In addition to their elegance and beautiful film craft, Bimal Roy’s movies have something to say — they hold up a mirror to the society of the era, highlight progressive thinking, challenge brutal exploitation and show the innate strength of women. He has been the subject of documentaries, and many books have been written on his life and work. But perhaps less well known is the story of his wife, Manobina Roy.
Bimal Roy was an established cinematographer at Calcutta’s New Theatres, working with Nitin Bose and PC Barua, when he met his future wife, Manobina Sen Roy. During a family holiday in Mukteshwar near Nainital sometime in the late 1930s, Bimal Roy first saw the young Manobina and immediately proposed. Her father initially felt ‘Bina’, as she was known, was too young to marry, but it was not long before he gave his consent. In 1939, the couple were married in a traditional Bengali ceremony in Banaras where the Sen Roy family had settled. Manobina was 17 and Bimal Roy was 28.
“Behind every successful man is a wise and confident woman”— the saying may be a cliché, but Manobina Roy did become that strong force in her husband’s life. Besides discussing his films together, she shared with him an equal understandingof photography (her own photographs were regularly published in the Illustrated Weekly of India), accompanied him on his trips in India and abroad and encouraged him to adapt literature to the screen (she was the author of the Bengali novel So Far, That Near, and was a regular columnist for Femina).
Thanks to Behroze Gandhy, a friend who still lives in London, I met Mrs Bimal Roy and her three daughters, Rinki, Yashodhra, Aparajita and son Joy. This was in the early eighties, some 15 years after Bimal Roy had passed away. It seemed that everyone who came to the sprawling and exquisite bungalow where they lived on Mount Mary Road in Bandra called Mrs Roy “Ma.” She was welcoming and warm, and as the years passed, I got to know Yashodhara, Aparajita and Joy very closely. Whenever I visited from London, I spent many hours in that enchanting house, and started calling Manobina Roy “Ma.” She said with a smile: “Has the word ‘Ma’ become some sort of a pet name?”
Through the ’90s, when the evening light turned their living room ethereally beautiful, Mrs Roy and I often sat for hours talking about her husband’s work. On the far wall of the room, a large photograph of Bimal Roy hung above a row of black statuettes. He was the only director to have received 11 Filmfare awards for Best Direction or Best Film, starting with Do Bigha Zamin in 1953. In brilliant cinematic language, the film tells the simple and heartbreaking story of a farmer struggling to save his land from a greedy landlord.
Despite the respect and critical glory that Bimal Roy received in his lifetime, money did not flow in that household. The director knew if he wanted to make films of his own choice that meant producing them, but he cared little for the box office and told me he always followed his instinct.
“In Hindi we say ‘hatke,’ and Madhumati was something different from anything that my husband had made,” Mrs Roy said. “People criticised the film because it was a ghost story. They said, ‘How can Bimal Roy, who is such a realist, stoop down to this level?’ It’s simply a ghost story, and a love story. His sternest critics did not like him making it. But Madhumati is still today [1990s] the only film that has kept us alive. All the other films are not exactly forgotten — that’s not true —they are remembered for their quality, but they do not make any money.”
One day I asked Manobina Roy to tell me something about her husband that was not widely known. The frequent description one read was that he was a man of a few words. She said, yes, he was a very silent man but he had a great sense of humour that showed itself in the privacy of their home.
On January 8, 1966, Bimal Roy died of lung cancer in that same sprawling bungalow on Mount Mary Road. Manobina Roy was only 44, a young woman by today’s standards. With the grief of losing her much-loved husband came great pressure and responsibility. Single-handedly, she raised her children and instead of closing the offices of Bimal Roy Productions and letting her husband’s staff go, she made sure that they were paid a salary well into the ’80s, even when all production had ceased.
Manobina Roy passed away in 2001. With her an era of gracious living has gone. Yashodhara, Aparajita and Joy still keep their doors wide open for me. They now live in a gem-like cottage next to the land where the old bungalow once stood. That familiar photograph of Bimal Roy still hangs on their living room wall, and now alongside it is a photograph of the lovely Manobina Roy.