Madhumati was one of two Hindi films on which director Ritwik Ghatak worked as a writer. The other film was Musafir, released in 1957 and directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. When released in 1958 Madhumati was a huge box office hit and saw the re-teaming of director Bimal Roy and actor Dilip Kumar. Madhumati stands alongside Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal in terms of its influence, pioneering and popularising the theme of reincarnation in Hindi cinema. The film is a beguiling one, blending together expressionist imagery, rural landscapes and a haunting ghost story, that eventually builds to an unexpected fatalistic ending (although undercut by a conventional epilogue). Familiarity with the work of Ritwik Ghatak and his interest in the more indigenous aspects of tribal customs and rural village life (as expressed in both his films and writings) is manifested most directly in the central romance between Anand (Dilip Kumar), a symbol of the middle class, and Madhumati (Vijayantimala), an innocent tribal girl. With music by Salil Choudhury and lyrics by Shailendra, the soundtrack is regarded as one of the creative high points of 1950s Hindi cinema with classics like ‘Toote Huye Khwabon Ne’ (Rafi Saab). I had problems with the running time of Rockstar, a contemporary Hindi film, which ran for three hours (unjustifiably) but considering Madhumati is of a similar length, it is easy determine that unlike Imtiaz Ali, Bimal Roy has formidable control over his material. A superior melodrama.
The release of Sujata in 1959 marked the end of director Bimal Roy’s most prolific and creative period. Beginning with Do Bigha Zamin in 1953, Roy’s output in the fifties rivalled only that of Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor. However, the major difference between Roy and his contemporaries of the time was his relative status as an outsider. Whilst his cultural identity was firmly Bengali, his socialist sensibilities and response to growing commercial demands constructed an authorial position in which he was able to address the current social issues of the time through the populist mode of Hindi melodrama. Throughout the fifties Bimal Roy visited many of the social ills that continued to concern Indian society including poverty, capitalism, class, caste, marriage and of course, family. Cinematographer Kamal Bose who was largely responsible for the semi realist visual look of earlier films including Do Bigha Zamin and Devdas (1955), became a Roy regular and his aesthetic contribution to Sujata is readily apparent in many of the expressionist sequences. Ideologically, Roy’s cinema runs parallel with that of Rossellini and whilst De Sica’s work was both political and emotional, the stark humanism of Rossellini’s post war sentiments finds it fullest expression in the overtly symbolic figure of Sujata (played by Indian actress Nutan). Similarly like Do Bigha Zamin which debates the politics of poverty and rural exploitation through the wider metaphor of a family’s urban odyssey, Sujata scrutinizes the politics of caste and gender in the milieu of middle India.
My final point really comes out of the Keynote lecture given by British director Ken Loach at the London Film Festival in which he criticises the loss of craftsmanship in the British film industry. One of the major strengths of the Hollywood studio system was most of the writers, cinematographers and directors got regular work so they naturally developed their particular craft. Film makers like Bimal Roy got good at what they did because they were given the chance to develop their particular craft – this does not seem to be the case today as a lot of film makers attempting to come at film from a different angle struggle to find financing. In many cases, the second feature film can become allusive and for British film makers craftsmanship is no longer considered an aspiration or a realistic possibility in the current state of American screen monopolisation and British television’s descent into empty reality shows.