misfortunes, he returns to his village only to find his farm taken over by a city developer. The film, boasting of a superb central performance by Balraj Sahni, was a moderate commercial success and a huge critical success and won Bimalda awards at Cannes and at the Karlovy Vary Film Festivals. Even back home, when Raj Kapoor saw the film, his reaction was, “How I wished I had made this film.”
Followed three adapatations of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Parineeta (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954) and Devdas (1955). In between, Bimalda also directed the emotional Baap Beti (1954) and the sensitive Naukri (1954), often unjustly excluded from Bimalda’s list of memorable films.
Talking of his three Sarat Chandra adaptations, the most striking element of these films was Bimalda’s ability to project the Bengali family in a language like Hindi, without losing out on the essence and spirit of the ethnic ethos the story and the characters belong to. Their narrative is unhurried, lingering, yet never tending to drag like slow-paced films usually do. The editing is marked by his characteristic spontaneity while the dialogues are always delivered in low-key and soft tones. Loudness, in other words, as in all Bimalda films, is conspicuous by its absence. His adaptation of Devdas, in particular, is regarded as the definitive version of the novel.
Strangely, after producing Amanat (1955), Parivar (1956) and the whodunit Apradhi Kaun? (1957), Bimalda directed two films that were more in tune with mainstream Hindi potboilers rather than the softness, sensitivity and subtlety associated with him – Madhumati (1958), a reincarnation suspense drama, and Yahudi (1958). Both the films starring Dilip Kumar were smash hits. The former, one of the best suspense films that Indian cinema has ever seen, was written by Ritwik Ghatak and is brilliantly photographed with much of it outdoors unlike most Ghost stories. Salil Chowdhury came up with perhaps his best ever musical score and the haunting melody Aaja Re Pardesi was deservedly ranked by Lata Mangeshkar among her ten best songs ever!
Bimal Roy’s two much-acclaimed films with Nutan, Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963), saw him returning to more sensitive issues. Sujata, dealing with caste prejudice is more humane than most films made on this subject while Bandini, which Bimalda launched in 1960 but waited for Nutan, who got pregnant and gave birth to her son, is considered to be by many his finest work, even ahead of Do Bigha Zamin. The film tells the story of a woman prisoner charged with murder. The story, told in flashback from the woman’s point of view is unraveled in a manner such that by and large she is always there or from where she can overhear the goings on in the past rather than the general practice of telling the whole story. In the film, Bimalda beautifully used imagery and sound to convey the various moods of Nutan. As she is seated in the corner of her gray, grim cell facing the prison’s high wall, she can hear the hoofs of the horse pulling the carriage taking away her lover, or that masterful scene in which Nutan murders her lover’s wife with the hammering of a welder in the background thus heightening the drama! Nutan is the heart and soul of both Bandini and Sujata and it is perhaps fitting that she won Filmfare Awards for Best Actress for both films.
In between Sujata and Bandini, Bimalda did two films Parakh (1960) and Prem Patra (1962) both starring Sadhana, who he said reminded him of a young Nutan. Parakh sees Bimal Roy venture into satire territory and is a witty, perceptive film and looks at how greed and money affect the behaviour of people. The film finds Bimal Roy truly enjoying himself as he blows the lid off so called respectable people and shows to what levels people can stoop to for money. Released in 1960, Parakh went on to win for Bimal Roy yet another Filmfare Award for Best Director making it a hat-trick following Madhumati and Sujata the previous two years. Parakh proves that a small well made film can be equally good if not better than the big budget film with big stars because it is the content that ultimately counts. It is a shame that a small gem like this is often never considered or brought into discussions on Bimal Roy’s cinema because Parakh is a fine film in its own right and is in fact a film extremely relevant for today’s mercenary times.
Bimalda’s last production before he died was Benazir (1964) directed by S Khalil. He was working on a project to star Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore when he passed away on January 8, 1966 after a long illness. His death was a terrible loss to India cinema.