Pather Panchali as one of the greatest global movies

By Satya Narayan Misra*

The Time magazine has identified the hundred greatest movies during the last ten decades and the lone Indian movie that finds a pride of place is Pather Panchali, directed in 1955 by Satyajit Ray. He helped Jean Renoir during his shooting of the film The River and it was during location shooting Ray told Renoir about his idea of filming Pather Panchali based on the novel of Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhya. Because of funding problems, it took Ray three years to complete his debut film. It’s one of the movies that happened almost against all odds and also one of the most beautiful films ever made in any language. It is unlikely that your childhood was anything like Appu’s; yet his story is a dream of every childhood, a recollection or a wish of love and family that reaches deep inside us. Pather Panchali is beguiling; since Ray had never directed a scene, his cameraman had never photographed one and his child actors had never been tested for their role. Even the music was scored by a novice Ravi Shankar, who subsequently became an icon in Sitar and a Bharat Ratna like Satyajit Ray.

The story of Appu is of a young boy living with his parents, older sister, and ancient aunt living in an ancestral village to which his father, a priest, has returned despite the misgivings of a practical mother. Pather Panchali was followed by two superb sequels, Aparajito and Appur’s Sansar and all the three films won international accolades at Cannes, Venice, and London. Interestingly, the trilogy had a long stretch of silence which called for a greater amount of background music than is normally required. Two sequences of Pather Panchali, both virtually wordless, were conceived in terms of music. One was the sequence of rain and the other was the long episode with Appu following the death of Durga, his sister. For the first time, Ravi Shankar provided a three-minute piece on the solo sitar in a raag that is conventionally associated with rain, “Desh”. For the somber passage following Durga’s death, the raga chosen was “Todi”.

Subrat Mitra, his photographer, started from scratch at first by borrowing a 16mm camera. Mitra achieved effects of extraordinary beauty: forest path, river vista, the gathering clouds of monsoon, and how water bodies skimlightly over the surface of a pond. There is a fearsome scene as the mother watches over her feverish daughter while rain and wind buffet the hapless cottage as the camera dolls again and again across the small theatre space. And a moment after the death of Durga the film cuts to the sudden flight of birds. The camera has rarely caught such episodic moments in a more resplendent manner.

In India, the hiatus between modern and tradition, educated and uneducated, rich and poor is so great that the process of identification of the rhythm and reality of life is essential to any art which is not prepared to be ephemeral. The rhythm of Ray’s film is one of the first things about his work for the very reason that it expresses a wide reality than we are used to in an island of modernity in India. The slow tango of his films reflects a deeper sense of Indian reality. It is interesting to note that Ray who was quite meticulous about the accuracy of period details chose to dress Sarvajaya in clothes that belong to a later period. By and large, his tendency was to cover them. Like Tagore, Ray always treated his female characters with enormous sensitivity. Ray like Ingmar Bergman and Antonioni, the masters of international cinema, imposed their own rhythm on the audience. Ray held back emotional excesses; “calm without and fine within”.

We live in a box of space and time and movies are windows in its world. They allow us to enter other minds by seeing the world as another person sees it. Of all arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy and good ones make us better people. It is democracy in the dark with an image frozen on the screen. Satyajit Ray started the film society movement in 1947, and was greatly influenced by Italian neo-realism; particularly of De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”. With the death of the film society movement and the rise of OTT, students of the younger generation seem to be less interested in the past. They can be irredeemably philistine when they say, I don’t like black and white.

As India transited from muddling sentimentality, post-independence, with the new wave unleashed by Ray’s masterpieces like Pather Panchali in 1955, the new wave in Hindi & Malayalam cinema was carried on by the likes of Shyam Benegal. MS Sathyu, Adoor Gopalkrishnan & G Aravindam in the 70s . There is an apprehension that the present times have an impatience of the past. But as E.H.Carr writes in “What is History”: History is a continuous process of interaction between the past and the present. Cinema is a subset of that large mosaic.

I watched Pather Panchali in 1977 in Mavalankar Hall, Delhi during the international film festival of 1977. I can still feel the goosebumps. I had the good fortune of meeting Ray briefly in Nandan in 1987 where he had come to watch Andrzej Wajda’s film “The Conductor”. I asked him rather sheepishly what has been his contribution to Indian cinema. The maestro said, “I created an awareness of good films in India”. Indeed, as Adoor Gopalakrishnan writes: “Ray is the most singular symbol of what is best and most revered in India in cinema.”Pather Panchali will remain, beyond sheer nostalgia, as the lodestar of what a motley group of amateurs, can sculpt; a peerless human document of truly global quality.

 

The author is Professor Emeritus, KiiT University.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English

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