Contemporary film-makers believe that Satyajit Ray’s maiden film ‘Pather Panchali’ is perhaps the greatest Indian film ever made and that it really put South Asia on the international film map
The romance hasn’t dimmed even after five long decades. Still the fascination hasn’t faded. Still there is an awe of having watched something so unimaginably beautiful and simple that it has managed to bring a smile to one’s face.
A crumpled cotton sari-clad girl pulling her kid brother along and running across the field of a rural Bengal landscape to catch a glimpse of a steam engine rushing past: this black-and-white image from late Satyajit Ray’s maiden film Pather Panchali, is imprinted on the minds of film aficionados worldwide.
“Why only that scene? The entire movie is etched in one’s mind,” exclaims Amol Palekar, a renowned film-maker of Bombay who has to his credit films like Bangarwadi, Kairee, etc, and who began his career as an actor in the mid-70s with low-budget and memorable Hindi films such as Rajanigandha, Choti Si Baat, Khatta Meetha, Golmaal and several others. Greatly inspired by Ray, Palekar says, “He had a complete command over the cinematic idiom. The sheer simplicity of the film itself created a great impact.”
Pather Panchali has several memorable scenes. Another one of the many lyrical shots of the film is the onset of the monsoon bringing hope, joy and new life. The first raindrops fall on the shining baldpate of an angler, the water hyacinths in the pond, the trees in the field help to slowly build the momentum drawing Durga (the sister) to dance in the rain. But as the storm rises in ferocity, it turns destructive and threatens the foundations of their dilapidated house and ultimately Durga’s life. Contemporary film-makers believe that Satyajit Ray’s maiden film Pather Panchali is perhaps the greatest Indian film ever made and that it was the film that really put South Asia on the international film map.
“Pather Panchali did catapult Indian cinema in the world arena. But long before this, it was Prabahat Film’s Sant Tukaram, which won the gold at the Venice film festival. The greatness of Pather Panchali and Satyjit Ray was that Ray didn’t remain a one-film wonder. That is one of the reason why he is still remembered,” says Hemanti Banerjee, a reputed film researcher. “He went on giving good films over and over.
Every student of cinema stands still when he reaches Pather Panchali in his studies of cinema as he realizes that there can’t be anything beyond this film.
The film, Satyajit Ray’s directorial debut, was three years in the making due to unceasing financial burden. Finally, the film was completed with the help of the West Bengal Government. It went on to win a special prize at Cannes for Best Human Document. To quote Lindsay Anderson in The Observer: “You cannot make films like this in a studio or to make money. Satyajit Ray has worked with humility and complete dedication; he has gone down on his knees in the dust. His film has the quality of intimate, unforgettable experience.”
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Bengali films and, for that matter, even commercial Hindi cinema was an unappetizing mix of melodrama, song and dance. Bengali films at the time, in fact, were no different from traditional Bengali theatre or jatra as it was popularly called, and Ray started Pather Panchali with the intention of breaking away from convention.
In a tradition going back to Robert Flaherty and the Italian neo-realists, Ray used natural backgrounds and mainly non-actors. It was a film the likes of which were never seen before. It meandered through rice fields, past ponds that looked like sheets of stained glass, captured the hushed stillness of dusk and found pleasure in a humming telegraph pole and an approaching train. It spent precious reels trailing an innocuous candy-seller and used long stretches of silence and the strains of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s sitar who scored the film’s music, to talk about death’s visit. For Ray the biggest challenges were capturing the flickering light of the fireflies and following the course of a monsoon shower.
Pather Panchali was too daringly different to appeal immediately to an audience brought up on a diet of high-pitched family dramas, which were influenced by the opulent European cinema. And not surprisingly, the film opened to a lukewarm response in Calcutta when first released. But within a week or two, as word of its international honour spread, crowds flocked to the theatres drawn by the five billboards Ray had himself designed. The film, that had been lying in the cans for three months because a top-ranking bureaucrat had serious doubts about whether anyone would come to see this “rather dull and slow-moving film”, ran for 13 weeks.
Though an unqualified masterpiece, highly placed government officials frowned on the film depicting India’s poverty and thus damaging India’s international image even as the central government officially rejoiced over the success of the film. It is said that at an early screening of the film in New York, some people walked out because they couldn’t bear to see people eating with their bare hands and film actor, the late Nargis Dutt in later years, did come strongly on Ray for playing up India’s poverty. But Pather Panchali also brought a letter from the UN Development Programme, New Delhi, applauding Ray for his unique treatment of basic human conflicts and struggles.
The film also drew rave notices for its imaginative photography, its lyrical poetry and its deep humanism. “Manikda, as we who knew him well addressed him, was creative in all fields. He was a good director, a good editor, a good writer a good storyteller and good in whatever he did in his life. And above all this, he was genuinely good and humble human being, which came across in his films. His innocent approach to life was what was shown in Pather Panchali,” explains Malati Vaidya Tambe, former chairperson of the NFDC (National Films Division Corporation) and one who has popularized the entire Ray oeuvre in the West.
But it was Ritwick Ghatak who in an article spoke about its theme music that recurs seven to eight times in the film. “Anywhere, anytime you hear that tune, it will remind you of the endless greenness of Bengal’s villages,” he observed. It was a pertinent observation and a tribute to Pandit Ravi Shankar’s genius.”
It wasn’t just the theme music that made Pather Panchali memorable. The sequence in the rain, wordless but for the three-minute solo piece on sitar in Raag Desh, was another stroke of inspiration. Even the climax made a deeper impact because of Panditji’s score. Even the all-time great cinematic master, Akira Kurusowa in later years appreciated Ray for the “quiet but deep observations, understanding and love of the human race which are characteristic of all his films.”
But would Pather Panchali have succeeded if made today? “Yes,” exclaims Palekar. “Even if today Ray was to make this film, he would be successful. Any film, if it has a good, basic content and is made without the necessity of complicated camera angles, is likely to be successful.”