A New India Finds Its Voice in the Films of Bimal Roy
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.”