60 Years of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali: Song of the Little Road

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pather panchali

Why 60 years after it was released, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali remains a trailblazer not just in Indian cinema but an icon of world cinema

NAJEEB S A | Special to Caravan Daily

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e all have short lived memories. Even among the few of us who had once been walked through those sporadic spells of receptivity (“..people were born, lived out their lives and accepted their deaths..”) by one of the greatest artists of our time, how many did remember that it was in an August 60 years ago that Pather Panchali was released in Calcutta’s (Kolkota) ‘Bashusree’ theater amidst much fanfare; or even how small an incident that happened a year earlier had actually altered the course of Indian cinematic history elevating Satyajit Ray as an icon of the golden age of art house film production?

In 1954 John Houston was in India exploring locales for his film ‘The Man Who Would be King’. In between, however, he saw a 20-minute rushes of Pather Panchali in Calcutta. Houston was captivated by the underlying syntax in Ray’s visual detailing to the extent that he wired Monroe Wheeler, the curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) recommending the inclusion of Pather Panchali in the latter’s planned series Living Arts of India.

The master storyteller...Satyajit Ray
The master storyteller…Satyajit Ray

On 3rd May 1955, a good three months before its official release in India, Pather Panchali was premiered in MOMA. Most film critics in the audience were enticed by Ray’s kind of songful storytelling. Almost a year later it found its way to the Cannes film festival where it’s official screening took place close to midnight. Having already outlasted four feature films that day the jury members were exhausted and some gave Pather Panchali a skip.

Meanwhile, the few patient jurors who watched the film were so impressed by what they saw that they insisted on a repeat screening for those who had skipped it the previous night. Eventually Pather Panchali fetched the special citation as the ‘best human document’. It was the first Indian film to have earned such accolades in the European art house trail.

The adventurous Apu in Pather Panchali
The adventurous Apu in Pather Panchali

The perception of beauty, however, proved to be subjective with Ray’s film. Francoise Truffaut was reported to have expressed his disappointment at its slow pace. While it left an enduring impact on a young Martin Scorsese’s sensibilities, Akira Kurasova felt it flowed with the serenity and mobility of a big river.

Much like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1928 novel of the same title (Pather Panchali) was also set in an illusory hamlet, Nishchindipur (The timeline also coincides; Faulkner wrote The Sound and Fury in 1929). Harihar Roy was a desolate Brahmin priest irate with his struggles about sustaining the family that constituted his pragmatic wife Sarbajaya, the adventurous little Apu and Apu’s rascally older sister Durga. Then there is also the manipulative Indir Thakrun, the aged cousin of Hariharwho also pokes her head all along as the plot sedately unfolded.

During his short stint with an English advertising agency in 1950 Ray had spent three months in London. By his own admission all the spare time he had, he spent watching movies – 98 of them in all. Some European film critics maintain that Ray has been influenced by the proletarian neorealism of Vittoria de Sica (Bicycle Thieves).

But Ray’s narrative had a demure naivety that made one’s heart ache which was a far cry from the postwar Italian neorealistic objectivity (‘the truth of actors’, ‘photography reminiscent of the reportage style’, ‘refusal of the studio’, etc.) was made in a shoestring budget defying all norms of conventional film production of its time.

All except one (Chunibala Devi who played the mercurial aunt Indir Thakrun) of the film’s actors were nonprofessionals. None of them wore make up. Ray’s twenty one year old cinematographer, Subrata Mitra was a novice with the movie camera. Being a first time film maker, Ray himself did not have much success in convincing financiers what he was actually up to.

As a consequence, midway through he was left with no other choice except to self-finance his project by parting with his collection of books, vinyl records and even pawning some of his wife’s jewelry. Still falling short of funds Ray approached Chief Minister Dr. B.C. Roy. As the state fiscal budget had no provision for financing a feature film and the title of the film had the term “road” in it, the obligation of project management eventually fell on the Public Works Department!

The fidelity with which Ray had chartered Bandopadhyay’s trail left his own contemporaries like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen overwhelmed. Only a cinematic prescient like Ray could have chosen the small village of Boral as the Nischindipur model that was located in the outskirts of Calcutta near Garia in South 24 Parganas. The natural habitat that Boral was – the trees, the fruits, the winding paths, the birds, the clouds and most of all the evening sun – as much the citadel of the film as were its central characters.

In Pather Panchali the protagonist Apu’s entry occurs almost twenty minutes into the film. As a matter of fact our first glimpse of Apu is that of a single murky eye, gazing at us unpretentiously from beneath a blanket. It is from behind those two human observatory posts that we experience not only the coming of age of a suckling but also the evolution of an inept and distressed nation. Soon after the country’s independence from British rule, Ray’s own Bengal was split into a Hindu western half and a Muslim east.

The fact that the sutures of that historical lesion still remains insolent which widens under geographical and political influences is subtly underpinned in Ray’s narrative. The rhapsodic Bengali verses that Apu often recites to himself are manifestations of the director’s own dialectal nationalism.

Perhaps more importantly, Ray had projected the character of Apu’s mother at center stage at a point in time when women’s domestic dilemmas weren’t the cynosure of deliberation even in the West. But what made the world cinematic audience fall hook, line and sinker for him was how Ray would capture the disappointments, tragedies and little delights in everyday life, weaving them into tapestries of universal predicaments that remain with you like the environment you grew up in.

Only in 1992 when the Academy of Motion Pictures decided to confer a lifetime achievement award on Ray, the naked truth emerged that the original negatives of his early films were in an abysmal state. The negatives were then hurriedly shipped to a South London lab for restoration. However, a massive fire broke out in the lab nearly destroying the film reels.

When they came to know of the tragedy, an art house distribution company called ‘The Criterion Collection’ came forward and took charge of the restoration procedures. They shipped the film reels, or rather what remained of them, to a lab in Bologna, Italy for digital scanning. It then took a laborious struggle on the part of the Criterion technicians to bring back Ray’s black and white classics (Apu Trilogy) to life.

During a 1975 discourse in Moscow, Japanese film director Akira Kurasova said that not seeing the films of Ray was like “living in the world having not seen the sun or the moon”. Now that they are available in a pristine 4K restoration, it is up to you to choose how you want to live in your own world, with or without the sun and moon, that is.

 

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