The old Minerva converted into the Chaplin: this was where the crowd of invitees gathered on the evening of 9 January. They had come, of course, to see a film. But, first, the felicitations, the speeches, the presentation of bouquets to the film directors and actresses and singers of the past, seated on the dais, some looming upright in their chairs, another frail but perky, another’s hair rejuvenated with dye. Each had some reminiscence to relate about Bimal Roy, whose film Udayer Pathe, made in l944, would be shown later. About one thing each was certain; all had this memory in common: Bimal Roy was a quiet man. He did not speak much; he kept to himself. I look at his photographs again in the light of these remarks; he is smoking a cigarette, or smiling faintly at the camera. Here is a quiet man, I think, with a large family, working in a profession that requires constant interaction with several people. I am struck by how quietude can express itself through a lifetime of work.
Making of a legend: (top) Roy at work in Mumbai; and a still from his film Devdas (1955). Courtesy Rinki Roy Bhattacharya
Later, the dais was cleared, and the half-forgotten, briefly celebrated figures, cradling their bouquets, scattered into the hall. As the lights dimmed, I saw an outline—bouquet in hand, receding towards the seats at the back; then a familiar white light flooded the screen. The hall was filled with a curious mix of people. I myself had distributed cards amongst my relatives; my wife had distributed some amongst hers. Then there were many people I didn’t know, probably with members of their family; Bimal Roy buffs; the ageing actors and singers of yore (some of them had gone home).
Then there were the younger people, including a friend from Oxford who’d leave Calcutta in two days, and his brother and sister-in-law. Behind me sat a few members of my wife’s family; my two uncles, who had seen Udayer Pathe in their youth, sat elsewhere, at the back. It was like being in a limbo, sitting in that dark hall; somewhere between familial memory and private expectation, between an improvised public event and the accumulated bitter sweetness of our lives.
Within the first ten minutes, it was evident we were watching an extraordinary film. What must it be like for a contemporary audience to see a classic for the first time? Of course, not all classics are recognized for what they are when they are first shown: a few years before Udayer Pathe was released, Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), perhaps the most influential film till then, was savaged by critics in France. That evening on 9 January there were gasps of surprise and appreciation in the dark, as the audience praised the film, as it progressed, noisily amongst themselves.
The chatter was not the usual commentary of people who had watched a hit film twenty times, and knew all the lines by heart; these rather intrusive exclamations came from an audience that was taken unawares. That is why watching Udayer Pathe that evening was a deeply contemporary experience, rather than a retrospective one. Of course, Udayer Pathe is a landmark film in the history of Indian cinema; but its time, we sensed, had finally come. After it was over, we stood in the foyer and in the dimly lit street, talking, as if we had seen a great film on its opening night.
The story is simple, even symmetrical. On one hand, we have a rich young man, played by Debi Mukherjee, and his beautiful, accomplished sister (the actress is Binota Roy), and on the other, we have a sort of inverse mirror image of the two: the poor, idealistic writer, Radhamohan Bhattacharya, and his sister, played by Rekha Mullick. Binota Roy and Rekha Mullick are friends, and the latter, upon her friend’s insistence, visits her mansion to attend an upper-class social gathering. Here, she is insulted, and wrongly accused of theft by a family member.
Although Binota Roy demonstrates the accusation to be false, Rekha Mullick returns, humiliated, to her brother.
Radhamohan Bhattacharya, the brother, is unemployed, and, as it happens, appears for an interview the following day. His interviewer is Debi Mukherjee. The interview is strange, if not hugely entertaining: the idealist writer answers the interviewer’s questions in epigrams excoriating the rich, and the discomfited Mukherjee, an admirer of Radhamohan’s journalism, gently upbraids him for being too serious. So begins the banter between the two that lasts for about three quarters of the film, in which Radhamohan’s semi-serious pronouncements on the urban rich (which so delighted the audience that night; the brilliant screenplay is Roy’s) is constantly subverted or deflected by Debi Mukherjee, like two contradictory voices in an interior monologue.
This film does many things excellently, too many to mention in this short article; among them is a dramatization of the self’s inward struggle within the parameters of possibilities thrown up by urban life. The villain, Debi Mukherjee, and the hero, Radhamohan Bhattacharya—although they do not look exactly alike—mirror each other remarkably in ther broader physical dimensions: both young, tall, moustached, and regular-featured. So while the narrative keeps hammering home to us the irreconcilable difference between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, the camera by presenting us with the illusion of the twinned protagonist and adversary, seems to show us the single chameleon self from different angles.
Radhamohan gets the job; he begins to write speeches for Debi Mukherjee, for which the latter is praised. Debi Mukherjee invites his employee to his mansion, and introduces Radhamohan to his magnificent library; here, on his frequent interludes Radhamohan runs into his employer’s sister again and again. The first meetings are prickly; Radhamohan has not quite forgiven Binota Roy for that early humiliation involving his sister; and Binota Roy cannot quite abide by Radhamohan’s spiritual superciliousness, his ‘plain living, high thinking’ ways. Yet this is what draws her to Radhamohan; and they fall in love, even before they have said so in so many words. The film, in all its themes, is structured around polarities and attraction; like a composition in European music, it contains within it both counterpoint and harmony. Indeed, the film itself is orchestrated and paced like a piece of music, while, interestingly, there is hardly any background score.
In the course of their conversations, Radhamohan tells Debi Mukherjee he has written a novel; he gives him the manuscript to read. But it is Binota who discovers it; she reads it and is much moved; meanwhile, Mukherjee has promised to publish it. He does, but in his own name. The book is a great success. Radhamohan relinquishes his job; he takes up the cause of the workers in his former employer’s factory; in this he is joined by Binota Roy. Mukherjee plots to have him silenced; and he divides the workers against each other. As Radhamohan decides to leave Calcutta permanently, Binota Roy rebels against her family and leaves home; she joins Radhamohan as he walks on the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Asansol.
I do not know if Guru Dutt saw Udayer Pathe, or Humrahi, its Hindi version, but certainly, Roy’s film presages Dutt’s Pyaasa. Both films constitute key moments in Indian cinema; both films are exacerbating and unsettling meditations on the work of art in the marketplace, and the loss of identity of the creator. In Udayer Pathe this loss of identity is enacted literally; Debi Mukherjee publishes Radhamohan’s novel in his own name. Dutt takes this crucial conceit in Pyaasa, and makes it central to the work; the protagonist, a poet, is put into a madhouse, then presumed dead; his enemies publish his book of poems; which becomes a best-seller—and then celebrate his work ‘posthumously’.
In both films, the protagonists withdraw from the duplicity of the marketplace with a woman by their side; and the films culminate, alike, in a shot, taken from the back, of a man and a woman walking down a road into the distance. In the earlier film, this shot is a reminder, obviously, of the film’s title and its dream—the road to a new dawn. In Pyaasa, the ending was inserted later as a compromise; but it may also be a reference to the same dream dreamt earlier. Certainly, Bimal Roy, the quiet man, might have used his silence to strategically withdraw from the marketplace he himself had to work in, and in which he had to place his creations; Dutt’s withdrawal, as we know, was, eventually, radical and final.
These questions and preoccupations continue to haunt us today. So do the characters, played so superlatively by the actors I have named. After Binota Roy reads Radhamohan’s manuscript, she, on being asked to comment on it, says (I don’t recall the exact words): ‘But tell me, is a character like this one plausible—an upper-class woman who is found late at night in a slum?’ Radhamohan replies, ‘My concern was not whether she was plausible or not. I wished a reader to ask, “What if such a character should exist?” ’
It is a fair question, and the one legitimate question that a work of the imagination—a story, play or film—can raise is, ‘What if such characters were to exist?” and not “Does such a character exist?’ It is a question that, sitting in the hall that January evening, we found we were asking ourselves.
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