From one filmmaker to another: the magic of Bimal Roy’s cinema explained

In edited excerpts from a reissued book of essays on Bimal Roy, Shyam Benegal deconstructs the renowned filmmaker’s cinematic approach and themes.

The film which hit me between my eyes was Do Bigha Zamin. I was a schoolboy then. It had struck me as different from anything I had seen before. No film had ever made me discover its maker until then. Do Bigha Zamin was the film that made me look for the name.

Later, I saw some of his earlier works—for example, the Hindi version of Barua’s Devdas in which he was the cameraman—when I was well on my way to become a film-maker. It was more of a professional interest for me then to see how Bimal Roy had progressed and developed from cameraman to author. During his time, the Bombay film industry had people like Mehboob Khan on one side and film-makers like V. Shantaram on the other—these two were big names—and most people went to see their films not because there were stars in it but because it was a Mehboob Khan or a Shantaram film. The third big name was Bimal Roy.

The Pioneer

Bimal Roy’s works stand out for their photography. He took great care to reveal the light source and introduced a sense of time. More importantly, it connected one to reality. You could tell what time of the day a situation was taking place.

His experience as a cameraman was a great asset to him as a director. There had been other cameramen as well, but they had never paid attention to the source of light in photography before him. This brought in a new element in telling of a story. The time of the day was important to him, which gave the audience a better idea. I must admit though that some of the early films that came from Prabhat, in Pune, of that period, had a similar quality, more because of the way they made the sets or the kind of costumes and make-up they used. Fateh Lal and Damle’s works were marked by sets that were realistic. Costumes and scenarios were realistic and the performing style was different from that of Bengali films. The formal style of acting in Bengali films was much more theatrical. When I say theatrical, I mean theatre as practised in Bengal. And theatre as practised in Bengal of that time was greatly influenced by European and British theatre—especially urban theatre. So the very concept of realism came from late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century theatre, while in Prabhat it came directly from life.

Do Bigha Zamin (1953).

As long as Bimal Roy made Bengali films, they were a part of a certain kind of Bengali tradition. It was only after he came to Bombay that there was a change. Do Bigha Zamin in this context is a watershed, especially in terms of performances. A certain tradition of acting becomes less and less theatrical, when you suddenly find that people are natural and are involved with life rather than in performing a role. All these elements came to my notice. And I think that must have also been due to the kind of environment he found himself in Bombay. Bombay itself had a different kind of tradition. It was more akin to Parsi theatre. Remember Sagar Movietone Productions and all the others of that time. There was a certain kind of tradition here but Roy appeared distinct from all that was around. And therefore he seemed to be on that route where eventually you saw Satyajit Ray make the greatest leap.

The Human Module

When I say he was connecting to reality, and using the human module, I mean that Bimal Roy was making human beings seem as human beings. This was quite unlike what you can do with the camera lens; like create a ‘hero’ or give them ‘heroic proportion’ making characters look larger than life, or reduce them. These were some of the expressionist devices of cinema. German cinema did a lot of this. I do not know how Bimal Roy evolved all this. My knowledge of him is entirely through his works.

I imagine that he was part of the New Theatres tradition. It had a humanizing tendency that was mainly because of the kind of liberal background from which Bengali cinema had emerged, particularly in the 1930s. It was intellectual and liberal, both in the Western and Indian sense. In their approach to cinema there was a kind of ‘reform-mindedness’ that came from their liberal attitude, which was against orthodoxy.

Selection of Themes

And this humanism was manifest in his selection of themes, like in the film Sujata, which is about a Harijan girl. Most of his films are consciously concerned with reforms or with social morality of one kind or another; he was not an escapist in any sense of the term. The family was the social unit through which were dealt issues like economic inequality and social oppression. His films are more from the viewpoint of a sympathetic outsider. Do Bigha Zamin is a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a rickshawpuller and peasant Shambhu. The trend of ‘participant view’ came much later. But for Bimal Roy’s time this was remarkable.

Kali Ghata Chhaye, Sujata (1959).

A ‘Compromised’ Film-maker?

I can tell you what had happened to give rise to this allegation. His liberal views after the 1940s in India was being replaced by radical views in painting or other arts. We did not see radical films though. But the whole critical atmosphere started to turn very radical at the time of Independence and soon after it. And those who held essentially liberal views, including film-makers, were seen as those who did not go ‘far enough’. That is exactly what happened. If critics started to say things about Bimal Roy’s compromise, it was because of that feeling; of people like him, not having gone far enough.

On hindsight you can at least see Bimal Roy’s viewpoint as not being invalid. He represented a certain kind of evolution of the urban middle class or what I would call the evolution of the middle-class intelligentsia. He represented the point of view of the urban intelligentsia. I do not see that as invalid at all. Now, it is historically important for us to know how he evolved in the context of the radicalism of the 1950s or 1960s and how this kind of radical ideas developed. The radicalism eventually crystallized only in the 1970s. It rarely showed itself in films of the 1950s. Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak were in Bengal, representing to some extent these radical views through their works. Satyajit Ray of course holds a distinct Jungian, liberal view of the world. Ray crystallized in a more defined way these ideas than Bimal Roy, but this was because Bimal Roy was not working in Bengal but in Bombay. Bimal Roy’s working atmosphere was neither helping nor nurturing him. He tended to get isolated here. As for the subject for his films Bimal Roy took them from Bengali literature or Bengal. Guru Dutt, strangely enough, did the same thing. He chose his subject matter from Bengal though he did not work there. But having spent his early years there, Guru Dutt too responded more easily to currents there than in Bombay. Take Pyaasa for instance or Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam. These are films that are much more representative of the Bengali ethos than of Bombay’s, but that is not the case with the works of Bimal Roy.

Zumli Sang, Madhumati (1958).

What was inevitable did happen in the case of Bimal Roy and also Guru Dutt—constraints in selecting subjects. To get the social content they believed in and also make contact with the audience became extremely difficult for both towards the end of their careers. This eventually brought personal alienation and confusion in works. And making films they believed in became less and less easy, I am sure. This struggle, as you said, was inevitable. In that sense I see Bimal Roy’s confusion parallels Guru Dutt’s. He was never certain of what was going to be his next film and whether he was indeed going to make another and whether he felt excited about it or not. It is true for all film-makers.

Excerpted with permission from Bimal Roy The Man Who Spoke in Pictures, edited by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Anwesha Arya, Penguin Random House India.

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