In retrospect, more than five decades after it was made, Bimal Roy's Biraj Bahu would appear to be thematically passé, sentimental to an extreme and overly melodramatic. But in terms of cinematic expression, it still stands tall among all celluloid interpretations/transpositions of Sarat Chandra classics made in any language. The most outstanding quality of a Sarat Chandra classic placed on celluloid by Bimal Roy is that it is completely faithful in terms of the period, place, social relationships and characters to the literary work it is based on. Roy retains the flavour of the original so beautifully that one can stretch one's hand to touch the characters, as if transported to a village in Bengal 90 years ago in a time machine called cinema.
Within the first two minutes, the credits come up against the backdrop of small village scenes with a beautiful bhatiyali (boatman's song) Ram Karega Paar re Naiyya, on the soundtrack. We see boatmen rowing their boats, fishermen drawing their nets from the river, village wives taking bath and fetching water, then coming back with water pots hitched to their waists and farmers returning from their fields. The song fades and the sound of village wives blowing on their conch shells is complemented with visuals of the women stepping into the courtyard with lighted incense and earthen lamps to offer evening prayers to the tulsi plant. These few shots, moving seamlessly from one to the next, beautifully establish the place, the period, the ethnography and the culture within which the narrative is placed. >From silhouetted images, the visuals become sharper when the camera enters the courtyard. The place is a village in Bengal, the time is evening and when the camera finally comes to rest on Biraj, she is shown entering a dark room to light the tiny kupi on the wall. The village, apparently, does not have electricity.
The audience is introduced to the main characters in the next few minutes. Biraj, married when she was a little girl to the much older Nilambar, lives with her husband, his younger brother, his wife, and their little sister Punnu. The finer nuances of characterization are built subtly through movement, expression and dialogue. Biraj, childless, loves Punnu like a mother would, pinches her cheeks when she unties the calf from the cowshed and sets it free, and is devoted to her husband. He goes to keertans the whole day or attends cremations for people who have no one to help them when he is out. At home, he either reads out the Ramayana or engages himself in childlike banter with his beautiful wife he loves dearly. His younger brother is diabolic, shrewd, cunning and a liar to boot though his wife is an innocent young woman. The financial status of the family is given in suggestion – there are cows in the cowshed, Biraj lays a generous plate for the family, with milk and dessert to finish off a square meal. The family also has a maid, Sundari.
These opening scenes are sharply contrasted with the disaster that befalls Biraj and Nilambar over the rest of the film. The maid is sacked, Biraj takes the help of a poor woman to sell small toys of river clay she makes herself which she asks the woman to sell, feeds Nilambar but deprives herself. Nilambar remains oblivious to all this. The relationship faces problems because Nilambar is still jobless, still goes to keertans and the couple become poorer by the day. Deodhar's entry through and Sundari's avenging ways opens the floodgates of tragedy. The film closes with Biraj returning to her husband's place only to die, metaphorically, 'at his feet.'
Bimal Roy's minute detailing of interiors, scenes and characters is incredible. The scene where the younger sister-in-law comes to the partition fencing to very apologetically request Biraj to accept a little help from her when Biraj is facing severe financial crisis is one example. Or the small scene showing Biraj trying to cook some gruel for herself on a makeshift oven under a tree and a passer-by handing her alms taking her to be a beggar. It is emotionally hurting to see her accept the alms but this is what could happen in real life. On the other hand, one cannot miss the melodramatic touches of Sundari wanting to confess when she is dying of snakebite, or a physically injured Biraj suddenly jumping into the river when she finds herself in Deodhar's bajra. Roy consciously uses the allegory of the mythological Ram-Sita story when Biraj is trudging back home with Mohammed Rafi's Suno Sita ki Kahani on the soundtrack. The sweet banter exchanged between Biraj and Nilambar when he reminds her how she had let the bird out of the cage because she felt a caged bird will fly back, how he used to tweak her ears when she was small, are feather-light touches exploring the romanticism of love between a couple even when there is a vast difference in their ages.
Kamini Kaushal's flawless central performance as Biraj with its low-key smiles, its shades of anger, hurt, humiliation and shock, all come across beautifully, holding the film together. The scene where she looks into the mirror, is shocked to find all her beauty gone and says, "Accha hi Hua" is an extremely poignant moment in the film. The other moving moment, albeit a bit overdone, is when the younger brother destroys the fencing between the two homes in remorse when Biraj fails to return. The dedication of a great director and a fine artiste towards the film is evident from the following incident. "How many times have you read Biraj Bahu?" Roy had asked Kamini Kaushal before shooting for Biraj Bahu began. "'I read it twice,' she told him. "He wanted me to read it twenty times. I did. When shooting began, I was so completely in harmony with the period, the characters and the ambience that I didn't even feel I was acting. I understood why he had asked me to read the original novel in translation 20 times," reminisces Kamini Kaushal in the recent documentary, Remembering Bimal Roy. She deservedly won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the film. However, the time-leap from the beginning when Punnu is a little girl, and in the end when she is married and the mother of a baby, does not show in Biraj's looks though it is quite clear in Nilambar's appearance. Abhi Bhattacharya as Nilambar passes muster, supporting Kamini perfectly. Pran as Deodhar is his usual efficient, villainous self albeit in a small role.
The editing is seamless, coming from the one of the best editors in cinema, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The soft fades and the gentle dissolves lend a lyricism to the entire film, absent in contemporary Hindi cinema replete with razor-sharp editing and frequent jump cuts. Dilip Gupta's camera, especially in the climactic scenes of rain, thunder and storm, when Biraj is trying to find her way home, look like delicately executed charcoal sketches in movement. The same applies to art director Sudhendu Roy's recreation of a village home in Bengal. The simple courtyard, the tulsi plant, walls choc-a-bloc with glossy but old pictures of Gods and Goddesses, a small temple in a corner with two small idols of Radha and Krishna, are restrained in design and expression, devoid of the gloss and the glamour one saw in many Hindi mainstream films of the time.
The high point of Biraj Bahu lies in Salil Choudhury's extremely atypical musical score. It reminds one of SD Burman who made Bengali folk music in Hindi cinema his trademark. Choudhury's music always carries his distinct signature. In Biraj Bahu, he is different. He departs from his regular oeuvre of fusion much before the word came into being, to enrich the film with beautiful Bengali folk songs from the bhatiyaali to keertan.In particular, Hemant Kumar's rendering of Mere Man Bhula Bhula Kaahe Dole haunts you much after the film is over.
It is grossly unfair that Biraj Bahu is rarely ever mentioned when one talks of Bimal Roy's films for it is a fine film that stands tall on its own merits. After Biraj Bahu, Bimal Roy brought the marble statues of Radha and Krishna he had used in the film and installed them in the annexe of his bungalow in Bandra where they reigned for many years after he had passed away.