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Ashok Kumar and Nutan in Bandini

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Dinesh Raheja

While fellow filmmaking greats like V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan's hits straddled three to four decades, Bimal Roy etched his reputation as one of the foremost Hindi film directors (with two hat-tricks for Best Director Awards and seven awards in all), within a short span of a little over a decade.

Bimal Roy's ponder-worthy yet crowd-pleasing cinema did not rely on big-budget grandeur. He used his perceptive camera lens that seemed to pierce into the human condition as well as bring the subtextual context into sharp relief, to spin socially relevant autobiographical stories (Biraj Bahu, Devdas, Madhumati, Sujata, Bandini), about the ordinary person caught in extraordinary situations.

Bimal Roy's Landmark Films
 Year  Film  Cast
 1953  Do Bigha Zameen  Balraj Sahni, Nirupa Roy
 1953  Parineeta  Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari
 1954  Biraj Bahu  Kamini Kaushal, Abhi Bhattacharya
 1955  Devdas  Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala,  Suchitra Sen
 1958  Yahudi  Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari
 1958  Madhumati  Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala
 1959  Sujata  Nutan, Sunil Dutt
 1960  Parakh  Motilal, Sadhana
 1961  Kabuliwala
 [only produced]
 Balraj Sahni
 1963  Bandini  Ashok Kumar, Nutan, Dharmendra

An aesthete, Roy's talents first flourished in New Theatres film studio in the Kolkata of the 1930s. While Nitin Bose and P C Barua were fashioning early classics, Roy started as a camera assistant and later cinematographer for landmarks like Devdas and Mukti.

Roy made his directorial debut with Udayer Pathey (1944), a sensational success about an author's fight against exploitation. It proved a benchmark in social realism in Indian cinema. When the film was released in Hindi as Hamrahi, Roy was ardently wooed by Mumbai. Roy came to Mumbai, apparently at Ashok Kumar's behest, to direct Bombay Talkies's Maa (1952).

With Bombay Talkies on a downward spiral, Ashok Kumar asked Roy to direct his own production Parineeta (1953), starring Meena Kumari and himself. Influenced by the neo-realist Italian cinema, Roy also decided to make a stark film. Defying friends who insisted he did not have the temperament of a producer Roy started his production concern with Do Bigha Zameen (1953). The film starred Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy.

The most productive phase of his career had begun. Parineeta, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel, was a sweet little love story about neighbours, conventions and inhibitions; but the deeply humanist Do Bigha Zameen which involves us in a poor peasant's visceral struggle to save his patch of land won wide acclaim at Cannes and Karlovy Vary Film Festivals and went on to become a cinematic reference point back home.

Roy was acclaimed for the realism with which he lined the film. Nirupa Roy remembers wearing unwashed clothes from Chor Bazaar while Sahni (in a tour de force performance) practised pulling a rickshaw on the Kolkata roads for days.

Do Bigha Zameen did not rely purely on dialogue, it also had a rich cinematic vocabulary. Its richly textured black-and-white imagery is justifiably famous, especially the last shot where the peasant family return only to wretchedly gape at a factory standing on their do bigha zameen.

In Roy's Devdas (1955) too, with the aid of cinematographer Kamal Bose, Roy achieved fascinating mood lighting which enhanced its tight-lipped protagonist's (Dilip Kumar's) tormented emotional oscillations. Devdas's last journey in a rattling cart, Paro's midnight offer of elopement and the top shot of Chandramukhi swirling in a dance are sequences which Roy pulled off with finesse.

Famous Songs of Bimal Roy's Films
 Song  Film  Singers
 Hariyala sawan dhol  bajata aaya  Do Bigha  Zameen  Lata Mangeshkar,  Manna Dey
 Gore gore haathon
 mein mehndi
 Parineeta  Asha Bhosle
 Chhotasa ghar hoga  Naukri  Kishore Kumar
 Aan milo Shyam sanware  Devdas  Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey
 Yeh mera deewanapan  hai  Yahudi  Mukesh
 Aaja re  Madhumati  Lata Mangeshkar
 Jalte hai jiske liye  Sujata  Talat Mehmood
 O sajna barkha
 bahaar aayee
 Parakh  Lata Mangeshkar
 Aye mere pyaare watan  Kabuliwala  Manna Dey
 Mere saajan hai uspaar  Bandini  S D Burman

One of the most awarded Indian directors, Roy was awarded the first three Filmfare Awards for Best Director over three consecutive years for Do Bigha Zameen, Parineeta and Biraj Bahu.

Kamini Kaushal remembers Roy asking her to read the Sarat Chandra novel on which the film was based before arriving for the shoot.

Never one to be extravagant with his film budgets or time, Roy's need to express himself through films resulted in his being highly prolific in 1954 alone, besides Biraj Bahu, he also directed Naukri (Kishore Kumar, Sheila Ramani) and Baap Bete (Ranjan, Nalini Jaywant).

Roy gave breaks to many fledgling directors by producing small and often experimental films like Amanat (Bharat Bhushan, Chaand Usmani), Apradhi Kaun (Mala Sinha, Abhi Bhattachrya), Usne Kaha Tha (Sunil Dutt, Nanda), Kabuliwala (Balraj Sahni) and Benazir (Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari).

His directorial ventures may have been esoteric and high minded, but they were also accessible with hummable songs and an overwhelming poignancy in the human interactions.

One of his biggest hits was Madhumati (1958). Cynics said Roy had compromised by pandering to popular taste with this reincarnation, romance and retribution saga. But the sheer lyricism and intensity that Roy imbued the musical with made the film an unforgettable experience.

Madhumati won Roy Filmfare's Best Director Award setting off another hat-trick with awards for Sujata and Parakh.

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Roy's collaboration with Nutan resulted in two dramatic classics. Sujata (1959), the first, charmingly and convincingly argued for a more humanistic society where caste differences did not determine a person's destiny.

After Sujata, Nutan opted for matrimony and a hiatus from films. During this phase, Roy made two films with newcomer Sadhana, Parakh and Prem Patra.

When Nutan returned to movies after Mohnish's birth, Roy started work on Bandini (1963), arguably Nutan's most famous performance ever and Roy's best realised work.

Roy carefully chose his story from a work of literature. Bandini was based on a novel by Jarasandha. Roy and Nutan brought to startling life a remarkable woman whose binding love for a revolutionary brings about her ruination as well as deliverance.

Roy's polished filmmaking continued to rely on searing visuals, whether it was Sujata soundlessly switching off the lights (of her hopes) after being serenaded on the phone by her lover; or the long wordless scene in Bandini where Nutan, beaten by life, is pushed towards murder.

After Bandini, Roy was to start a film, but death claimed him in 1966. Roy was only 57, but his genius spreads through Hrishikesh Mukherji, Gulzar, Basu Bhattacharya, the actors and the musicians who had benefitted from their association with him.

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