FIRST Day, FIRST Show
Pather Panchali is like a poem. So, how was the black and white narrative when it first arrived in a cinema hall in Calcutta?
Partha Mukherjee & Priyanka Mukherjee Hooghly (West Bengal)
August 26, 1955. This was a landmark day in the history of Indian neo-realist cinema. That evening, Pather Panchali, directed by Satyajit Ray, was released at Basusree Cinema in south Calcutta.
It's 54 years since then. Looking back, veteran cinematographer, Soumendu Roy, is flooded with nostalgia. He was then an assistant to Subrata Mitra, chief cinematographer of the film.
Roy recounted, "There was a surge of excitement in me since morning." When the time for the morning show drew close, he sprinted across the half-a-mile distance between the hall and his home. But, the scene at the hall was not encouraging. There were only a handful of people. "I looked around the hall to see if there were more people waiting to come in," he said. But, his expectations were shattered. Dejected, he went home. "I simply couldn't understand why people hadn't turned up to see the film. The disinterest baffled me."
Roy went back to the hall again for the noon show. This time, too, he saw only a few people trooping out of the hall, their faces shorn of any reaction. He decided to wait at the hall's balcony to gauge the response after the matinee show. And, this time he was surprised.
"I saw people coming out of the hall wiping their eyes moist with tears. Manikda (as Ray was called) came only in the evening. He was very excited. He was chewing a corner of his handkerchief while he held the other corner tightly in his fist," remembered Roy. After that evening, every show ran to full house.
In fact, Pather Panchali was released simultaneously at four halls in Calcutta - Basusree, Beena, Shree and Chhaya. After six weeks, it had to be pulled out of Basusree as the hall was booked for Insaniyat, a film by producer-director SS Vasan. In spite of his busy schedule, Vasan took time out to watch Pather Panchali. It's told that he was so charmed by the film that he visited Ray to greet him. Vasan apparently told Ray that he would have deferred the release of Insaniyat had he seen Ray's film before he signed the contract with the Basusree management. In Vasan's word, Ray had revolutionised the concept of film making in his maiden venture.
Before Pather Panchali, Indian cinema mostly revolved around historical or mythological characters or potboilers. That a film can portray the subtle nuances of life was foreign to filmmakers. Diptendra Kumar Sanyal alias Neelkantha, Bengali film critic, had once said, "Before Ray came, filmmakers in our country preferred to work as a mistry (mechanic). They could not raise themselves to the level of an artist. So, the art of filmmaking remained a mystery to them."
Ray showed that a film can depict life in the raw; that a film could be realistic and artistic too. He captured various shades and nuances of India's rustic life - innocence, hunger, angst and rancour. And sensitivity, beauty, melody. Ray changed the metaphors of cinema. The language Ray used was new to India.
For the first time, Indian cinema saw the use of stark reality shots - bloated body of a frog lying on its back, a dog drenched to the skin shivering in the rain, image of Ganesha that inspired fear (usually Goddess Kali was used as a symbol of destruction) as metaphors of a night lashed by gale and heavy showers. To depict the tranquility of a village, Ray used a water spider hopping across the still water of a pond.
Ray's shot composition was as stark as life itself. A case in point is the scene of a woman in her 80s dying amid the eerie silence of a bamboo grove, or, the scene of two village children - Apu and Durga - running across kaash fields to watch a train. Little Apu asks, "Didi, tui railgari dekhechish? (Didi, have you ever seen a train?)." These few words were enough to bring home a child's innocence and curiosity. No wonder, the scene has attained iconic status in the annals of all time world cinema.
Bibhuti Bhushan Mitra, a resident of Boral where Ray shot the film, wrote in a memoir, "It was possible because of Ray's painstaking observations. Whatever he saw got etched in his mind like a photograph."
Ray had selected a dilapidated house amid a forest infested with leeches, snakes, mongoose and bats for the film. According to Mitra, "Initially, we wondered what a thorough city-bred like him was doing there. But Ray would spend hours there. He chose spots which no one could imagine would make up scenes of a world masterpiece."
He had a keen eye. One day while shooting at Boral, he saw two men - Harimohan Nag and Haridhan Nag. "For us, they were merely two ordinary faces," wrote Mitra. But, not for Ray. After the short meeting, Ray had actually sketched them. According to Mitra, "Anybody who had seen them would have no difficulty identifying them from his sketches. They were flawless." In fact, both men were cast in Pather Panchali. Harimohan played the role of a doctor while Haridhan appeared as the famous Chakkotti Moshay.
Late Karuna Banerjee, who played Sarbojoya, mother of Apu and Durga, had said, "He would never show me how I should act in a particular sequence. He was confident of getting the best out of his actors. The way he conveyed the mood of a scene, we could easily deliver what he expected."
Banerjee also recounted, "There was a scene where Sarbojaya weeps after beating up Durga and then wipes her eyes. I acted it out but Manikda asked Subrata Mitra to do a retake. Nervous, I asked him if I had gone wrong. He smiled and said, "The way you wiped your eyes reminds of a city-bred woman in distress. Sarbojaya is from a village."
As a human being, Ray was sensitive to the feelings of his cast and crew. Indir Thakrun was played by Chunibala Devi. There was a scene where Indir Thakrun dies and would have to be carried on a bier. Ray planned to use an 'extra' for the shot because he was worried it would be unsettling for 80-year-old Chunibala to play the dead. When Chunibala learnt this, she told the director, "Ray moshai, my days are numbered. It would be great if you carry me on your shoulder on my final journey. So, don't worry."
Dulal Dutta, editor of Ray's all films, narrated an incident on the first day of the film's release, "We were all waiting near the hall's entrance for Manikda when I saw an old woman in her 70s coming down the stairs. She wanted to meet the man who had made this film. I took her to Manikda. He was extremely courteous and took the old woman's hands in his. She blessed him profusely, 'May God give you a long life. Otherwise, who will make such great film'."
In December 1955, The Statesman had written, "Pather Panchali belongs no more to Bengal than to India. In its universal values and as a masterpiece of film art it belongs to the world... But apart from its sincerity and authenticity which are so real we forget this is a film, there is the individual touch of the sensitive... Discussing Pather Panchali is like paraphrasing a poem line by line. One can only see it and feel it."