Overwhelmed by grief when my father passed away in January 1966
I did not know how to combat that empty feeling. I was just 23 years old and I had had so much to talk, listen, learn and share – for two years before baba passed away I was separated from him and my family by the combined forces of familial hostility, social prejudice over my runaway marriage to Basu. Everyday I ached to see him. Hear him call me Khuki once more!
Imagine my joy when I heard the familiar honk of Baba’s green Chevrolet! I was living then in Lily on St. Andrew’s Road that was his regular beat to visit Dilip Kumar on the other side of Pali. Whenever I’d hear the car honk I rushed to get a secret glimpse of baba’s profile as the car slowly passed by. Baba was unaware that his adoring daughter stood veiled behind the gently fluttering curtain of a nameless apartment just for that one little glimpse. Perhaps I am being too emotional, perhaps, too romantically nostalgic as well?
The loss of my father drove me almost insane. I began to cope with that sense of unbearable loss, of grief, tragedy by writing them off on his birth and death anniversaries. My editor friends – all eminent writers, Mohan Rakesh, Kamaleshwar, Dr.Bharati, B.K.Karanjia were kind to publish my pieces in their publication. They gave birth to this writer, in fact by doing so. I am deeply in their debt and hasten to say it belatedly.
Today on the eve of another birth anniversary- I am sharing a very rare, archival writing that I accidentally discovered by Dr.W. Menski, my daughter Anwesha’s PhD guide/guru.
In this amazing piece Balraj Shahani has profiled the quintessential Bimal Roy with poignant reverence. I salute the two iconic cinematic figures.
BIMAL ROY by Balraj Sahni
Bimal Roy’s death in January 1966 has deprived India of a filmmaker who enjoyed international repute. A true patriot and humanist to the core, he was one of the first film directors to produce films on patriotic themes, full of pertinent social content. This tribute is written by one of his associates, indeed a close friend. Bimal Roy and Balraj Sahni have both been associated with the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society.
I first saw Bimal Roy in 1946, when I was the General Secretary of the Bombay branch of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The IPTA film on the Bengal famine – Dharati ke Lal – was under production at the time. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas was directing the film. The cast included Shambhu and Tripti Mitra, Ravi Shankar, the late Shanti Bardhan, Damyanti Sahni and many others.
IPTA was at its peak at the time. Without exception, most artistes in the country were part of IPTA movement. This was of course, long before India’s independence; the flame of patriotism had not burnt down, and factional politics and selfishness had not replaced high ideals.
As far as I remember, Bimal Roy, if not a member, was a strong IPTA sympathizer. IPTA’s ideal of fearless and bold depiction of our social realities was brilliantly portrayed in his famous film Hamrahi. This was the first film Bimal Roy directed for the New Theatres Studios, Calcutta. During the film’s Bombay release he was in the city and visited the Shree Sound Studios set to watch the shooting of Dharati ke Lal. He visit encouraged us greatly. That tall stature, his handsome smiling countenance and calm, intelligent personality left a deep impression on us all. He was an attractive young man of 35 or 36 at the time. He looked elegant in his fawn colored suit and matching felt hat worn at a jaunty angle.
The next time I met him was in 1950 when he made an unscheduled visit on the sets of Hum Log at Ranjit Studios. That day I happened to enact a romantic scene with Shyama. He watched a couple of rehearsals; spoke to director Zia Sarhadi before leaving the set. He may have sensed that his presence was making me nervous. Later I learnt he had come especially to watch me. He wanted to see if I could be considered for a role in one of his films. I couldn’t believe I would get an opportunity to work with a great director, Bimal Roy, whom I considered next only to P C Barua.
I was sleepless contemplating the amazing possibility of working with Bimal Roy!
And soon enough when he asked me to work in Do Bigha Zamin I was ecstatic! Hindi cinema’s immense debt to Bimal Roy’s move to Bombay from Bengal becomes abundantly clear if one just mentions a few titles of the films he made here. Among these, for example, are Do Bigha Zamin, Parineeta, Devdas, Sujata, Kabuli Wala, Bandini and Madhumati. Each film left a profound mark on our Cinema. His refined sensibility endured Bimal Roy’s films in the hearts of the spectators. I have worked in over 70 films; yet people associate me mainly with Do Bigha Zamin. I too cherish it with great pride.
The passing away of Amiya Chakravarty and Bimal Roy is a reminder of our mortality. Sooner or later my turn is bound to come. At that inevitable moment, I will have the consolation to acknowledge my good fortune of playing in a remarkable film, Do Bigha Zamin. My experience of the first day on the very first day’s shooting is still fresh in memory. And what a unique experience that turned out to be! The scene being shot was in the Zamindar’s kothi. Actor Murad, playing the Zamindar, was going to demand that I sell him my ancestral land. I had been nervous even before reaching the studio. I even suspected that Bimal Roy was not confident I could play the difficult role of a peasant. To cap it all, I had just returned from Europe. Born and raised in an urban, affluent family, I was unexposed to the reality of rural society. I thought Bimalda had given me the role because I was a member of the IPTA. The one thing that gave me some courage was where art and acting were concerned; my approach and Bimal Roy’s could not vastly differ. Besides I went prepared to the sets; had studied the nuances of the story and given careful thought to put appropriate makeup and costume. I must confess that I was something of a novice to film acting – my experience had been acting on stage. I was to learn from bitter experience that there is a vast difference between stage and cinema acting. What would help me in such a situation was inspiration and encouragement from the director. But Bimal Roy’s face presented a perpetual enigma. Would his face remain an enigma even today? Soon it was time for rehearsal. Overcome with fright, I stood outside the Zamindar’s kotha. Out of the blue, Bimalda came up to me and gently said; “wipe your feet before entering the zamindar’s room”.
It was a minor detail yet how evocative! In the very first rehearsal I realized what an insignificant clod I was before the Zamindar. Readers have no idea how silent it was on Bimal Roy’s sets when he was shooting! Never before had I experienced the ambience of total submission to work, such a deep concentration, and discipline on a film set. Most film studios had a self-congratulatory air, the sets were tawdry and chaotic. On Bimalda’s set everyone was engrossed in work, as if he was a soldier on duty. When the time arrived to shoot the scene, it seemed as if the entire army was awaiting the commander’s sign to launch into action. The particular scene had to be shot at one go. By the end of the scene, the Zamindar stomps out of the room, but only after he has released his foot from the peasant’s grasp. The camera was placed on a trolley and the movements were quite complicated. The preparations for the shot were completed after a good deal of groundwork. And once again I felt that I was a soldier in the army soon to launch an attack at a sign from our general. Bimal Roy’s even voice could be heard.
The shooting followed. I cannot recollect every detail clearly. But I remember when Murad rose from his seat I grabbed hold of his feet with both hands in a desperate bid to spare my land. He dragged me along after jerking his foot free. His reaction was so intensely humiliating that it made me cry in pain. Long after the shot was over, I kept lying on the floor racked by sobs.
Bimal Roy did not say a single word in appreciation. In his usual quiet manner he went to cameraman, Kamal Bose to show him the close-up angle. Sitting on the floor I was trying hard to read the expression on his face. There was no change in his enigmatic silence. But a spark of light in his eyes revealed he had found the artiste he was looking for!
“Do Bigh Zamin” is inspired from a Tagore poem of the same title, a poignant poem that one must read to realize its true depth. The second Bimal Roy film in which I performed was “Kabuli Wala”, another Tagore story. Readers perhaps know of my association with Gurudev Tagore in Shanti Niketan. What unbelievable joy these two films inspired by Tagore’ stories, and directed by Bimal Roy brought to my life, is something I fail to describe.
Just as Tagore’s personality cannot be isolated from his writing, similarly, we cannot separate Bimal Roy’s personality from the films he created. He was a total devotee of cinema with all his heart and soul. His art, his very craft gained from his dedication. I remember a press conference in Calcutta I attended with Bimal Roy. When requested to say something, Bimal Roy simply said: “Whatever I have to say, I say in my films.”
Saying this, he resumed his seat.
His devotion to work can be seen in every single frame of his films. After a whole day of outdoor shooting for Do Bigha Zamin Bimalda, Hrishikesh Mukherji and other colleagues would roam about the empty lanes of Calcutta city all night, in search of suitable locations. It was against his nature to be satisfied with routine shots. He never rushed nor did he worry about the cost involved.
Every morning he reached the studio early and leave after all others. In the observation of this principle, his faithful helpers would smoke non-stop and drink endless cups of tea. The fact that he contracted cancer and died at an early age is perhaps largely due to these “faithful helpers.”
Little is known about his deep concern for studios workers – technicians, sound directors, art directors and others. The office of Bimal Roy Productions is located in Mohan Studios, Andheri. When Bimal Roy selected this studio for his work on arrival from Calcutta, it was in a deplorable state. The owner was about to close it down. To escape unemployment, the studio workers formed a cooperative society and decided to take over the management. This turned out to be a difficult proposition. But when Bimal Roy stepped into the studio, to produce films like, Do Bigha Zamin it became famous place. Today the studio is considered one of the best studios in Bombay. It is not difficult to imagine how he won the hearts of the studio workers and came to be loved by them because of what he achieved in this respect. Although even then perhaps the benefit of his contribution mostly went to the studio owners.
How indelible is Bimal Roy’s name from Indian cinema was seen at the time of his final journey to the samshan ghat. Large crowds from all sections of the film world thronged to the funeral procession – there were artistes, directors, producers, technicians and workers. It was a most unusual scene. I heard B R Chopra repeating over and over again, “He was a wonderful comrade!”
I had just recovered from a long illness. Three successive attacks of flue had left me extremely weak. The cremation grounds were about four miles away, but when I saw Isa Bhai, Dinshaw Bhai and other workers of Mohan Studios, the physical condition of whom was no better walking in the procession, I felt it was stupid to be sitting in the car. Could I too not bid a reverent farewell to my departed friend? I got down from the car and joined the procession walking, although this worsened my condition.
I have not been able to show the same devotion to films that Bimal Roy showed. I shall mention only one of the reasons for this. The pleasure an actor derives from his work depends on the satisfaction a role gives him. The producer and director, on the other hand, depend on other individuals. It is not his good fortune to be independent like an actor, and the joy of creation he gets is from his collective team.
The affection Bimal Roy gave to his co-workers is comparable to what one receives in a family. This was one of his virtues. Many of them – like Hrishi Mukherji, Salil Choudhary, Kamal Bose, Ashit Sen, Moni Bhattacharjee and others – later earned a name for themselves independently as directors. Like PC Barua, Bimal Roy too has given to the cinema many brilliant filmmakers, and Bimalda maintained the most affectionate ties with them wherever they were.
Though the actor has his individual position and the producer his collective one, both are subject to the economic factors dominating society. This cannot be overlooked. The success of Do Bigha Zamin made me wait in the wings. I decided to work only in realistic films and films of high standard. The result was unemployment. In desperation, I accepted a role in a third rate film. As bad luck would have it, Bimal Roy visited the sets of this film. He was naturally surprised. I envied him his independence. He could select a story he liked, get the screenplay and engage artiste of his choice. Did that make him to look ironically at my helplessness? The little idealism I nurtured in my heart about films lay shattered that day. I perceived the profession as no more than a means of livelihood. Occasionally I got roles of my preference. Which of my contemporaries has an opportunity to act in varied roles - “Seema”, “Garam Coat”, “Hira Moti”, “Taksal”, “Bhabhi” or “Haqeeqat”?
I did not wait nor depended merely on films of quality. I worked in ten poor films so that I may work in one good film without anxiety. For a long time Bimalda could not understand my commercial outlook. In his view, it had nothing in common with my progressive ideals. The cruel realities of the capitalist system forced even Bimal Roy to compromise on his ideals. He was a born idealist not a realist. Because of this he could never understand that in a commercial system for art to enjoy real freedom – as the Sanskrit precept satyam, shivam, sundaram implies – is virtually impossible. In this order art is free, only to be asatyam, ashivam and kurupam!
In the last few years he tried to move forward riding two horses. In that great struggle he lost his peace of mind and his health declined. He was a victim of indecision. It became more and more difficult for him to come to definite decisions. Because of this many of his trusted friends left him. The burden on his shoulders became heavier daily until it became unbearable.
Bimalda’s strength lies in the fact that he refused to abandon his ideals. Despite grave difficulties he continued his effort to elevate his art to be true, beautiful and noble.
On the last evening of his short-lived life, conscious of his hopeless condition he continued discussing the story of his next film with the writer until dawn. And when he realized death was at the door, he asked his wife’s permission for a last puff.