Bollywood Legend Bimal Roy: How Classics Moved the Maestro

(On Bimal Roy’s 110thBirth Anniversary, Ratnottama Sengupta traces his enduring affair with books.)


Bimal Roy (12 th July,1909 – 8th January,1966)


“Bimal Da and I – particularly I, being a writer – always looked to literature for story, the raw material of cinema.  People can and do write original scripts for the silver screen, but we did not prefer that because it tends to be hurried writing. We preferred to source our films from books because a writer has already worked on an idea, on the character, on the logic of their action, and its final resolution…”

–Nabendu Ghosh(1917-2007) in And They Made Classics…

He was already a recognised name in Bengali literature when Nabendu Ghosh met Bimal Roy, his film guru. Bimal Roy was a voracious reader. The reasons for this were many.

To begin with Bimal Roy, since school days, had been friends with Sudheesh Ghatak, brother of Manish Ghatak who is better known to Bengali readers as Jubanaswa, a radical writer of  the Kallol era introducing modernism, who drew litterateurs like Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) to his house. The entire family had the gift of story-telling — and not only the eldest brother but also his daughter Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) and his youngest brother Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976). Even Sudheesh Ghatak has won accolades for this art.


Poster of Tagore’s Natir Puja from NT

Eventually, Bimal Roy’s penchant for photography took him to New Theatres (NT) which had, since its inception, transcreated the major novels and stories of writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra and Sarat Chandra. In fact NT produced not only Tagore’s own Natir Puja (The Dancer’s Prayer, 1932) but also the comedy, Chirakumar Sabha (Bachelor’s Conference, 1932) and Arghya (Offerings, 1937), besides Kapal Kundala (Bankim Chandra, 1933), Dena Paona (Give and Take, 1931), Palli Samaj (Rural Society, 1932), Grihadaaha (House on Fire, 1936), Devdas (1936), Bardidi (Elder Sister, 1939), Kashinath (1943), Biraj Bou (Biraj the Wife, 1946), and Ramer Sumati (The Redemption of Ram, 1947) — all from Sarat Chandra stories.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bimal Roy had this super ability to glean the best, the most outstanding, the most meaningful from the new lot of writers who were emerging on the horizon following the churnings Bengal was going through in the 1940s. Thus, even in 1943, his debut film Udayer Pathey (Towards the Light) — later viewed in Hindi as Humrahi — could build upon the social awareness writer Jyotirmoy Roy projected in his debut novel and fulfil the higher purpose by which any art becomes a classic. Critics saw in the film not merely a rich girl-poor boy romance but also thematic boldness and technical pragmatism, while the common viewer saw for the first time on screen ‘people like us’. In short, his avant-garde recreation of contemporary reality revolutionised the very concept of cinema as a social document.

IMG_0535When Ghosh first met Bimal Roy, the director startled the writer by saying, “You have the makings of a screen writer.” From the day he had seen Udayer Pathey, Ghosh — a cine-buff since his school days — had a nascent desire to work with Roy. And the common binding of love for humanity forged a creative association between the director and the writer for whom literature was an instrument to tackle all that is sordid and destructive in life, society or the state. Not surprisingly Roy decided to film Ajab Nagarer Kahini (Tales of a Curious Land), Ghosh’s allegorical novel about life and politics anywhere in the world but particularly pertinent to the newborn republic. That the venture did not work out did not affect the bonding between the duo which, after 1950, went on to give world cinema such classics as Parineeta (The Married One), Biraj Bahu, Devdas, Yahudi (The Jew), SujataBandini (The Prisoner).

Before he moved to Bombay, Bimal Roy had made Anjangarh ( The Fort of Anjan Garh, 1948) and Mantramugdha (Spellbound, 1949) — both based on stories by two established writers of Bengali literature, Subodh Ghosh and Banaphul — ‘Wild Flower’, the pseudonym of physician Dr Balaichand Mukherjee. In the radical short story Fossil, Subodh Ghosh made a bold statement on the gradual encroachment of the powerful political lobby into the adivasi belt of Bihar-Jharkhand, dispossessing the tribals who were the original occupants of the land. Discerning viewers could read between the frames, echoes of the colonial rule that had ended just a year before.

Banaphul’s was a hilarious satire on the practice of rigorous religious ritual and blind adherence to superstition that was common in Hindu households a century ago. Why hilarious? Because at its core was a housewife who is led to believe that a newfound dog is an incarnation of her husband who had fled her shrewish temper.

However, Bimal Roy is nationally remembered more than 50 years after he passed away for gifting the Indian screen three sparkling Sarat Chandra novels; a classic in the Parsi-Urdu theatre tradition by Agha Hashr Kashmiri; another Subodh Ghosh story about untouchability, and a novel by Jarasandha – pen name of Charu Chandra Chakraborty, a jail superintendent – whose subtext was jail reforms. These were Parineeta (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954), Devdas (1955), Yahudi (1957), Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1964). And, all six were scripted by Nabendu Ghosh.

Parineeta is probably the most loved and most ‘freely adapted’ of all novels by Sarat Chandra. It would thus help to remember that this endearing romantic comedy –somewhat in the Jane Austen mould — was penned as social protest. So the rich boy-poor girl equation was set in the context of the conflict between the newly emerging reformist sect, Brahmo Samaj and the tradition bound Hindu society. Subsequently Indian screen has seen at least three remakes of Parineeta — by Ajoy Kar (1969), Anil Ganguly (Sankoch, meaning hesitation,1976) and Pradeep Sarkar (2005) respectively.

IMG_0534If the unarticulated childhood love of Shekhar and Lalita came to fruition in Parineeta, that of Devdas and Paro had a tragic ending. Yet, amazingly, Devdas has seen far many more remakes, adaptations, plagiarisms. Bimal Roy himself had wielded the camera in an earlier, 1935 version of Devdas featuring K L Saigal. But to date, his version with Dilip Kumar in the eponymous role continues to dazzle viewers. In 2005, Indiatimes Movies reportedly ranked it among the ‘25 Must See Films of Bollywood’. It has figured in the University of Iowa’s list of ‘Top 10 Bollywood Films’. It had got a Certificate of Merit at the National Film Awards (NFA) 1956, and the lead actors had swept the popular Filmfare Awards.

IMG_0533Biraj Bahu, again, had built upon a childhood love — this time, of Biraj married to Nilambar as a child.  He earned nothing, they were childless, yet she loved him to no end while he got suspicious because the wealthy zamindar (landlord) was drawn to the penurious beauty. There is nothing but empathy, then, for the housewife who is subjected to scorn and ostracism when she is believed to have eloped with a paramour. In many ways considered ahead of its time, this film was nominated for the Palme D’Or 1955, besides winning the Certificate of Merit at the NFA, and Filmfare trophies for the Director and the Actress.

Bandini once again was crowned with a Silver Trophy at the Karlovy Vary Festival 1965. And to this day it is considered a culmination of Bimal Roy’s mastery over the celluloid medium. According to seasoned critics, every frame of the film is carefully crafted, and every scene is layered with emotion. Not surprising that in film schools globally it is studied for almost every aspect of filmmaking; its cinematography, its sound design, its use of music, and most of all its performances. Most notably, Nutan’s in the central role of Kalyani — jailed for poisoning the wife of a nationalist who had betrayed her love. The film was based on the Bengali novel Tamasi, and poignantly brought to fore the plight of many prisoners who languish behind bars because of crimes that were committed as they were subjected to social injustice.

Of all the social injustices committed by humans, perhaps none is as grave as the social inequity suffered due to caste inequity. Sujata— based on another Bengali short story ‘Atmaja’ — therefore remains a perennial favourite of Indian viewers beginning with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad, down to a chauffeur, or even a four-year-child, when the film premiered, down to this day, when it has completed six decades. Much like Bandini, it is studied for its characterisation, its use of music, of light and shadow, of natural phenomenon such as clouds and trees and river. But one of the unmatched moments of the film is created by the use of a Gandhi statue with the inscription: ‘Want to die? Why? If you must die, do so for a better life.’ In this 150thyear of Gandhi’s birth, and long after the term ‘Achhut’ — Untouchable — has metamorphosed into Scheduled Caste, Dalit, and OBC, Sujata continues to vow one and all with its balanced questioning of an inhuman practice that has yet to lose its edge.

Bimal Roy’s affair with letters continued till the very end of his life cut short in 1966. Indeed, it can be said to have lived beyond his life. His last dream to film the journey of faith documented by Samaresh Bose in Amrit Kumbher Sandhaney (In Search of the Nectar) remained unfulfilled. But almost every one of his associates who took to filmmaking returned to literature, time and again, giving rise to the Bimal Roy school of filmmaking. One only has to go through the list of films made by his associates to realize the truth of this statement.

Sample them: Roy himself produced Kabuliwala, directed by Hemen Gupta, as a centenary tribute to Tagore. His son-in-law Basu Bhattacharya won the coveted Golden Lotus at NFA 1966 for Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow, scripted from Hindi writer Phaniswar Nath Renu’s short story by Nabendu Ghosh). Phalke winner Hrishikesh Mukherjee won the Best Story Filmfare trophy for Banaphul’s Arjun Pandit. Tapan Sinha was awarded for Haatey Baajarey (In the Market Place) constructed on Banaphul’s story. Sudhendu Roy made Upahar (Gift) from Tagore’s short story Samapti, and Saudagar (The Trader) from Narendranath Mitra’s short story, Ras.

Nabendu Ghosh, though himself a writer, made Trishagni (Sandstorm,1988) from the Saradendu Banerjee short story, ‘Maru O Sangha’. While Gulzar perhaps the youngest of Roy’s assistants, made Namkeen (Salted, 1982), Khushboo (Fragrance,1975), Ijaazat (Acceptance,1987) and Angoor (Grapes,1982) on creations by Samaresh Bose, Sarat Chandra (Pandit Mashai), Subodh Ghosh (Jatugriha) and Bankim Chandra’s adaptation of the Shakespearean Comedy of Errors.

And Ritwik Ghatak, who penned the story of Bimal Roy’s reincarnation classic, Madhumati (1958), too crafted his own classics Meghe Dhaka Taara (The Cloud-Capped Star,1960), Ajantrik (The Mechanical Man, 1958), and the Indo-Bangla co-production Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Named Titas, 1973) from gems of Bengali literature by Saktipada Rajguru, Jagaddal by Subodh Ghosh and Adwaita Malla Burman.

Footnote: The titles of both Udayer Pathey, which nationally established Bimal Roy as a path breaker, and Do Bigha Zameen, which brought him international renown as a neo-realist filmmaker, were derived from Tagore poems. The phrase Udayer Pathey (Towards the Dawn) is part of a couplet inscribed on the wall of the protagonist Anup who, incidentally, is a writer. And the germination of Do Bigha Zameen came from the poem  Dui Bigha Jami (Two Acres of Land). Salil Chowdhury’s script deviates in that, instead of an orchard, the landlord deviously appropriates the farmer’s land to erect a factory — a contemporary reality for the newly independent nation setting out on the path of industry.

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics (2018). Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam KadamMe and I, That Bird Called Happiness.



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One comment

  • Antara Nanda Mondal

    This is a fantastic tribute Ratna Di. The way you have explored Bimal Da’s roots, his family culture that had the natural flair of story telling, and then moving on to study how his love for literature got transformed into story telling on the silver screen is a fascinating journey. Bimal Da’s adaptations of Sarat Chandra is easily the best ever in Indian cinema and Nabendu Da played a huge role in bringing them to life in true essence.
    I am going to save this post for regular reference. Thank you for writing this. 🙂

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