On a hot November day, our minivan raced through the Judean desert in Israel until we reached the grounds of Masada Fort. The story goes that after the first Jewish-Roman war in A.D. 73, a siege (on the fort) led by a Roman army of 15,000 prompted the mass suicides of over nine hundred Jews including women and children. The families chose self-annihilation over surrendering to the Roman soldiers.
When I watched Bimal Roy’s Yahudi (Jew) a few months later, intrigued, I delved into the history of this movie. In early 20th century British India, renowned and prolific Urdu poet and playwright Agha Hashr Kashmiri adapted a similar tale of persecution of the Jews by the Romans to write the famous play Yahudi ki Ladki—A Jew’s Daughter. Jews were a minority in India since they first arrived in Cochin in the mid-eighteenth century. The audience found the unusual subject of the persecution of Jews understandable and real in post-independent India. Roy’s treatment of this story enmeshed with engaging music made this movie a great commercial success in 1958.
Cinema is that rare medium in which words, music, and dance culminate in a symphonic union. When combined with an engaging plot, soulful music, and talented actors, cinema allows one to feel the passage of a moment, a day, or a lifetime of the characters onscreen. Through careful selection of stories, and appropriate music, Roy developed a new school of filmmaking. His brilliance attracted an intelligent pool of talent that went on to make history in Indian cinema. Under the garb of a quiet, sophisticated thinker, Roy was a rebel with a cause who pushed the envelope for instigating social change by his choice of narratives. His movies reflect the culmination of his formative time in Bangladesh, youth in Kolkata and his early years in Mumbai’s challenging movie-making environment. The country had just awakened from a deep slumber of colonization of over three hundred years. India was yearning for its own identity, and was ready to explore the new freedom on its own terms. Roy’s genius found expression in inspiring the masses with social commentary that reflected the struggles of a post-independent India.
Cinema as Visual Art
Movies started being screened in India from 1899. In 1931 Alam Ara, the first film with sound, was produced. The decline of the silent film had begun. Roy had spent the first twenty years of his life watching silent movies. Hence in his movies, Roy often used the screen as a canvas on which he painted in black and white with little sound. His daughter, Rinki, remembers Roy watching the Russian silent movie Battleship Potemkinmany an evening at home.
Alfred Hitchcock once commented, “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema.” Roy would have readily agreed. In silent movies, cinema was primarily a visual medium with sound and dialogue being secondary. It made sense that Roy continued to looked for ways to impart the story visually first. Over time he added a strong second dimension, music, to his narration.
Bengali Renaissance started around the early part of the twentieth century and had supposedly ended with the demise of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). But the reformist and intellectual awakening in post-independent India continued to be reflected in the movies. Roy and his crew members such as Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nabendu Ghose, Kamal Bose, Shailendra, S.D. Burman, and Asit Sen not only pioneered realism in black and white films but also gave birth to the “Bimal Roy School” of cinema.
Examining many of Roy’s movies, one quickly realizes Roy was not only deft in selecting well-grounded stories but was also an astute leader of his band. He had the uncanny gift of recruiting, nurturing, and retaining a highly talented crew that worked as a close unit. Many of Roy’s creative crew members were multi-talented. Salil Chowdhury did script writing, story writing and music direction; Asit Sen acted and directed, while Hrishikesh Mukherjee was known for his editing and screenplay writing.
Wrenching emotions out of the audience is the ultimate creative goal of the filmmaker, which Roy did skillfully by using beautiful music. Roy’s interests in music were varied. Like a quintessential Bengali,
he grew up loving Rabindranath Tagore’s music. Some of today’s renowned Hindustani classical musicians also played background music in some of Roy’s films in their youth. For instance, Pt. Ali Akbar Khan played the sarod in Devdas. Pt. Ram Narayan, the renowned sarangi player, performed in a song in Do Bigha Zameen. Renowned musician Dakshina Mohan Tagore played taar shehnai in Roy movies as did Pt. Vilayat Khan, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Pt. Zakir Hussain.
Roy employed masterful techniques in lighting for his films. Often a scene would begin by focusing the face with light on it, like a Rembrandt painting. Some excellent examples of the chiaroscuro style can be viewed in songs like “Toote Hue Khwabon Ne” (Madhumati) or “Yeh Mera Deewanapan” (Yahudi)with Dilip Kumar or “Kis Ko Khabar” (Devdas) with Vyjanthimala.
At the first International Film Festival held in Moscow, 1959, Roy declared that Sergei Bonderchuk’s The Destiny of Man was the most outstanding film of the year. It dealt with the cruel reality of the common man who is deprived of everything that is precious to him due to war. In his address at Moscow that year, he said, “I do hope that The Destiny of Man is seen by peoples of all nations, by leaders as well as common man. And that everyone from every possible social level is moved by its impact in averting another war.” Inspired, Bimal Roy then went on to produce Usne Kaha Tha (1960) which deals with the sacrifices made by soldiers heading off to wars.
No one could watch Do Bigha Zameen (1953) without being entrenched in the miseries of the farmer and his family. One feels dejected watching the mishaps the farmer and his son endure when they move to the city in search of employment, in a bid to save their land from the clutches of their landlord. For Roy, the purpose of art was to raise questions in the audience’s mind on varied topics; a Bengali trait, if you will, where debating literature, art, politics, and social issues over a cup of tea still remains the norm.
As we forge into the twenty-first century, Roy’s movies continue to inspire the next generation of Indian film-makers, not only in their style and technique but also in the use of film as a medium for social reform. Roy portrayed repeatedly the message of transcending one’s personal struggles, be it poverty, unemployment, women’s oppression, violence, wars, famines, or abuse, while k
eeping the overall goal of creating a progressive society in our daily consciousness.
The relevance of Roy’s movies remains strong and current even today. Watching Kabuliwala reminds me of the status of refugees and immigrants; Parakh, the concept of fair elections; Do Bigha Zameen, the struggle of farmers in India;Sujata and Bandini, the social injustices that still exist in most continents against women, immigrants, and prisoners. Usne Kaha Tha depicts the impact of wars that we still see today.
Simplicity, at the core, was Roy’s trademark. A deep collaboration with his crew members, excellent technical understanding of camera and lighting, brilliant choice of actors, devotion to good stories, exquisite taste in music and dance enabled this simple man from Suapur in Bangladesh in weaving magic through story and music in a foreign land called Bollywood. Roy went on to create an unparalleled history in Indian cinema.
The author offers her heartfelt thanks to Rinki Bhattacharya for sharing her memories of Bimal Roy. She would also like to express her gratitude to Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia and Manohari Singh for their interviews and valuable time.