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The legacy that Bimal Roy left behind

Last updated on: August 18, 2009 

The legacy that Bimal Roy left behind

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They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Nothing seems truer to describe Bimal Roy's works.

One of the most acclaimed film directors of all time, Bimal Roy is particularly noted for his realistic and socialistic films like Do Bigha Zamin, Parineeta, Biraj Bahu, Madhumati, Sujata and Bandini.

The book, The Man Who Spoke in Pictures: Bimal Roy, showcases the director like never before, as seen from the eyes of various film personalities like directors Shyam Benegal and Jahnu Barua, film critic Khalid Mohamed, lyricists Prasoon Joshi and Gulzar and actors Naseeruddin Shah, Nutan and Shashi Kapoor. Edited by Roy's daughter, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, the book boasts of some interesting pictures as well.

We present a chapter from the book, written by Naseer. Take a look:

Assessing an actor's contribution to a film is tricky business. Unlike in the theatre where an individual actor can mesmerise an audience by his very presence, in cinema the most skilful actor in the world can appear false when playing a faultily etched character. In cinema it is not possible to talk of 'acting' as an end in itself, and thus to judge the actors on the basis of their individual virtuosity would be wrong. The value of the acting must be assessed on how successfully or otherwise the actors performed their jobs as messengers of whatever the writer or director wished to convey.

This is true for the theatre as well, but it provides far too much opportunity for the kind of narcissistic showing off by actors that often dazzles audiences but upstages the content of the play, and, when transformed into a film, appears terribly excessive. Further, the hollowness of an actor acting 'for its own sake', show up much more in films than in the theatre, and in either medium the case gets highly aggravated when the character is put into an unconvincing context. But whereas in the theatre an actor can, by personal magic, transcend a poorly written part, in cinema one cannot separate the actor from the way the character is written, and the way the actor is guided.

The tradition of acting that has perpetuated itself in Indian cinema via the films made in the early 1930s was of the nautanki gharana. No surprise then that the early talkies, made in Urdu, drew almost their entire performing talent from the theatre of that language, and were little more than filmed plays performed in the style of the naatak tolis (theatre groups).

This quaint theatrical form, considered the folk drama of Uttar Pradesh, had in turn borrowed generously from the myths and folklore of ancient Iran and mythical Arabia, and had probably drawn inspiration, at least as far as the demonstrative acting went, from the tradition of dastangoi (literally: storytelling), a performance in which a single storyteller recounted tales of resourceful heroes outwitting villainous sorcerers and wicked demons; about potions with magical powers, about damsels in distress and miraculous last-second rescues, about flying horses, fire-breathing serpents and bridges made of smoke.

Though the facility with language in these narratives is astounding there is hardly a shade of grey in the delineation of the people. Every character is representative of an idea, and has barely more than a single dimension. The story often stops in its tracks for a musical interlude underlining what has already happened, and the tales always end with righteousness triumphant and villains annihilated. Sounds similar?

The form of the nautanki in Indian drama enlarged upon this premise, and later, apart from the writer Agha Hashr Kashmiri's adaptations of Shakespeare, included into its repertoire age-old tales of valour, misunderstandings, estranged lovers, warring families and so on. Add to this the fact that these predominantly wordy pieces were performed to mammoth audiences, in rustic settings with rudimentary staging and lighting facilities and non-existent acoustics, and it becomes immediately apparent why bold gestures and the emotional outbursts were standard tools for Urdu actors to communicate with their audience.

Such dramatic devices are used even today in our movies, technical advancement notwithstanding. It also explains why dialogue-driven dramatic pieces have always been of such importance to us as audiences, and to our actors and subsequently to our film-makers. And why does the flawless hero always had to be larger than life, and the villain blacker than night?

Excerpted from The Man Who Spoke in Pictures: Bimal Roy, edited by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, published by Penguin Books India with the publisher's permission, Rs 499.

Buy the book here


Image: Balraj Sahni and Bimal Roy on the set of Kabuliwala

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Such expectations of the audience were happily catered to by most film-makers but these must have weighed heavily on someone like Bimal Roy, who wished to tread 'the path less travelled'.

Looked at from a contemporary viewpoint, theatrical enterprises like the ones described above might seem unbearably tacky, and probably were, so that one assumes that the conviction and vibrancy of the performers must have been such as to hold the audience's attention in these conditions.

Could one possibly read into this the reason for Indian film audiences' well-known lack of discernment, provided they get a ripping good yarn even today? Also, why is it that films with supposedly great form and 'not much by way of story' are outright failures?

And also possibly why our films have always fallen way short of international standards in every department and miserably so at least as far as the acting is concerned. Why our films have never outgrown the influence of the theatre is easy to understand when we consider that cinema in India took birth as a sort of offshoot of the theatre. Our film writers still labour under the influence of those early dramas in which the predominant colours were always black and white. So joined at the hip were the early movies and the theatre, most of it not original anyway, that a healthy separation has not yet occurred, and our films still stop in their tracks for a musical interlude underlining what's already happened!

Our film writers, by and large, still treat characters as symbols to be drawn in the broadest strokes rather than as living, flesh-and-blood people. Any complexity in these characters seems to be deliberately and scrupulously avoided. One could say the same for the situations the characters are placed in; situations tailored to wring out dramatic effect and maximum emotion, whether genuine or not, at the cost of credibility.

It must, however, be said that while cardboard characterisations still abound in our movies the one fault our actors cannot be accused of is lack of vibrancy. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect actors to rise above the material they are given, and therefore, the actors still wage their uphill battle against unconvincing characterisations in our films.

Even twenty or more years after the advent of sound, there was barely an Indian film-maker who dared break the mould of the 'fairy-tale' dramatic presentation. The hero was now the modern incarnation of the wily trickster or valiant charmer or pining lover (generally accompanied by a comic servant) of the stories of yore, the heroine perennially in distress, and the villains invariably from the upper class.

Their magic power was their wealth. It was perhaps into this iota of social awareness among our early screenplay writers that a film-maker like Bimal Roy decided to delve, and devise stories for his films that dealt with issues of his own day rather than settle for the ready-made formulae of the exploitation of the poor, or the obstacles faced by inter-class romance.

Though often hamstrung by shoddy writing and very frequently at the mercy of actors who had cut their teeth on the 'Parsi' tradition of acting, Roy's choice of stories illustrates his deep compassion for and understanding of the plight of the less privileged, and the antagonists in his films are not the teeth-gnashing villainous ogres of yore but the genteel landed aristocracy turned into champion hypocrites by the positions of power they occupy.

Despite this very modern approach to storytelling the acting in most of his films appears deeply flawed today, almost like some of the acting seen in the theatre of an earlier age or in today's worst movies; and the reason is not for to seek.

Even a successful, enlightened, westernised film-maker like Bimal Roy found it hard to counter the decades of tradition that continue to hold our screenplay writers in thrall-the traditions that have caused, permanently I fear, stock characters to occupy place of prominence in our film-writers' collective imagination.


Image: A scene from PC Barua's Grihadaha

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Lest we tend to be charitable to our films because of the context and times in which they were made, let us not overlook that in this same era wonders like Citizen Kane, Breathless and Rashomon were being made in other countries; and when one tries to compare the value of the respective actors' contribution in these films to some of ours, one is left with a somewhat empty feeling of having lagged behind terribly as far as the scripting and acting is concerned.

It is not really a question of understanding any technique of acting but with reproducing truthful behaviour in front of the camera. One believes deeply but hesitates to say that the real reason Hindi films seldom achieve a life-like quality (those that try that is!) is because there seems to be a general lack of perception about human behaviour among our screenplay writers, and a peculiar inability to simulate it on the part of our film-makers.

Instead, there is a perception, almost, of Hindi films as real life and as a reference point. There is thus a tendency to perceive people in real life as 'types'. Or is it an alternative reality deliberately created to shut out all semblance of the real, and often ugly, world? The question is debatable.

It seems like a small wonder that Bimal Roy actually found people to finance his first film in the face of the baggage the film industry carried then, and with which he doubtless had to contend with. There is no record of the obstacles he must have faced to make his first film Udayer Pathe (later remade by him as Humrahi in Hindi) but it could not have been easy convincing financiers to back a film whose chief concern was the depiction of the unremarkable ordinary man as hero.

It would have been fascinating to study the evolution of that idea -- part De Sica, part Capra -- that determined Bimal Roy's early cinematic vision of the protagonist through films like the sadly lost Anjangarh, Pahela Aadmi and Maa.

It would have been of tremendous interest to study also if and how the imminence of Independence affected his cinematic vision in these early ventures. In this first attempt, the technique is shaky, and the acting very far indeed from 'brushing away the cobwebs of the old [theatrical] tradition' that Satyajit Ray later credited him with, but there seems a resolve to not succumb to the formula. It was something he rigorously adhered to. It is, however, another matter altogether that in this process he perhaps unwittingly created the template for all kinds of other formulae.

The influence of Bicycle Thieves is evident in the structuring of certain scenes in Do Bigha Zamin, though woefully absent in his handling of the minor characters. In a number of his films, in fact, he seems to have paid them scant attention, so falsely structured are some of their performances.

There is also his insistence on casting the very same supporting actors in film after film, and while one can perhaps attribute this to his desire to create a repertory of trusted performers around him, like all celebrated directors do, at times the predictability of the casting coupled with the actors' lack of skill gets irksome. Do Bigha Zamin goes perhaps too far in the opposite direction from a happy ending in order to make its point.

The tragedies that relentlessly befall the central characters are stretched beyond believability towards the end in a series of episodes (witness the highly sentimental, almost offensive performance of the young boy) that feel uncomfortably like an attempt to yank at the audiences' heart-strings, but the film is otherwise uncompromising in what it is trying to say, and it stars perhaps the only Indian actor of that time, when many a faux Ronald Coleman or Douglas Fairbanks were thronging the Bombay galaxy, who suited such a part, and who played it with no attempt at beautification.

The significance of Balraj Sahni's performance cannot be overemphasised if we subscribe to the theory that realistic cinema must reflect the truth of its times. Shambhu is perhaps Hindi cinema's first truly contemporary hero, and he is rooted in the reality that Bimal Roy saw as endemic to his native and beloved Calcutta.

While it was the heyday of the neo-realist movement in Europe, Hindi cinema was regurgitating half-digested Hollywood (which it still continues to do) and along came this film with the story easily identifiable in any part of the country; truthful, austere and hard-hitting, and also astonishingly prescient in these days of farmers' suicides and the wholesale grabbing of agricultural land by blood-sucking corporations.


Image: Balraj Sahni and Murad in Do Bigha Zamin

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One must, at this point, ruminate over what the art-film-makers of the 1970s would have done but for this one film. Many were content to slavishly imitate what was devised by one of the few original film-makers we have had. The subjugation of the landless became as much a formula for them as the song and dance routine was for the 'masala' film-makers. The much-lauded Paar (1984), in which pigs crossing the river replaced the metaphor of Shambhu's rickshaw, was in fact nothing but a reworking of Do Bigha Zamin.

Popular cinema, at the same time, owes an equally large debt to Bimal Roy. He was acutely aware of his social responsibilities but probably had strong desire to satisfy public taste as well, which perhaps explains the seemingly inconsistent choice of the film Yahudi. At its best a throwback to the most archaic (not ancient) form of written theatre in India, the film also, perhaps unwittingly, gave birth to the 'commercial formula'. While its attempt to recreate the grandeur of the Roman Empire is laughable (the Roman emperor arrives alone driving his own chariot!) it relies heavily on inverting a Shakespearean play by making the central character a good Jew.

It borrows partly from Ben-Hur, then swerves towards Hamlet and even gives a passing nod to Oedipus blinding himself. The twists in the plot of this Agha Hashr play are the devices that have become the bedrock of the regular Hindi film story, and the cliches seem carved in stone in our film-makers' collective consciousness. Devoid of them, the audience too feels on unfamiliar ground, and so naturally it takes a film-maker of extraordinary skill to keep a conditioned audience gripped by an unusual story.

Why does Roy, between significant small films like Do Bigha Zamin and Sujata, whose strength lay in the fragility of emotion and the contradictions in people's natures and whose chief concerns were of a social and contemporary nature, bother with a revival of this musty, almost extinct kind of theatrical presentation is puzzling.

Perhaps he saw the story of Yahudi as an analogy for religious amity or maybe he was just aware of the effect this formula would have. Maybe he knew that it would create the form for a zillion future Hindi films or maybe it was only his abiding affection for 'Parsi' theatre that made him create this clunky embarrassment, with the actors performing in styles as diverse from each other as they could possibly be. His solitary moment of triumph in the performance of the unbearably mannered and totally inexpressive Sohrab Modi occurs in a moment of complete stillness when the character mourns his dead daughter.

The male actors normally associated with Bimal Roy's films are the oft-cast Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar. Balraj Sahni who in fact did one film under the master's baton and another (Kabuliwala) that was produced by Roy also makes the list.

Perhaps it was the innate credibility associated with both Sahni and Roy as people that makes them almost synonymous in the popular imagination. Dilip Kumar became the absolute paradigm for tormented romance in Devdas and also, despite a Roman costume carefully designed to camouflage a very un-Roman physique, for his understated dignity in Yahudi.

Ashok Kumar's appearances in Parineeta (1953) and Bandini (1963) are a decade apart, and the two roles are accurate indicators of the direction that celebrated thespian's career took in between. Pure intensity and soul mark his role in the earlier film. He is miscast in the latter, and turns in a rather self-congratulatory performance as the young firebrand.

The performance of the not-yet-famous Dharmendra, on the other hand, is suffused with sweetness and vulnerability. The two parts should really have been switched. There are reasons for the three leading naturalistic actors of that time being thought of as Bimal Roy's perennial leading me, the huge box office success of these films being not so unimportant a factor, but it is intriguing to read 'Bharat Bhushan' and 'Ranjan' in some of the credits, alongside some celebrated names of Bengali theatre and cinema.

It would have been fascinating to know the reasons Bimalda had in casting 'mythological' Bhushan or 'stunt' Ranjan, neither of them renowned for their believability as performers, in realistic social dramas but these films are lost.

In Naukri (1954) the startling choice of Kishore Kumar for the unsuccessful job-seeking protagonist is as much indicative of Bimalda's desire to dispense with stereotypes, as it is of the ills that beset later commercial cinema in India, and the unwritten codes that engendered themselves: firstly, do not place a strain on the audience's mind; secondly, do not get too complex or too subtle, and finally, spell everything out. As against his 'character-driven' films this is one of Bimalda's few incident-driven' films, the other being Parakh to which it is vastly inferior, not in its premise but in treatment.

The conflicts in the plot barely settle into our awareness when they are resolved without too much effort, and resultantly with little dramatic impact. The supporting actors again seem to have been told to do what they please and the leads look disinterested in the proceedings. The whole enterprise seems peculiarly lackadaisical.

Kishore Kumar, who otherwise was easily one of the Hindi screen's most watchable actors seems to be labouring under the weight of not being able to do what he does best, being funny. By this time it was becoming clear that Bimalda was looking, from his leading actors, for the kind of performances that would define their personalities. In the case of Naukri and the great Kishroeda, however, it is my opinion that he failed.


Image: A scene from Parineeta

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But meanwhile his search for truth in the acting was receiving a payoff in another direction. The 'Dilip Kumar persona' was being honed to perfection, by the gentleman in question, with no small help from Roy through enterprises like Devdas and later Madhumati. Even though Yahudi does seem a film rather hurriedly put together, made to pre-empt Mughal-e-Azam which was taking endless decades to make, it was probably Yahudi that firmly established Dilip Kumar as the Heathcliff-like character the audiences adored and have continued to do.

It was a persona needed by Hindi cinema I daresay, and it was perhaps Bimal Roy's vision that helped him embody it. This is perhaps not the right forum to dwell on the Dilip Kumar syndrome, which has beset our film acting and continues to influence every generation of actors since, so it would do to simply express deep appreciation for Dilip Kumar's modernity of approach to his work at a time when acting 'by semaphore', so to say, was the norm, and to thank our good fortune that visionaries like Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan and K Asif perceived this kind of acting as being closer to the kind of truth they wished to portray. One cannot, however, help pondering on the possibilities of Balraj Sahni playing Devdas!

The films Sujata (1959) and Parakh (1960) represent, to me, the high point of his career in film-making. His Capraesque demons had finally been exorcised and he had moved on to more immediate concerns and issues that sprang from his own roots, and even though he produced some pretty mediocre stuff (like Prem Patra and Benazir) these two gems along with the later Bandini and of course the earlier Do Bigha Zamin constitute as formidable a body of work as any.

The theme of Parakh is greed and opportunism, the newly found identity of independent India, and the very material aspirations of its people. The central character (an oddball, played by Motilal), the sort of person to whom one would not give the time of day, has a peculiar modern heroism.

Though Motilal tries hard to charm, he need not have bothered; the script did all the work for him, all he had to do was to appear as enigmatic as possible and limp convincingly, neither of which he succeeded in doing. The many accolades he received for this performance are evidence, if any were needed, of how forgiving our audiences actually are when a certain character catches their fancy. The entire mise-en-scene, however, has tenderness and care that was seldom associated with rural subjects then (I wonder if Bimal Roy's opinion of Pather Panchali is on record anywhere!) and the actors play with the kind of zest that states they are not taking the proceedings too seriously.

One feels witness to something wonderful that is actually happening now. This terrain of the common man, not touched by fate, to whom no helpful angels appear was explored by a few later film-makers, most notably by his erstwhile proteges, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar.

Sujata on the other hand is a searing indictment of upper-class hypocrisy and features perhaps the most complex and interesting character ever in Hindi movies, the fundamentalist Brahmin aunt played by Lalita Pawar. It also features the most understated performance of Sunil Dutt's career. Nutan, whom I always considered close to divine, however, now appears a more mechanical actress than my adorning adolescent eyes let me see her as.

The emotions, expressed through some very attractive facial twitching, appear manufactured but it is a face you cannot take your eyes off. She looks, as always, a real person, devastatingly desirable and attainable. That perhaps was the real magic of Nutan. She had that quality without being anywhere even close to wanton! The character is drawn with an accuracy and depth rare in our scripts even today and her perfect poise and earthiness complete the picture; it is only perhaps repeated viewing of the film that makes her technique apparent.

On viewing Roy's films today there is an uncomfortable question that does raise its head. Why did this thoroughly modern film-maker, whose sensibilities, whose perception of people created complex believable characters like the above, almost always resort to dutiful wives flinging themselves, or yearning to fling themselves at their husbands' feet at the slightest provocation? This is a conundrum the answer to which might explain the somewhat inconsistent output of this otherwise even-minded and progressive human being.

If towards the end he seemed to be losing his touch somewhat with Prem Patra, one can attribute it either to weariness with the star system or just plain fatigue. Bimal Roy's output is nothing if not prolific. The casting in his later films, though more 'ensemble' than before, saw only the central performances stand out, and the minor characters appeared mostly as irritants.

By the time he had completed Bandini he had completely mastered the visual and acting style that was to become associated with him. His future work would surely progress further towards perfection -- but fate had other plans.

It was perhaps fitting that Bimalda exited when at the height of his powers, though he would probably not have been able to salvage something like Benazir and one can only yearn over what he might have produced in a truly modern India with a team of truly modern actors.

But the truth is that the acting we consider modern today is the result of a long tedious process that started evolving long before any of us were born or even thought of, and it was people like Bimal Roy who made that process possible.


Image: Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Bimal Roy and Naushad at the Filmfare Awards in 1953

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