Pather Panchali

Author: Dr. Mandar

Pather Panchali
Year: 1955
Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta

What can I say about Pather Panchali that hasn’t been already said? This debut film of Satyajit Ray, the first part of his masterful ‘Apu trilogy’ has been acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time. Almost every critic who matters has hailed the film as a path-breaking classic. But what I am trying to say is different. I am going to try and analyze how this classic comes across to the contemporary cinema-buff more than five decades after its release; especially the kind of cinephile, who was exclusively weaned on the song-dance-action-comedy-melodrama-filled Hindi cinema of Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Yash Chopra.

First of all, let me tell you one thing frankly. Over the years, I have graduated from being the fan of formulaic cinematic fare to being a more discerning viewer, who can appreciate movies with subtler content. Now when I see a film, I try and appreciate things, which go beyond the mere entertainment value. But still at core I remain loyal to my cine-viewing roots of rooting for the underdog and clapping for the hero. So while I now can appreciate the so-called Art Cinema, I still I hate those morbid, self-indulgent films, which have no tale to tell and which equate long silences and longer meaningless picture-frame shots in the name of ‘Art’! For me, the movie needs to ‘move’. It has to move on the screen with its story and it has to move me through its presentation. And believe me, Pather Panchali moves! It moves on screen like a flowing song, true to its meaning ‘Song of the road’ and off screen, it moves you to core with the power of its compassionate and compelling story-telling!

Ray recreates a far-off world, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel, telling a story of a poor priest’s family living in a small Bengali village in the 1920s. Harihar, the priest, is making his ends meet by doing odd jobs and occasional priestly duties. Sarbojaya, his wife, is having a hard time managing the household with her husband’s meager income. On one hand, she has to take care of her two children, a teenaged daughter Durga and a five-six year old son Apu and on the other hand, she also has to deal with the antics of her old, hunchback sister-in-law. Her life becomes even more difficult when Harihar decides to go out of the village to seek better-paying jobs. Now she is left alone to fend for her family. As the months pass without any news from her husband, her difficulties go on mounting. Will her simple dream of living a better life with her family ever come true?

It is fascinating to see how Ray makes a great movie with such a plain story revolving around a practically non-descript family’s routine day-to-day existential activities. He just lets the narrative flow at a rambling, languid pace, totally unaffected by the typical filmy needs to dazzle the audience with formulaic devices. He dazzles through his exceptionally observant and humane directorial touches, which bring his characters to life.

Harihar is a simpleton. He has his aspirations (that of becoming a famous writer!) but he is too laid-back and pressed for time to achieve those dreams. So he just toils hard for his family without ever losing his smile and without ever questioning the will of the God.

 From her toothless, wrinkled, bent-in-the back appearance to her quiet acceptance of her meaningless existence, the old aunt almost plays out like a symbol of the crumbling past.

It is Sarbojaya’s character that is the pivot around which this story revolves and Ray captures her emotional dynamics so well. Her pride in her family-roots; her resigned acceptance of her husband’s social standing; her strict handling of her children; her resentment for the old sister-in-law; her frustration at her neighbour’s mean remarks; her depression after her husband’s departure; her breakdown in face of the tragedy… each and every emotion comes across subtly and yet forcefully.

Equally well-captured are Durga’s feelings - her fondness for her old aunt; her friendships and her awkward longing to get married.

But the most impressive is the way in which Ray portrays the tender brother-sister bond between Apu and Durga. Their small acts of fun, fights and adventure are some of the best moments ever captured on celluloid.

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s music- mostly in form of some brilliant sitar-dominated instrumental pieces, adds another dimension to the on-screen happenings but it is Subrato Mitra’s camera work that contributes even more significantly in this wonderful cinematic journey.  The children running through the Kaash fields to see the running train; the upside-down reflections of moving people in the river water; the first monsoon-drops creating water-ripples; the play of the water-insects; the raging storm threatening to rip apart the dilapidated house…. there are so many frames in the film that stay etched in memory, sometimes through their sheer beauty and sometimes through the imaginative way in which they were captured in those days when cinematography was in its infancy.

This cinematic triumph of this film shot almost entirely on real village location (Boral village near Kolkata) seems even more gigantic when we read the stories behind the scene. Ray was just a commercial artist working for an ad-agency, who had no past experience of movie-making; Mitra was just a still photographer who had never handled a movie-camera; amongst the actors who played those memorable  key characters, only Kanu Banerjee (Harihar) was experienced in film-acting while Karuna Banerjee (Sarbojaya), Uma Dasgupta (Durga) , Subir Baneree (Apu) and Chunibala Devi(the old aunt) were total novices in the field; better still, the last mentioned actress was brought in from a brothel to essay her role.

The movie was shot on a shoe-string budget and when it was stalled for the lack of finance, West Bengal government funded it thinking it to be a documentary extolling virtue of road development in the villages!

Pather Panchali is not just a film, it is an experience. It is a moving depiction of circle of life. Through it Ray not only did capture the lives of simple village-folk; he managed to capture the very spirit that keeps them alive!

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