Celebrating the Song of the Road
Satyajit Ray's debut feature film Pather Panchali, released even while he was totally unknown as a filmmaker
Top ten listings can turn out to be dicey and controversial, especially when it comes to an immaculate work of art in the realm of genius. Especially when a creative creation is declared as an all-time great when compared to other works of art in that specific genre.
Certainly, in Indian cinema, across the multiple languages/dialects and the diversity of the nation's kaleidoscopic cultures and regions, this becomes all the more difficult. And, yet, the listings go on, bringing back unrequited aspirations, sweet memories, refined enlightenment, and remembrance of things past and future.
Agree or disagree, the essence of great cinema, art or literature is thereby yet again resurrected amidst the overwhelming tyranny of mediocrity, bringing alive once more a new stream of consciousness. Like a clean, pristine, rippling mountain stream. Like a tale of sorrow, heart-breaking, deeply felt; a narrative of human resilience, tragedy, and the will to live against all odds.
Like the 'Song of the Road', of coming and going, a final farewell to a poverty-stricken childhood home amidst dense, green forests and foliage, near a railway line surrounded by the white, flowing Kash flowers which arrive just before the festive season in the sensuous winter of rural Bengal. In the distance you can hear the steam engine, the magical train is coming, inside the heart of an endless green expanse, the beautiful rural landscape of Bengal.
Yes, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. His debut feature film, crafted even while he was totally unknown as a filmmaker, and part of his 'Apu trilogy' of films based on two novels penned by Bhibutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Pather Panchali (1955) has been declared as the best Indian film of 'all time' by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). The other two films in this trilogy are Aparajito and Apur Sansar.
The film had a cast of extraordinary actors, most of them totally unknown and amateurs, such as 'Pishima', the old aunt, and wife and mother, Sarbojaya, enacted so, with such understated brilliance by Chunibala Devi and Karuna Banerjee. The film also starred Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta and Pinaki Sengupta.
Two other greats are also behind this incredible film -– the soul-stirring music and soundtrack is by a young Sitarist, Ravi Shankar, and the path-breaking cinematography, which marked a significant departure in camera work in Indian and world cinema, was done by Subrata Mitra. Dulal Dutta did the editing.
The film, reportedly made with a tight budget of Rs 1,50,000, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on May 3, 1955. Later, when released in Calcutta, after an initial lukewarm response, the film acquired cult status in Bengal, and across the 'parallel cinema' industry in the world. A special screening was done for the prime minister and the chief minister of Bengal.
This film, along with the other two in the trilogy, won several national and international awards, with Pather Panchali winning the Best Feature Film National Award in India, and the Best Human Document Award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, among scores of other international awards.
The film, with its lucid simplicity and celebration of everyday life, is a classic in world cinema. Moments like a grasshopper dancing amidst rain in a Bengal pond amidst an expanse of green, or a sweet-seller arriving with his mud tumblers hanging on a pole on his shoulders, the air already fragrant with the delicious smell of the sweets, touched a chord hitherto not experienced in Indian cinema, including regional cinema.
The children, running into an open expanse under the sky, as if chasing a dream amidst the white kash flowers, is so symbolic of the serene and beautiful countryside of 'Shonar Bangla'. Their ears pressed to the railway tracks, you could smell the iron and hear the humming of the steam engine in the distance.
The train itself arrives from the horizon like a magical moment of wonder and amazement, and then disappears yet again into the far distance, perhaps one of the finest cinematic sequences in the history of world cinema.
The film was indeed like a song of the road, with its nuanced moments of tiny, everyday ecstasies, expressed and hidden happiness, human resilience in abject poverty symbolised by Karuna Banerjee's strong, restrained and stoic daily life. There is of course the not-so-disguised narrative of lingering sorrow amidst extremely difficult and adverse circumstances, and impending tragedies, in that humble dwelling amidst a disheveled, dense forest.
Life moves with its ebb and flow, with a postcard arriving after a long time, and a green fruit stolen surreptitiously by the mother. And, yet, the dignity and strength of each character, including old 'Pishima', unafraid of inevitable death, remains etched in each moment of this black and white epiphany. Pishima sings: Amaar din je gelo, shondha holo, paar koro amaare... (My day has gone, its twilight, please help me cross the shore)
Ray holds back. He, especially, holds back when it becomes most intense, for instance, a shocking moment of death, an unbearable tragedy, a sorrow which just cannot be endured anymore. Pishima's body being carried by four men, it moves in the horizon, it does not linger for even a fleeting moment extra, the sorrow of her death deeply entrenched in the heart of the audience.
This is because Chunibala Devi, even in that phase of her life, endeared herself to the world with her toothless smile, and her celebration of life. She endures the hostility of the woman of the house with a stoic silence and detachment, unexpressed, and, yet, reflected in her own solitary sadness. She would remain, perhaps, one of the greatest living characters crafted by Ray in cinema.
Indeed, two other tragedies in this film would eternally remain the most brilliant work of craftsmanship. Durga celebrates the rain wearing her sari, rolled across her waist, as if it is the final moment of abandonment, eternity and emancipation. Her infinite joy at the arrival of rain, getting drenched under the sky, and dancing the dance of life's young and magical miracles, is so infectious and life-affirming, that it drenches the innermost soul of the viewer. And, then, death knocks.
The sudden and shocking death of a young Durga, softly dark, a creature of freedom and adventure, a sister so fond of her little brother, her committed comrade and ardent follower, a daughter adored silently by her mother. She is also a tacit ally of Pishima.
According to young filmmaker Snehasish Mistri based in Kolkata, who runs the 'Satyajit Ray Film School' with short documentaries crafted to document the techniques and methods in Ray's cinema, "The death of Durga is followed by the arrival of her father with a sari for her. He says, where is Ma, where is Durga, and he gives the sari to her mother.
"At that moment, the mother screams, a heart-rending, heart-breaking cry of helpless sorrow which only a mother can experience. But what does Ray do? He mutes her scream, which becomes a backdrop of stunning sorrow, and what we instead hear is the soul-stirring 'Tar Shehnai' of Ravi Shankar, the music staying just for the time when the entire tragedy is absorbed and expressed."
Indeed, in the trilogy, when Harihar, a poor Brahmin, dies, this is yet another moment of infinite tragedy for Sarbajoya, Durga and Apu's mother. Instead, what instantly follows is the stunning sound of fluttering wings of a flock of pigeons, as if the entire nature and earth has been suddenly shaken by the death of her husband. Her sorrow moves from the earth to eternity.
Explains Mistri, "three women have created the core of the film. One of them is an 80-year-old aunt, the other two are mother and daughter, 35 and 11. Their physical dissimilarities are obvious. The aunt needs a refuge for the remaining days of her life. The mother wants to feed her children.
"The girl secretly dreams of marriage so as to become the mother of a flourishing family. Their dreams are highly divergent. The mother, otherwise affectionate and full of compassion and strength, drives out the aunt. No one is there to witness the mother's unspeakable cruelty.
"She doesn't know any other solution. She doesn't know how to earn for the family. She doesn't know either how to trust her husband — a playwright— to increase the family's paltry income which is dwindling each year.
"They can't understand each other, yet, they are compelled to share the small courtyard. Their paths are criss crossing in this little space. The small courtyard becomes a timeless symbol of womanhood spent in rural India."
In a deeply sensitive final section of the novel, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay writes, "Opu's mind went back to another day; a long time ago. He and his sister were out looking for the calf, and they went to look at the railway line. They ran so fast that they were both out of breath. How different it was then from now!
"They had not brought her with them; they had all come away and left her behind. Though she had been dead for a long time now, he always felt her near him when he was in any of the places where the two of them used to lay together, by the river, in the bamboo grove, under the mango tree. Every corner in their dilapidated old house in Nischindipur still spoke to him of her love though her invisible presence; and now he was being parted from her for ever…"
Says Dr Susmita Dasgupta, film scholar and author of 'Amitabh – The Making of a Superstar', "Pather Panchali may well be the best film in the eyes of the critics. Commercially, it was a hit in Bengal but not much elsewhere, though in the days of television and now the OTT, the collections of the film seem to have continued.
"Going by the popularity index, Pather Panchali has not been a Mughal-e-Azam, Sholay or DDLJ. However, critically, it has been an astounding film because of its camera work, while creating new idioms in filmmaking.
"The Indian popular cinema, though high on songs and music, is weak in camera. In fact, the camera is the weakest aspect of Indian popular cinema perhaps because the tradition of visual culture in India is not well developed.
"Ray's best films, according to me, are his children's films. The most interesting feature of his trilogy is that it brings into the visual landscape of the movie-goers an entirely new language of cinema. Yash Chopra in Bollywood seems to have been especially influenced by the camera work and film language of the trilogy."
So why did Ray never cast Amitabh Bachchan in his films, though he made two Hindi films, Sadgati and Shatranj ke Khilari, works by Munshi Premchand? Besides, Ray did give Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar the lead role in Nayak.
Susmita Dasgupta replies, "Nayak is almost a biopic of Uttam Kumar and hence he was cast in the film. Ray's films were actor-based and not star-based; the director was the auteur of his films and not the stars.
"Hence, he did not make any film with Amitabh Bachchan. However, his choice of Amitabh for voice-over in Shatranj ke Khiladi was well thought out because his voice typically had a slant of UP diction and hence suited the backdrop of Lucknow."
As per an unconventional take by 'Satyajit Ray Scholar', Ujjal Chakrobarty, who has written the acclaimed 'The Director's Mind', and worked as a book illustrator when he was young under the guidance of Ray, "the director arranged his characters, small objects and creatures following the mathematical models suggested by great philosophers practicing mathematics.
"The models have helped mankind understand everything — from small plants to the galaxies. Therefore, we can deduce that the Mathematical Models inspire the human brain to know the unknowable. If so, the models will also help us communicate more lucidly the innermost feelings of human beings.
"Ray realised the immense possibilities hidden in mathematics. Therefore, in the history of human arts, Ray was the first artist-writer who could consciously apply mathematical models in all of his art work — his drawings, stories and in his films. That's why Ray was so splendidly expressive without being blatantly 'artistic', like Fellini, for instance…That is why Pather Panchali revolutionized the concept of visuals for cinema."
The list of the finest Indian films done through a secret poll by film journalists and critics include classics like MS Sathyu's Garam Hawa, Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara , Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome, Ray's Charulata, Guru Dutt's Pyaasa, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Elippathayam, Girish Kasaravalli's Ghatashraddha, Shyam Benegal's Anku. The box office super hit, Sholay, directed by Ramesh Sippy, is also in the list.
Ray was given the Honorary Academy Award in 1991. With Audrey Hepburn as the presenter, it was presented to him on March 30, 1992, when he was in a hospital in Calcutta, having worked relentlessly in the last few years of his life, making several films, albeit, with indoor shooting. The presenter was Audrey Hepburn.
The citation states: "To Satyajit Ray, in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world."
Lying on his bed, Ray responded with tremendous grace, as eloquent and lucid as ever: "Well, it's an extraordinary experience for me to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award; certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career.
"When I was a small, small school boy, I was terribly interested in cinema. I became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply, was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn't get a reply. Then, of course, I got interested in cinema as an art form, and I wrote a 12-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn't reply either.
"Well, there you are. I have learned everything I've learned about the craft of cinema from the making of American films. I've been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught. So, I express my gratitude to American cinema, to the motion picture association who have given me this award and who have made me feel so proud. Thank you very, very much."