Few motifs in Indian cinema are as potent, as laden with history and meaning, as the train. In 1955’s Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray immortalized the railways as the symbol of an alienating modernity in a newly independent India; in a famous scene, the film’s young protagonists, Apu and his sister Durga, gaze in awe upon a train as it thunders past their village. In 1969’s Aradhana, the train became the site of serendipitous romance in the image of Rajesh Khanna serenading a gorgeous Sharmila Tagore from a jeep as she rides through scenic hills. Bollywood megahit Dilwale dulhania le jayenge (1995) turned the train into the ultimate symbol of romance across the barriers of class and community; and in Dil se (1998), the iconic “Chaiyya Chaiyya” song-and-dance sequence, set atop a moving locomotive, crystallized India’s spirit of joyous, functional chaos. The train and the moving image, both technologies that transport, bring together all these connotations in the Indian imaginary: colonial history and the industrial aspirations of the independent nation; the connective tissue of a diverse, often divided populace; and the Indian Dream of inexhaustible newness—new journeys, new lives, new futures.
My own favorite train scene is in 1955’s Devdas, directed by Bimal Roy, one of the stalwarts of the golden age of Hindi cinema. Based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s much-adapted 1917 novel, Devdas tells the story of a zamindar’s son who descends into alcoholism as he finds himself caught between two forbidden loves: Paro, his lower-class childhood sweetheart, whom his family prevents him from marrying; and Chandramukhi, a beautiful courtesan whose social status makes their relationship impossible. In the film’s final section, an ailing Devdas boards a train back to his village but refuses to choose a destination or to get off, aimlessly traversing the country while sinking deeper into drinking and depression. Signposts of various cities flash past, the engine trails plumes of smoke across dark skies, and the words of Devdas’s lovers play over the cacophony of wheels and cogs. At the brink of death, Devdas finally disembarks at Paro’s village but dies before he can make it to her house.
Devdas had been adapted on-screen a few times before: in 1935, while working as a cameraman in Calcutta, Roy himself had shot a version directed by P. C. Barua. But Roy’s 1955 adaptation, considered the definitive one, endowed the story with new meaning in the wake of India’s liberation from British colonialism in 1947. Like Pather Panchali, Roy’s Devdas imagines the train as the elusive threshold between two separate Indias, one rural and one urban, although here it’s not peasants but mulish aristocrats who confront this divide. Devdas’s downward spiral and purgatorial journey represent the country’s failure to emerge from feudal systems into a modern and democratic society. Roy emphasizes the chasm by using natural locations for village scenes and starkly lit studio sets for the city.
The image of the rumbling train recurs in the films of Roy, who captured the complex aspirations of post-independence India like few other directors of his generation. Born and raised in a village in present-day Bangladesh, he trained in the studios of Calcutta until a series of crises—World War II, the great Bengal famine of 1943, the Partition of India—upturned the industry and drove Roy and many of his peers to Bombay, the home of Hindi cinema. The bloody migrations that shaped the country in its early years haunt Roy’s films like a perennial specter. His characters are almost always in transit, from villages to cities and vice versa, mapping the spaces of a new nation and the entry into a new citizenship.
Roy is said to have conceived his landmark film, 1953’s Do bigha zamin, in transit, too: he had just watched Bicycle Thieves at the inaugural International Film Festival of India in February 1952, and on the train home from the screening he asked his team to come up with a similar story right away. Roy had already directed seven features by then, but his local twist on neorealism became a breakthrough both at home and abroad. Do bigha zamin transposes De Sica’s tale of survival in postwar Italy to postcolonial India: a debt-ridden peasant moves to the city with his son, hoping to scrounge up enough money to save their farmland from being seized by the unscrupulous landlord. Grim in its critique of industrialization and remarkably detailed in its evocation of urban squalor, the film won prizes at Cannes and the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and bagged the first-ever Filmfare Award for best picture. Filmfare magazine had been launched in 1952 as “the first serious effort in film journalism in India”; its awards, inaugurated in 1954, were decided by a public poll. The magazine declared Do bigha zamin’s win a sign of the Indian audience’s desire for “pictures that, while they entertain, bear a more recognizable relation with reality.”
Realism was a major buzzword in Indian film discourse in the 1950s. Critics and commentators posited it as the ideal aesthetic for a modernizing nation: by capturing the fast-changing social worlds of “real” India, movies could help fashion the very idea of India. But the benchmarks of realism shifted rapidly in those early years. In 1946, Chetan Anand’s Neecha nagar and K. A. Abbas’s Dharti ke lal had introduced a social realist idiom, which Roy refined with technical panache in Do bigha zamin. Yet his style might have seemed quaint just two years later, when Pather Panchali floored international audiences with a lyrical humanism much closer to the neorealist model. In contrast, Roy’s film borrows aspects of the era’s mainstream studio fare: didactic moral lessons, a sentimental plot driven by contrivances and coincidences, and characters that seem more archetypal than psychologically real. But if Roy’s parallel cinema peers pioneered a truly alternative tradition—Ray with his literary realism, Ritwik Ghatak with his expressionist melodrama, and Mrinal Sen with his Marxist experiments in montage—Roy developed a more vernacular style that infused popular genres with a new dynamism. His films embodied the idea of transit not just in theme but also in form, bridging realism and musical melodrama, art-house and commercial modes, and the regional specificity of Bengal and the pan-Indian address of Bombay.
Do bigha zamin is a prime example of Roy’s “middle cinema,” as some called it. Within the template of studio-produced social dramas, Roy contrived an aesthetic of startling immediacy, shooting much of the film in natural locations. As the protagonist, Shambhu, and his son arrive in the city, encountering a harsh and inhospitable landscape but welcomed by the urban poor, Roy uses long shots and graceful pans (achieved with the then-new Arriflex camera) to capture the constant spatial and temporal churn of Calcutta. Historic landmarks and glittering nocturnal skylines provide an indifferent backdrop to the protagonist’s struggle for survival. The film’s sound design reinforces this sense of urban alienation by alternating between sparse dubbed dialogue and the enveloping din of horns, sirens, and people.
Most striking, though, is the film’s attentiveness to the embodied experience of poverty. In a famous scene, Shambhu, who starts hand-pulling a rickshaw to make money, is hired by a man to playfully race another rickshaw carrying his girlfriend. As the customer keeps upping his price, Shambhu runs faster and faster, overtaking even a horse-drawn cart, until his rickshaw breaks down and he collapses with a yell. Roy and his cinematographer, Kamal Bose, orchestrate a frenzied montage of shaky close-ups—of Shambhu’s pained face, his bare feet, the wheels of the rickshaw, the flippant customer—set to a crescendoing score. The emotional wallop of the scene owes a lot to the lived-in performance of Balraj Sahni, a BBC announcer and theater actor whom Roy had first balked at casting due to his gentlemanly appearance and affectations. But Sahni went Method, so to speak, by losing weight and training with real rickshaw wallahs to nail the nuances of the role. The lore of his labored authenticity became part of the film’s appeal; in a sense, it encapsulated Roy’s brand of in-between realism, which impressed with its ability to conjure rather than capture reality.
Roy’s enamorment with cinema’s technical abilities began with his training at Calcutta’s New Theatres, one of the three major studios of pre-independence India. He had worked there in his teens as a still photographer, assistant, and cameraman for top directors like Barua and Nitin Bose. Roy’s artistic vision took shape alongside the rise in 1943 of the Indian People’s Theater Association. Borrowing its name from Romain Rolland’s notion of a democratizing, mass-driven “people’s theater,” the IPTA became a hugely influential left-wing cultural movement that sought to deploy the popular performing arts to antifascist and anti-imperial ends. Roy’s close collaborators were members of the IPTA, and his first fiction feature, the 1944 Bengali film Udayer pathey, drew on the movement’s concerns, with a class-crossing romance set amid the labor struggle. With its pithy, youthful dialogue, no-name actors, and striking mise-en-scène that mixed studio sets and real locations, the film served as a blueprint for Roy’s work to come and a fresh direction for the region’s films; Ghatak described it as having pulled Bengali cinema “out of the abyss.” Udayer pathey also helped establish Roy’s reputation as an expert stylist: in a moonlit song sequence, he famously used soap spray to create the impression of mist.
Roy’s use of songs was in fact one of the key elements that distinguished his movies from those of the parallel cinema directors, who largely dismissed the mainstream song-and-dance formula as populist and unserious. Roy believed that to become a “rasa”—an essence—rather than a stunt or slogan, realism must “include all the other art forms involved in it, like song, dance, picture composition, drama, comedy, rhetoric, costume, architecture.” Roy’s films endure most powerfully in the Indian imagination through their iconic songs, which, unlike the extravagant musical set pieces of Raj Kapoor, are carefully integrated into the diegetic world of the film. Roy’s usual composers and lyricists—Salil Chowdhury, S. D. Burman, Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi—all emerged from the IPTA and drew on its methodology of using folk styles and forms to forge a potent “art of the masses.” Their songs expand the milieu of Roy’s films, weaving in other classes, cultures, and traditions that make up the melting-pot nation, like Baul minstrelsy in Devdas, tribal Assamese performance in Madhumati (1958), and Manipuri dance in Sujata (1959).
Given the Marxist orientation of the IPTA artists, song sequences were often also the sites where Roy’s films achieved their most political enunciations, opening the individual stories of the characters into collective narratives. In Do bigha zamin, as Shambhu makes his way toward the train that leads to the city, he walks past peasants who sing a mournful melody while tilling the land: “Leave the story of your life behind / leave something of yourself behind / who can tell if you’ll ever return.” Inspired by a march song of the Soviet Red Army, the tune turns Shambhu into a symbol of all the men who’ve left the village to find ways to survive, not unlike soldiers heading into war. Music facilitates a similar shift from the singular to the plural in 1963’s Bandini, which charts the fallout of a woman’s crime of passion during the independence struggle. Early in the film, a freedom fighter sings an elegiac song while being led to his execution. “Don’t cry, mother, your sons are many,” he says, addressing both his own mother, who clings to the gates of the prison, and Mother India.
These radical flourishes coexist uneasily with a more reformist bent in Roy’s work, reflecting a broader duality within IPTA circles in the 1950s and ’60s. The nationalism that had driven the movement’s united-front tactics in the fight for independence became fraught as colonial rulers came to be replaced by a bourgeois-democratic leadership. Nation-building was perceived by many on the left as a middle-class, assimilationist project, which Bombay films like Roy’s Sujata seemed to affirm rather uncritically. Sujata traces the life of an eponymous orphan girl from the untouchable (now known as “Dalit”) caste who is grudgingly adopted by the family of an upper-caste engineer. They intend to give her away, but as the engineer’s job moves them from town to town, depicted in a classic Roy montage of whistling trains and station signs, Sujata becomes a part of their family. They rarely miss an opportunity, however, to remind her of her difference, denying her an education and insisting that she isn’t their daughter but “like a daughter.”
Roy explicitly frames Sujata’s plight as a national problem. On a rainy night, a distraught Sujata (played by the upper-caste Nutan, who, like Sahni in Do bigha zamin, earned praise for her “unconventional” role) finds refuge under a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. As she cries, raindrops slide down the face of the statue like tears. With his typical stylistic finesse, Roy turns the moment into a symphony of the elements: the wind howls, the nearby ocean churns, and glistening leaves tremble in close-up. As Sujata turns to leave, her sari catches on a railing, and when she pulls it away, the inscription at the base of the Gandhi statue comes into view: “How does one die? By committing suicide? Never, it is better to die for the right to live.” It’s under that same statue that later in the film, Sujata’s love interest, the educated, upper-caste Adhir (Sunil Dutt), tells her about Gandhi’s message of caste equality and his defiant compassion for the untouchables.
The film’s finale mirrors this message and busts myths about untouchability through a highly melodramatic deus ex machina: Sujata’s adoptive mother has an injury and needs an urgent blood transfusion, and Sujata’s is the only blood type in the family that matches hers. Roy’s anti-untouchability thrust is well-intentioned but feels defanged and a bit misguided. Sujata’s deliverance comes in the form of her acceptance by paternalistic upper-caste figures, who are ultimately persuaded only by crude science. (Today, as a burgeoning Dalit cinema gains momentum in India, one might also wonder why such a story would invoke the upper-caste Gandhi and not B. R. Ambedkar, the untouchable radical who became the chief architect of India’s constitution.) Though visually resplendent, Sujata is an example of the sometimes more conservative results of Roy’s straddling of the art-house and the mainstream—a balancing act that, to his more firebrand colleagues like Ghatak, seemed to compromise his politics.
In fact, Roy’s first and only collaboration with Ghatak led to what in my assessment is his most gleefully radical film, Madhumati—even if, when it first premiered, Roy was accused of selling out. A flashy, gothic romance that intertwines a critique of feudal patriarchy with the Hindu myth of reincarnation, Madhumati became the biggest box-office hit of 1958 and was one of the highest-grossing films of the decade. According to the filmmaker Shyam Benegal, Ghatak, who penned the screenplay, claimed that he had “written a ghost story that would demolish the capitalist Bimal Roy!” Though it only furthered Roy’s financial success, the film does mount a grand attack on rapacious landlords through its dense mise-en-abyme of nested narratives. On a dark and stormy night, Devinder (Dilip Kumar), an engineer, is blocked by a landslide as he drives to a railway station to pick up his wife and child. He takes refuge in an old mansion, where he suddenly experiences visions of a past life in which he was Anand, the manager of a timber estate.
The film now switches to this flashback narrative: Anand, newly arrived at the estate, clashes with the cruel and arrogant zamindar Raja Ugra Narain (iconic Hindi cinema villain Pran). When Anand falls in love with a beautiful tribal woman, Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala), Ugra Narain abducts her, and she dies while trying to escape his sexual advances. Months later, a depressed Anand meets a city tourist in the forests who bears an eerie resemblance to Madhumati. Anand enlists the doppelganger, Madhvi, in an elaborate scheme for revenge against Ugra Narain. But on the day of their plan, a rainstorm prevents Madhvi from reaching the zamindar’s mansion in time, and the ghost of Madhumati herself appears, forcing her abductor to confess his sins while the police surreptitiously listen in.
Itself an uncanny Indian doppelganger of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which was released the same year, in 1958), Madhumati achieves through its mythological “masala” narrative what few of Roy’s other films do: it dismantles the feudal villain. Neither resigning itself to the pessimist critique of Do bigha zamin nor contriving a hollow, reformist resolution à la Sujata, the film uses the conventions of popular romantic fantasy to complete one of the unfinished projects of Indian modernity. The myth of karma reconciles seamlessly with—and in fact even enables—the progression of democratic ideals. And the motif of the train returns in one of its most resonant formulations in Roy’s filmography. In the film’s conclusion, which reverts to the frame narrative, Devinder makes it to the railway station and reunites with his wife, also played by Vyjayanthimala. The final shot closes in on their baby, who lies on the berth of the train, symbolizing a new future that nevertheless derives from the cycles of the past.
Fittingly, Madhumati would go on to become one of Roy’s most “reincarnated” films, providing the inspiration for several movies including 1980’s Karz (later rebooted as Karzzzz in 2008) and 2007’s Om Shanti Om, which folds the plot of Roy’s film into a grand parody of Hindi cinema itself. In fact, in spite of Roy’s obscurity compared to both art-house peers like Ray and Bollywood scions like Raj Kapoor, his films continue to be referenced widely in Indian cinema. The many adaptations of Devdas that have followed Roy’s—including the star-studded 2002 version by Sanjay Leela Bhansali—draw on the exquisite formal template of the 1958 film; and Do bigha zamin has inspired some of the most acclaimed Hindi films of the 2000s, such as Lagaan (2001) and Peepli Live (2010). Roy passed away in 1966 at the tragically young age of fifty-five, but the more than twenty films he directed have endured in their attempt to grapple with the very origin stories of India—with its oppositions of individualism and collectivity, specificity and universality, counterculture and mass art. He laid the tracks, so to speak, for the engines of Indian cinema to keep running.
The author would like to acknowledge four sources that were central to her research: Rinki Roy Bhattacharya’s Bimal Roy: The Man Who Spoke in Pictures, Moinak Biswas’s dissertation “Historical Realism: Modes of Modernity in Indian Cinema,” Neepa Majumdar’s “Importing Neorealism, Exporting Cinema: Indian Cinema and Film Festivals in the 1950s” (from the book Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style), and Sumita S. Chakravarty’s “National Identity and the Realist Aesthetic: Indian Cinema of the Fifties” (published in Quarterly Review of Film & Video).