The Films of Bimal Roy
Bimal Roy was not just one of the major directors of Bollywood's Golden Age; he was a writer, producer, and outstanding cinematographer as well, most notably on P.C. Barua's 1935 production of Devdas (remade with Roy as director twenty years later). He was born in what is now Bangladesh on July 12, 1909, and got into the film business as a camera assistant at the seminal New Theatres studio in Calcutta. As New Theatres began its slow collapse after Partition, Roy moved to Bombay; he brought with him a sophistication and literary sense that great Bengali directors seem to claim as a birthright.
In the early fifties he started his own production company; its inaugural release was the justly famous Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land), an international hit mining the same hardscrabble vein as the roughly contemporary Italian neorealists. By the time of his death in 1966 he had created a body of classic films that rival the work of fellow Bengali Satyajit Ray; indeed, Roy is often credited with "opening the door" for what Indian cineastes call parallel cinema (art-house flicks).
Westerners can get a sense of the importance of this story in Indian film culture by thinking of it as South Asia's Star Is Born: often-filmed and always an A-list picture. The special quality of this version comes from the cast, especially the great Dilip Kumar (probably the most respected actor in Hindi film history) and Roy's exquisite mise-en-scène. Roy's shots make me think of Renoir movies, like the scene in Les Bas-fonds when Gabin and Jouvet relax on a riverbank. Nature is closely observed throughout; in Devdas it is the sun relecting off river water as a woman stoops to fill a jug; a stray closeup of flies in a train's light fixture; travellers fording a stream in bare feet.
Actors often give their best performances in Bimal Roy films and Devdas is no exception. In addition to the standout performance from Dilip Kumar in the title role, the great Bengali artist Suchitra Sen appears here in her first Hindi film, along with gorgeous Vyjayantimala. Based on a short and extremely popular Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Devdas is about unrequited love, caste taboos, a terrible mistake, and that special trope of Bollywood, a drunken poet. I can't think of a single US film that features a poet as protagonist; in India there have been dozens.
Bandini, Roy's last completed film, is a masterpiece. It is the story of a woman who kills for love and then accepts the consequences: in this case, prison. The fabulous Nutan downplays her Audrey Hepburn looks in a neo-realist turn, and 40s matinee idol Ashok Kumar appears in a strong character role as the aging and ailing freedom fighter. (Nutan had also appeared in Roy's Sujata in 1959, another seminal picture; before she died at the age of 54 she had won the Filmfare award — India's Oscar —for Best Actress a record-breaking five times.)
Bandini also features screen-hunk Dharmendra — before his ascent to superstardom — in a pivotal role as the prison doctor. (He has an uncanny resemblance in this role to Vince Edwards in American TV's contemporary hospital series, Ben Casey). Twelve years after Bandini (in 1975) Dharmendra played Veeru in the most popular Hindi film ever made, the mythic Sholay.
The songs in Bandini deserve special mention, as does the composer, the great S.D. Burman. Burman was the the bridge between millenia-old Hindustani traditions and the Bollywood soundtrack; he brought traces of Bengali folk melody to dozens of masterpieces like Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Vijay Anand’s Guide. He wrote for the best singers (Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar) and his hit songs were defining moments in the best films (including one of my favorite moments in all of Hindi cinema, Geeta Dutt singing “Waqt Ne Kiya Kya” in Kaagaz Ke Phool.).
Two emotionally devastating moments in Bandini occur during Burman sequences. A female prisoner grinding flour begins to sing, "This year, father, send my brother to escort me home.." The song is "Ab ke Baras" sung by Asha Bhosle; Roy cuts from the faces of one woman to another as they all share mournful thoughts of lost families, lost homes. Another killer is "Mat ro maata laal tere," sung by Manna Dey and picturized on a young freedom fighter walking calmly towards his hanging; outside, beyond the prison gates, his mother and young sister stand waiting.
There is nothing campy, corny, or cliched about a film like Bandini. When Westerners think about Bollywood — if at all — they've got their irony detectors set on high. Sometimes they're right (Hum Aapke Hain Koun, or Amitabh's Aamar Akbar Anthony, for instance), but sometimes they're wrong. We're not in Hairspray territory here — instead, think Bicycle Thief.
This picture was Roy's biggest hit, an elegaic ghost story told in flashback by leading man Dilip Kumar, Bollywood's first and foremost advocate of The Method. He's often compared to Brando in both his underplayed style and his influence on subsequent performers. His leading lady in Madhumati is the exquisite Vyjayantimala, who also appeared with Dilip in Devdas, for which she won — and subsequently refused to accept — a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress. (She didn't feel it was a supporting role, and she was right.) She is famous as one of the first great dancers of Hindi cinema, with extensive training in the Manipuri classical style. In the 1954 hit Nagin she had an astounding eight solo routines, all of them ostensibly filmed in one take.
Roy's visual sense predominates in Madhumati: thin curtains caught in the wind, fog-enveloped mountain forests, a shadowy figure on a parapet, a decadent majarajah eying a young and beautiful peasant girl from atop his horse. The ambience of the same majarajah's once-sumptuous, now decaying villa reminds me of the mysterious monochrome spaces in Cocteau's La Belle et La Bête.
Other important Bimal Roy pictures: Parineeta (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954), Sujata (1960), and Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Do Bigha Zamin was winner of the Prix International at the seventh Cannes Film Festival and is now recognized as one of the classics of neorealist cinema.