Maya Roy: Forgotten star of silent era

Debiprosad Ghosh’s painstaking research pieces together the writings of Maya Roy, an actor of the silent movie era who did groundbreaking work as a perceptive writer on film and social subjects in the 1930s, in both Bengali and English.

Published : Sep 16, 2021 06:00 IST

Maya Roy  in her heyday.

Maya Roy in her heyday.

T his year marks the 120th birth anniversary of Maya Roy (1901-1961), a forgotten Bengali actor of the silent era. Film lovers with an interest in the early decades of cinema in India remember her husband, the renowned director Charu Roy (1890-1971), or his contemporaries such as the German film-maker Franz Osten (1876-1956), known for classics such as Light of Asia , Achhut Kanya , and Kangan , and the redoubtable Himanshu Rai (1892-1940), an actor, director and founder of Bombay Talkies. But they have largely given the go-by to women artistes such as Maya Roy or her Anglo-Indian sisters such as Patience Cooper and Sita Devi, whose actual name was Rainey Smith.

It was a time when society in general looked down on female actors of the stage or the screen, considering them women of loose morals. This was most certainly the reason why these actors were treated with contempt. True, there was a Devika Rani in Bombay, an M.S. Subbulakshmi in Madras, and a Kanan Devi a.k.a. Kanan Bala in Calcutta, but they were grand exceptions. Among other things, they had influential patrons to guide and promote them.

But for the enormous exertions of Debiprosad Ghosh, the distinguished Kolkata-based film researcher, scholar and historian even Bengali film aficionados, not to mention their counterparts in other regions of the country, would have remained ignorant of the pioneering role of Maya Roy not only as an actor but as a perceptive writer on film and social subjects in the 1930s, in both Bengali and English.

In a slim book running into no more than 50 pages, titled Jiboner Ek Pata o Ananya (A Page from Life and Others), Ghosh, who turned 70 in August, has for the first time put together Maya Roy’s published writings after years of toil and trouble. Fifteen articles in Bengali and one in English give the reader an idea of the conditions in which film people had to work, and related matters.

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Maya Roy was born in 1901 in Madras to Jagadish Chandra Sengupta and Nagendrabala. It was in Madras that Maya learnt her first lessons in spoken and written English whilst attending a convent school. Later, when the family left for Calcutta, her parents enrolled her in Victoria Institute, from where she passed her matriculation examination in 1920. As was the custom then, even among educated families, Maya was married off at an early age while still a student to Charu Roy, an eminent art director, actor, film-maker, and editor of a news journal.

Film forays

Even though fettered by early marriage, Maya’s thirst for formal learning could not be suppressed. In the course of time, she enrolled for further studies in Bethune College, Calcutta’s famous seat of learning for women in the culturally rich northern part of the city. However, the growing pressures of family life prevented her from progressing very far educationally. Instead, as if in logical progression, Maya joined her husband’s film unit.

She essayed a supporting role in Charu Roy’s Shiraz , released in 1928. Maya Roy then starred in the intriguingly titled The Loves of a Moghul Prince (1929). This film, produced by Eastern Film Company and directed by Charu Roy, featured the director and his wife in the lead roles. These two films were examples of the possibilities inherent in silent cinema when done by able and devoted practitioners of the art, although the art itself was still in a nascent stage.

Although Maya removed herself from the acting arena after those two outings, she was loath to divorcing herself from the fabulous world of cameras, sets, costumes, and arc lights. But, this time, she chose a role that was some distance away from the hurly-burly of active film participation—she took up the pen to express herself on varied film-related subjects.

Also read: Revisiting Mrinal Sen’s "Calcutta ’71"

Maya Roy was also the mother of two sons on whom she doted. Tragically, neither of them was destined to live long. The older son died in childhood, while the younger one passed away at a grown-up age before the grieving eyes of his parents. The loss of her sons devastated her, and she began showing signs of irreversible depression, leading to a mental breakdown. She spent her final days at Ranchi Central Nursing Home, where she breathed her last at the age of 60 on January 16, 1961.

A life that had begun full of promise ended on a note of loneliness and indescribable misery.

Labour of love

Scouring the dust-laden racks of numerous old libraries in Kolkata in search of vital information contained in disintegrating journals, Debiprosad Ghosh has constructed for the benefit of his readers a life at once triumphant and tragic. In recovering the writings left to posterity by Maya Roy, Ghosh has earned the gratitude of generations of film-lovers who live in the present without forgetting the past. Without any financial support from any quarter and relying wholly on meagre personal earnings, Ghosh spent at least five years trudging from library to library looking for Maya Roy’s writings. The journals he sought had become brittle to the touch by the time Ghosh found them, but, by his own admission, they filled him with indescribable joy.

Among the repositories he visited, in search of magazines that were at least 70 years old, were the National Library, the Chaitanya Library, the Reeta Ray Memorial Library, the Ritwik Memorial Library and the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, located in different parts of Kolkata. With painstaking care, Ghosh sifted through hundreds of old files to gain an idea of Maya Roy’s convictions as expressed in film publications which are but a memory now.

Chitralekha , Chitraponji , Bioscope , Dipali , Kheyali , Amode , and Insurance World were some of the publications for which Maya Roy wrote, gaining acclaim in some cases but more often than not receiving criticism from quarters ill-disposed to women speaking up for their rights as working people, as citizens, or simply as human beings.

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Maya Roy’s writings focussed on issues such as the exploitation faced by actors, especially women, problems faced by the industry, the question of illusion and reality in the film art, and the need for artistes to set aside a part of their earnings with an eye to the future, meaning the rainy days when no active support from any quarter was likely to be available.

Just as there is a palpable sense of pride in these writings, there is also a lurking fear about what the future held for actors and actresses in their old age, or when felled by disease or accident. These vignettes of personal experience amount to a heartfelt articulation of a culture of agony and ecstasy, complete with pitfalls, disappointments, deceptions, chances of failure and dismissal from service, or outright betrayals.

On need for insurance

The spectre of poverty in old age haunted many, if not all, film people. Maya Roy’s article published 90 years ago, titled “Insurance and the Film Star” in Insurance World of March 1931 reflected these thoughts of penury and starvation in more ways than one. She writes: “Whenever we go to a cinema we watch the beautiful cinema star performing his or her best acting on the screen, with immense joy and lightheartedness. Our eyes drink in the beauty of the star and our hearts are filled with the pleasure, which we are deprived of, in our actual life. For the time being we forget the worries of our lives and nearly become one with the hero or heroine the star represents on the screen. How these screenplays put us into entire forgetfulness!”

But then the tone of the actress’s ruminations changes to one of impending alarm; it does not take long for her to point to the prospects of danger lurking round the corner. She notes: “What hardships these stars endure to make an impression on the public mind, but no sooner they lose their good looks and youth than the public get rid of the former impression and make room for a fresh print. Nobody cares to know what happens to the star who 10 years ago held the audience in speechless admiration. And these unhappy stars are ever reckless and do far more injustice to themselves than we [the audience] do by forgetting them. They simply forget the golden rule of making hay when there is the sun and suffer in the rainy weather. When they are happy and rolling in money, they fail to picture the suffering which is in store for the near future.”

Maya Roy, like a friend, philosopher and guide to her brothers and sisters in the profession, comes up with many words of wisdom. With a deep sense of concern, she counsels: “Every star should think twice before he or she spends the hard-earned money on unnecessary merrymaking. Undoubtedly, their lives should be well-insured. They should think it a duty to warn their own selves, not to speak of their relatives. A film star may be rolling in money and earning a tremendously big sum for a new production starred by him or her. But there is the terrible risk to his or her person and life.”

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She also strikes a note of caution against the perverse and unpredictable ways of the world, or of fate, as deceiver and destroyer. She says: “How many times do we see hair-raising events taking place before our eyes involving grave and serious risk to the life of the person taking part in the event, and who can tell from what quarter will come the wind that may blow the candle out! So, it is but fair on the part of the film star to get himself or herself heavily insured. We have not heard, in our country of any insurance company which will insure a particular limb or part of the body of a dancer or any star, but in the West we know that there are such bodies, particularly the Lloyds’ Corporations in England, which insure the toe, the face, the arm, etc., of particular individuals whose name, fame, and livelihood depend upon the special features insured.”

She is dismayed at the absence of any Indian company engaged in providing the safety net of insurance to falling stars, unlike in the West. She writes: “My little familiarity with the film stars here has made me think that these people ought to insure their lives. Many of them have a family dependent on their earnings and so they ought to think of these dependents and accordingly, before hazarding their lives, insure themselves in such a way that the family is well provided for in case something happens to him or her. I do not mean there is always a grave risk to life but there are a thousand and one chances of being a cripple, losing an eye, or the use of the arms and so on. Even if there be nobody depending on the star, what guarantee is there that he or she may not become so injured in body as to lose the power of acting for the cinema altogether.”

How deeply the actor had thought about the possibility of sustaining injury while acting and, in that context, of the necessity to provide for future financial security is revealed when she poses to readers a question that we, who are living almost a century after she put pen to paper, are still asking ourselves. She asks: “There may be a question—why shouldn’t they [actors and actresses] put their money in the bank? Why in the insurance company? There are two simple answers to these questions:

(i) When we put the money in the bank we can spend it whenever we feel like spending it, all we have to do is to sign a cheque and draw the required amount, it is almost as good as spending currency notes from our own iron chests.

(ii) When we hold an insurance policy, we always take special care lest we fail in paying the premium—it is a sort of compulsion, and we may not like it at first but it pays in the long run when we get used to it.”

She is quick to add what she perceives to be a failing in the case of keeping money in the bank. “Besides, banks would undertake no risk on the lives of their clientele. In case of death or injury of the person concerned, the bank would pay only the amount deposited with interest. But in case of an insurance company, whatever may be the amount paid, whenever the contingency happens, the full sum assured will be payable. Deposit with banks does not save one’s worry. But in the case of an insurance company, as soon as the first premium is paid, cares and anxieties disappear and the pillow seems a little softer than it had been before.”

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In a style that is as attractive as the substance is wise, Maya Roy concludes thus: “There may be a thousand and one reasons for or against an insurance company but these are the simplest points which one may consider whenever the idea of saving a little occurs to one’s mind. Stars or meteors, you must think of the day you may set or fall!”

Maya Roy makes the case for insurance with a depth of feeling and clarity of conviction that is breathtaking.

Without doubt, it was possible for her to do so because she was writing from personal knowledge, if not personal experience, relating to an industry that almost always promised more than it actually delivered to those participating in front of or behind the camera.

For every M.S. Subbulakshmi of Meera and Shakuntala fame, or Kanan Devi, who was unforgettable in at least a dozen other box-office successes, there were hundreds of stars and starlets who arrived with a bang only to fade away with a whimper.

And when the day of reckoning arrived, they found themselves without a nickel to their name in a bank or with an insurance company. Perhaps it was with such tragic cases in mind that Maya Roy wrote her piece, which might read like an advertisement for the insurance business to an unfeeling cynic.

Film journalism

In a brief but illuminating afterword, Debiprosad Ghosh mentions the pioneering role that Maya Roy played as a writer on different aspects of the world of cinema, at a time when practically nothing existed by way of serious film journalism. She wrote with great responsibility and with the knowledge of an insider on the nitty-gritty of film production, exhibition, acting, the expectations of viewers, and a variety of allied subjects. There was not a whiff of the sensational, of hearsay or bazaar gossip, in what she wrote. Film scholars and feminists would do well to study the short but insightful and opinionated writings done by her, at a time when women were not even expected to have a mind of their own, let alone put their thoughts on paper.

Also read: Failure of realism

Characteristic of the courage and conviction associated with trail-blazers in any field, Maya Roy tried her best to lend dignity to her profession and make her readers appreciate the hostile societal conditions in which film people worked day and night to entertain them with mythologicals, historicals, fantasies, and everyday dramas of life, love and death.

In conclusion, one wonders what demons of memory Charu Roy must have silently wrestled with in his twilight years. Charu Roy lived for 10 years after the death of his beautiful wife, in a three-storied house he had lovingly built on Motilal Nehru Road in the upscale southern part of Kolkata.

In just a handful of pages, so many individual and collective histories have come to be preserved by Debiprosad Ghosh, who collected them feverishly, as if they were no less than religious relics.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a veteran film critic based in Kolkata.

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