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India: Remembering Deepak Roy

8 February 2017

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by Partha Chatterjee

Deepak Roy,(1949-2017) was a talented, committed documentary film maker of the old school. His best films combined with perception, content with a sureness of technique. His Docu-feature in 1997-‘’Dhanna” won him the National Award for Best Film on Social issues. It was about a specially- abled boy Dhannaraj who brings water to his parched village in Madhya Pradesh.

He directed,”Limits to Freedom” in 1996, on women prisoners of Tihar Jail in Delhi. It won him deservedly the National Award for Best Director and Best Documentary film on social issues. Roy was striving then, as he was till the end, for clarity of expression. It was this strong desire to communicate with each individual viewer in the audience that prompted him to find a common audio-visual language which would establish a rapport: Certainly this was achieved in his better works with ease.

He had learnt his cinema in the School of Hard Knocks. He became a member of the Delhi Film Society on finding his first job in the mid- 70s. One would be forever in his debt for being smuggled into the hall, usually at Maharashtra Rangayan at Paharganj(Delhi) or later, DTA Auditorium on Ring Road near ITO, to see the European and Japanese classics. Films by French masters, Renoir, Vigo, Godard, Resnais, Truffaut ,Italian luminaries like de Sica, Rosellini, Visconti, Fellini, the Russian pioneers, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Japanese film poets, Kurasawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, not to forget the two Indian stalwarts Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were screened as a matter of course.

Other non- mainstream Indian directors like Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan, John Abraham also found a platform for their films here. Deepak Roy learnt his cinema watching films at Delhi Film Society and in the cinema halls of Delhi.
In the late 1980s, he directed “Beauty without Cruelty” about the senseless cruelty of humans towards animals. It had music by the illustrious Ustad Bahadur Khan whose Sarod resonated in many sequences of the film.

“Setu” made for the Madhya Pradesh Nirman Nigam had Kedarnath Singh’s eponymous poem in place of the standard garullous commentary which was the norm of the day. He also made a film on the same famous Hindi poet for Sahitya Akademi as he did on Babu Nagarjun and Harbhajan Singh, luminaries of Hindi and Punjabi literature respectively, also for the same literary body.

His preferences in life and art were radical. As a young man growing up in the cosmopolitan Delhi of the late 1960s and early 70s, he imbibed the best in the politics of Indian and International Left. His cinema naturally grew out of the education he received in his youth.
Well before he began as a documentary film maker, he had written a feature film script based on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s 19th centaury Bengali satire, “Muchiram Goorh”. He managed to catch the character of the bizarre comic rising comprador bourgeois character Babu Muchiram Goorh and place him accurately in the context of British Bengal of the time. It is another matter that he did not make the film then or later. He had incidentally won the script writing competition of the National Film Development Corporation thrice.

Although, he aspired to, he never made a fiction film in his life. Later as he established himself in Documentaries, he wrote an unusual script on a lady mountaineer who had only one strong functional leg. There was a flurry of negotiations with producers in Bombay(Mumbai) , but ultimately the money did not come through. He also wanted to do a film with Pran, the quintessential Hindi film villain, casting him against in an unusual, sympathetic role of an artist.

Roy had struggled against mighty impossible odds growing up. In infancy, he suffered a terrible attack of polio that affected his left-side, from leg upwards to hand and shoulder. The left side of his body was in a State of virtual paralysis and, he had, a difficult speech impediment. He trained himself to walk tirelessly for miles, communicate freely with all sort of people from intellectuals to ordinary, modest daily wage earners. His ready wit and sense of humour often worked to offset sudden bursts of temper.

In the second half of his career, he found and ideal partner in his wife Rita Shah who was with All India Radio. She proved to be tireless researcher and in certain ways a genuine facilitator of his projects. When he was downcast after the amputation of a gangrenous tow following a neglected cut, she told him to cheer up and get ready to make his next film. “The best is yet to come’ was her well-founded conviction.

He did a series of documentaries for Lok Sabha TV on the State Capitals of India. True to form he strove to find the unusual in a dull subject. In Dehradoon, (Uttarkhand) he sought out Sarvat Rehman, a medical doctor and literary writer and translator of great Urdu poets like Ghalib and Faiz. “He took lovely shots of her bungalow and garden”, said art historian Juliet Reynolds, who introduced Roy to her and was present during the shoot.

It is perhaps because of his allegiance to cinema and his training in it that Roy’s visual language was cinematic. Unlike many well-known Television documentarists in India today, he was averse to talking heads. His best works captured a movement in time- a pre-condition of genuine cinema. He carried this quality over when he was forced like other practitioners to shift from Analogue (celluloid) to Digital (video), as the film laboratories in the country shutdown one by one. He did for a very long time hang on to a Sturdy 16 MM Bolex camera, he had acquired somewhere on the way.

Roy’s commitment to social issues arose from his education in radical politics and not out of mere attention seeking and monetary rewards, as is the case with so many documentarists today. His initial training as a librarian-he worked in the Sapru House Library in mid-1970s Delhi- and a quest for knowledge led him to devour the best in world fiction and the social sciences. It was this fund of knowledge that he drew on and combined it with the keen social sense to make some fine documentaries that answered to the creed of the genre-that is , to arrive at certain moments of “illumination” by attempting to ‘document’ the life of a person and/ or a historical event with in a given context.

His film on an anonymous Lepcha musician, “A Man for all Seasons”, is a case in point. Sonam Tshering Lepcha, plays on his bowed string instrument folk melodies with great devotion and understanding. His only ambition seems to be to spread a little bit of happiness. In this effort he seeks fulfillment. It is quiet, modest and lovely film. Deepak Roy reveals a moving side to his own cinematic personality through his portrait of a musician.


The above tribute by Partha Chatterjee is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use