Updated: September 29, 2009 15:03 IST

In his films, silence spoke a thousand words

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There are only fleeting anecdotes about the man who spoke so little, and a film-maker whose films’ spoke so much.

The other day there was a rickshaw-puller in Noida, dragging his vehicle in heavy rain, using every ounce of energy in his frail frame. As it turned out, he was actually a farmer of Uttar Pradesh and a local landlord was threatening to usurp the land he mortgaged to him. It is the real story of a peasant coming to a city to earn livelihood, all to save his two yards of land back home. It could as well have been Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, a film so steeped in pessimism that a ray of light was prohibited. A landmark film that inspired Ashutosh Gowariker to copy the rain sequence in Lagaan almost fifty years later, Do Bigha Zamin epitomises what Roy stood for: uncompromising, no romantic layering, no escapism. There was humanism, a layered drama but no melodrama.

In his films, silence spoke a thousand words. And water was a vital component to take the story forward. Then there was Roy’s under-appreciated ear for lyrics and music. It is all such elements that the book under review brings to the reader through 37 essays, many of which are illuminating.

With contributors ranging from Tapan Sinha, Chidananda Das Gupta, Shyam Benegal and Jahnu Barua to Naseeruddin Shah and Nutan and even the unlikely figure of Nayantara Sahgal, the book, edited by his daughter, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, pretty much covers what the film-maker stood for.

Frank appraisal

There are only fleeting anecdotes about the man who spoke so little, and a filmmaker whose films’ spoke so much. Yet, the venture, in the 100th year of Roy’s birth, stays clear of hagiography.

True, most of the essays portray him in a favourable light — incidentally, light and time of the day was one constant parameter used with distinction by Roy in all his films — yet an attempt at frank appraisal has not been denied. So we have Naseer talking of a rare blemish in Roy’s craft: the use of support cast. “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 films, he seems to have paid them scant attention...” Yet Naseer is frank enough to admit that the climax of the critically acclaimed Paar “was in fact nothing but a reworking of Do Bigha?”

Similarly, Sahgal admits she had not seen his films when the offer to contribute to the book came along. To her “the deep and devastating pessimism” of his films came as a shock. Yet, she concedes, that more than 50 years since he made his landmark film on agrarian crisis, “there is still agricultural indebtedness and despair leading to farmers’ suicides.” Therein lies the transcendental quality of Roy’s work.

“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?I followed him as an author. The film that struck me as one of extraordinarily high calibre was Parineeta,” says Benegal. Though he does not talk about Devdas, Barua points out a social reality of the film: though primarily a love story, Devdas is told by Roy “from the perspective of the landed gentry...”

Interestingly, though Roy is given credit for bringing the Bengali ethos to Bombay cinema, Barua says: “The adaptation of three novels of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay — Devdas, Parineeta and Biraj Bahu — points to the inability of Roy to shake off his roots.”

An insight into Roy’s personality comes in Nutan’s nostalgic piece. And a slightly more poignant one in Aditya Bhattacharya’s recollection of his dadu!

Such poignant moments, such insightful essays. The only blemishes come from Bhawana Somaaya and Khalid Mohamed, whose pieces lack layering.

It’s perhaps only appropriate for a book that does not seek to put Bimal Roy on a pedestal and is dedicated to “the silent cinema poet and visionary of profound humanism.”

THE MAN WHO SPOKE IN PICTURES - Bimal Roy: Ed. Rinki Roy Battacharya; Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110017; Price Rs.499.

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