The First Films of the Three Greatest Indian Filmmakers

For first blog post for the inaugural year of i2f2, a film festival committed to encouraging first time filmmakers, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the first films of some of the first filmmakers of South Asia, the directors Bimal Roy, B.R. Chopra, and Satyajit Ray. Bimal Roy Bimal Roy was the... View Article


For first blog post for the inaugural year of i2f2, a film festival committed to encouraging first time filmmakers, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the first films of some of the first filmmakers of South Asia, the directors Bimal Roy, B.R. Chopra, and Satyajit Ray.

Bimal Roy

Bimal Roy was the first of these first filmmakers to appear on the Indian film scene, getting his start in 1943. In 1943, India was still a British colony, caught up in WWII and the freedom struggle. But this was not what inspired Bimal Roy to make his first film. Like many other Bengal intellectuals, Roy was horrified by the tragedy of the Bengal famine, caused by a combination of changing water patterns and colonial neglect. The famine served as a rallying cry for the artists, writers, and filmmakers of Bengal to speak for those who could not speak, the peasants dying in the fields with their women and children. Roy’s first film was his one and only documentary, Bengal Famine, as he took a camera into the field and tried to record the tragedy of his state. Roy never returned to documentaries, perhaps the tepid reception of his first effort taught him that he could better effect change and move hearts through fiction.

Still from the film Humrahi

Roy had a second first film with Udayer Pathey (1944), produced by PC Barua’s New Theater film company, where Roy had gotten his start and his training. Udayer Pathey takes the sensitivity and tenderness Roy developed for the oppressed classes and deploys it through a standard film plot, that of a poor boy in love with a rich girl. Roy created a rich mixture of song, story, the tragedy of real life, and national feeling that remained his USP until the end of his career. His remake of Udayer Pathey in Hindi through the Bombay Talkies studio, Hamrahi (1945), was the first Indian film to feature the song “Jana Gana Mana”, India’s national anthem.

Roy’s first film made with his own production company, rather than in partnership with New Theaters or, later, the studio Bombay Talkies, was Do Bigha Zamine. This was the first Indian film to win an international prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the first film in what would come to be the Indian Neo-realist style. Roy combined the stylized songs and dialogue learned through his experience in the Hindi and Bengali studio systems, with the natural compositions and performances he craved from his documentary past to make a film that, to this day, is still considered one of the greatest Indian films of all time.

One more film first, Roy was the cameraman on the first film version of Devdas, PC Barua’s 1933 version. He went on to make his own version in 1955, which was the first Hindi language film of Suchitra Sen. Although primarily a Bengali actress, on the strength of this performance, Sen’s recent death was mourned nationally. She may not have been the first “Paro” of Indian film, but Roy certainly made her the greatest.

B.R. Chopra

B.R. Chopra was the first director to do a double role mistaken identity film, the first producer to transition to television, and the first of the illustrious Chopra family to come to Bombay. But before all that, he was a journalist. Chopra worked with words before he ever worked with images. Eventually, as the editor for the film journal Cine Herald, he worked with words in order to describe images. Interestingly, he only wrote the script for one of the films he directed, Humraaz (1963). In later years, he returned to his writing, with the scripts for Baghban (2003) and Babul (2006).

B.R. Chopra’s first film as a director was Afsana (1951), based on a script by the writer, director, and actor I.S. Johar. Johar would later give Chopra’s younger brother Yash (who went on to be one of the most loved directors of Indian film) his first job. Afsana combines several classic plot elements of Indian film, the separated brothers, the love triangle, and the mistaken identity. It also includes elements of the classic B.R. Chopra film, with the inclusion of a legal storyline, a sensitive treatment of marital infidelity and “the fallen woman”, and a strong central performance by the evergreen actor Ashok Kumar. Chopra enjoyed this film so much, that he remade it 20 years later as Dastaan, this time starring Dilip Kumar in the lead role.

Poster for Dastaan

Chopra’s first film as a producer is frequently wrongly listed as Naya Daur (1957), which is perhaps his greatest film, telling the story of man versus machine, and the rights of the common man over the rights of the elite. However, in fact, the first film produced by his production house B.R. Films was Ek Hi Rasta (1956). Ek Hi Raasta again stars Ashok Kumar, along with Meena Kumari and Sunil Dutt, again showing Chopra’s taste for actors who combined star power with the ability to successfully perform the role. Ek Hi Raasta again returns to the theme of marital infidelity with the young boy Raja, unaware that his father is dead, hating his mother for marrying his stepfather. Chopra flourished when he focused on simple eternal human desires as they have been perverted by modern society: to have a faithful wife, to make a living through physical labor, to be raised in a stable family group. Unlike Roy, who used the human to show the universal, Chopra used the universal to show the human.

Perhaps this is because, while Roy experienced tragedy through seeing the massive human cost of the Bengal famine, Chopra experienced it on a personal level, losing everything in the Partition.

Satyajit Ray

While the previous two filmmakers made good first films and went on to greater achievements, Satyajit Ray made his best film first. Perhaps this is because he worked on it for so long before it finally became a reality. Ray spent years living with the novel on which it is based, making sketches, planning dialogue, making a perfect picture in his head of what he wanted to create, before he turned on the cameras. Even once filming started, due to lack of funds, he was forced to move slowly. The film took 3 years to complete, allowing him the luxury of revising and refining his vision as he worked.

Poster for Jean Renoir's The River

Like Roy, Ray came from the Bengal artistic tradition. However, while Roy was awakened by the Bengal famine and the problems of his home state, Ray experienced awakening by leaving his home. He worked in London for 3 months, during which time he watched every film he could, learning about European film trends and techniques, and came home inspired. He went on to found the Calcutta Film Society, a group that worked around Indian importation restrictions to bring the great modern films of Europe to India. Before he made Pather Panchali, Ray saw The Bicycle Thief and Battleship Potemkin and had the opportunity to hear John Huston, Jean Renoir, and the Russian actor Nikolay Cherkasov speak. More than that, he assisted Jean Renoir during the Indian portion of the shoot of Renoir’s film The River.

Even this modest amount of experience made Ray the most experienced person on his set. Unlike Roy and Chopra whose first films were supported by a strong studio system, Ray was working with whoever he could afford to hire. Perhaps because of this, Pathar Panchali is primarily a visual film. Ray, a former graphic artist, drew it out as he saw it, with minimal dialogue or even movements for actors. They were all props for his vision.

Just as Ray himself was only able to see the great films of other countries through a film society, so was Pathar Panchali only available internationally through the efforts of societies and festivals. It played in New York at the museum of modern art as part of an exhibit on Indian textiles (without subtitles, emphasising Ray’s non-verbal vision), at Cannes, in Vancouver, and in Japan, traveling from festival to festival for years.

(For more information on Roy and Chopra, check out their sections on Upperstall.com. For more on the film Hamrahi, check out indiavideo.org. Ray’s Pather Panchali is sometimes available on Hulu through the Criterion Collection. Chopra’s Afsana is available in its entirety on you tube.)

Blog by Margaret Redlich

Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian films.  She has been published on the website Racialicious.com and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian films