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Friday, April 13, 2001

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Memories and melodies of a golden era


IN 1997, Rinki Bhattacharya, daughter of the legendary film-maker Bimal Roy, set up a memorial committee, Smriti Sandhya, in honour of her father. Ever since, the committee continues the tradition of felicitating four stalwarts from the film fraternity, with the Bimal Roy Trophy every year. An evening re- creating melodies from the golden era of Hindi cinema, is held year after year, attended by luminaries from the past and the present generation. This year, the committee added another attraction of holding retrospectives. Starting with the Waheeda Rehman retrospective, fittingly inaugurated by Sunil Dutt. In a very short span Smriti Sandhya has established its identity. Come March and it is time to remember the magnificent director.

Bimal Roy was born into a family of landlords in East Bengal. While still a student in Dhaka's Jagannath College, he lost his father. Very early in life, Roy learnt to divert his pain to constructive energy. Roy, on the advice of his friends, migrated to Calcutta with his widowed mother and infant brothers. The struggle period fortunately didn't last too long. From childhood Roy had a passion for photography and this paid off. Film-maker R. C. Barua recognised a stroke of genius in his framing, and engaged him to do the publicity stills of his films. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. Roy liked being in a creative atmosphere, and under the guidance of Barua, his art blossomed. Impressed by his enthusiasm, Barua took one more gamble made the young boy an independent cinematographer. Destiny had big dreams for Bimal Roy and this was just the beginning. It is said that some of his most outstanding documentaries were destroyed, but of those that remained, his memorable Bengali film as a cinematographer include New Theatres ``Mukti Maya,'' ``Devdas'' and ``Bari Didi''.

New Theatres ``Udayer Pathe'' (``Hamrahi'' in Hindi) with a cast of unknown artistes, marked his debut as a director. The decline of the Calcutta film industry forced Roy to embark on his second migration. This time, to Bombay. With Roy came his dedicated team, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nabendu Ghose, Kamal Bose, Asit Sen and later Salil Chaudhury, all budding geniuses in their own right. Within just two years, by 1952, Bimal Roy was ready with his first film in Bombay, ``Maa,'' for the erstwhile Bombay Talkies.

A year later, his own production company came into being with ``Do Bigha Zamin'' about a farmer struggling to survive the industrial revolution. A lot of the pain reflected in the film, suffered by the farmer Balraj Sahni, stemmed from Bimal Roy's own memories of his childhood. The film was hailed as India's first nero-realistic film and picked up significant national and international awards, including awards at the Cannes and the Karlovy Vary festivals in 1955-56. From then on, there was no looking back.

Taking up subjects that delved into human and socio relationships, ``Parineeta,'' about silence and sacrifice, is also about the freedom of choice, both, for the hero Ashok Kumar as well as the heroine, Meena Kumari. ``Biraj Babu'' spoke against against oppression of women in a patriachial society, while ``Parakh'' and ``Prem Patra'' reflected societal changes to come. The immortal ``Devdas'' in 1955 based on Sarat Chandra's classic, has been fodder for several films over the years.Unlike film-makers of today, directors of that era made sure to not get stuck in a groove. So after the heartbreaking ``Devdas,'' Bimal Roy made a frothy musical, ``Madhumati'', probably the first film on re-incarnation. Innumerable films on the same subject have been made over the decades, but none have proved as mesmeric or successful.

Weaving complex issues into simple, soul-stirring tales, Bimal Roy's films touched the hearts of his viewers and at the same time were thought-provoking. That was the director's forte. He was also known to cast actors in roles that were contrary to their images. Sunil Dutt in ``Sujata'' and Dharmendra in ``Bandini'' are two such examples.

A month ago, Penguin India released the English translation of poet Kaifi Azmi's selected poems by Pavan K. Varma. Released by I. K. Gujral in New Delhi, the book is number one on the non- fiction list. Reproduced below is the author's note and excerpts from the poems.

Kaifi Azmi was born in 1918 in Azamgarh, U.P. His nom-de-plume `Azmi' is derived from his place of birth. His real name is Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi. Kaifi Saheb had his early education in Arabic and Persian in a traditional madrasa in Azamgarh. His first collection of poems entitled ``Jhankar'' was published in 1943. A second collection was published in 1947 with the title ``Akhir-e-shab''. ``Awara Sajde'', his third collection, was published in 1973. This last work incorporating some of the poems of the earlier publications, won him the Sahitya Akademi Award. ``Awara Sajde'' was translated into Hindi in 1980. Since then several editions have been published. The poems in this translation have been selected primarily from ``Awara Sajde''.

There are two prominent themes in Kaifi Azmi's poetry. One is love. The second deals with human struggle and, in particular, the plight of the poor and deprived. As a translator, I have never ceased to be amazed at the juxtaposition of both these themes in Kaifi Azmi's poems. Very early in life Kaifi became a member of the Progressive Writers' movement. He is also a member of the Communist Party of India. For him, the cause of the exploited masses is not only a theoretical paradigm, but an emotional identification with the suffering of the dispossessed. It is for this reason that Kaifi is not content to be an armchair theoretician, remotely expounding the dialectical intricacies of social change. Kaifi is a spokesman of several workers' unions. He has carried his conviction to the battle ground often participating in strikes and dharnas.

In any case, for all his involvement with the Communist Party, Kaifi Azmi can best be described as a man of conviction who refuses to be an ideologue. He has sought the unity of the like- minded, but chafed against the straitjacketing of the mind.

Kaifi has successfully written for films too, and who can ever forget his immensely popular lyrics in films such as ``Kaagaz Ke Phool''. Some of his lyrics for Hindi films have also been translated in this selection. In fact, a great deal of Kaifi's work reflects his long sojourn in Bombay, where he could see first-hand the searing divide between the rich and poor in India's commercial capital, witness the glitter of the film world and its often transparent artificiality, experience the occasional alienation generated by the impersonal hugeness of a metropolis, and feel a recurring nostalgia for his roots in his own village in Azamgarh.

The purpose of this labour would be served if Kaifi Azmi's work is introduced to a wider readership. There is a need to break the insular barriers created by language in our country. We must preserve in our attempt to introduce the largest number of people to the great reservoir of wisdom and understanding in the writing of people like Kaifi Saheb, who, at eigty-one, has literally been witness to an entire era, and whose dreams and aspirations for a great India have both fructified and remained unfulfilled.

BHAWANA SOMAAYA

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