The Song of the Road
Celebrating Satyajit Ray’s 95th birth anniversary with Pather Panchali
Devika Sharma Delhi
On May 2, 1921, Satyajit Ray changed the face of Bengali and Indian cinema. His films dealt with the subject so deftly and with such precise, tender and meticulous care, that not only in Bengal, whose green landscape became his cinematic backdrop, his films captured sense and sensitivities around the world. Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, “Not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon."
That speaks volumes about the filmmaker that Ray was. His 95th birthday makes it quintessential to reflect upon one of his first, iconic masterpieces, Pather Panchali, the Song of the Road. He barely had any money when he made the film, borrowing heavily, drawing sketches of every still shot he would imagine in his film-brain, his brilliance as yet untested, experimental and eclectic. Indeed, the film proved almost at once that here was a self-made master who knew both his mind and his craft with a certain pronounced and subtle perfection rarely seen in world cinema.
Sixty-one years ago, the first film based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's 1929 Bengali classic, ‘The Apu Trilogy’, about a poor Brahmin family settled in rural Bengal, surrounded by forests and kash flowers, was released in India. The director was a new entry, the cast was unheard of, and yet, the film went on to create a cinematic legacy. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, considered one of the greatest films of all time, released in Bengal on August 26, 1955. The first show was muted in terms of audience response in Calcutta, it is said. But the buzz slowly spread. Henceforth, both the film and the filmmaker acquired a greatness unprecedented in Bengali or Indian cinema. Pather Panchali became an iconic and intimate movie for film students and filmmakers all over the world.
2015 marked six decades of Ray’s stoic vividness and clinical brilliance behind the camera, with Subrata Mitra’s senstive cinematography, Ravi Shankar’s originality in music, and the lucid narrative which celebrated the simple joys and sorrows of everyday life. Pather Panchali presents to us the complexities of life in all its rhythmic harmonies, the little happinesses, the deep tragedies, the human fallibilities, the hurt, hope and despair. The film is a poignant story of slow and unrelenting poverty at various levels, and yet, a story that challenges the notion that the poor are devoid of happiness, or humanity, or the will to live. The film is infused with moments of abject poverty meeting moments of small joys and shared optimism.
There are some high points conceptualised by Ray that take the story forward. One such being the train sequence, wherein, Durga and Apu experience the magical phenomenon of watching a train hurtle down the railway track which symbolizes the arrival of modernity. Parallel to this ecstatic moment is the sad scene of Indir’s demise
The whistling train with the steam-engine arriving and going away within the empty expanse and purity of a village landscape, while little Durga and Apu hear the first resonance of the train on the electricity pole, and the tracks, with magical astonishment; kids running behind the ‘mithaiwala’ to steal sweets, dancing in the rain, spontaneous and simple ‘picnics’ in the forest, eating stolen fruits and many such joys make for the nuances of both hope and humanity.
Karuna Banerji as Sarbajaya is impeccable and dignified as the mother who is distressed by poverty. Uma Das Gupta is beautiful and spontaneous as Durga, as is Subir Banerji as Apu. Chunibala Devi as the old woman in the house, is wonderful: exiled and lost, facing the humiliations of her daily life with stoic defiance, not succumbing, holding her fort, laughing her toothless laugh. Her death shocks, and so does her last journey. She is the narrative which binds the old with the new in a traditional joint family, with ritualistic tension with the wife of the house, often on the verge of being treated with abject cruelty.
The story, set in Bengal, takes the viewer into the life of a typical poor family in rural Bengal. Sarbajaya is the perpetual woman in the kitchen and has no other life except that. She waits for the postcard from her husband who has gone far away looking for work. She naturally makes Durga follow her footsteps. Durga is also a naughty ‘thief’ who regularly steals from the neighbour’s orchard to feed the old lady which reflects the constant bonding of the young and the old.
The mother, Sarbajaya, adores her daughter, but strongly disapproves of her defiant and naughty ways. Durga is outgoing, while Sarbajaya is interested in preparing her for a life of domesticity. Ray does a phenomenal job of making this rebellious character into more than just a cliché and their relationship remains stimulating despite the stubbornness. Ray’s use of non-professional actors, natural locations, no make-up and complete renunciation from the exaggerated emotions and practices of popular cinema is what makes the film realistic.
Ravi Shankar's music perfectly gels with Ray's images, converting plain shots of little ponds, grasshoppers and playing kittens into instances of high art. His music gives the film a melancholic tone and enduring texture.
Ray has woven a rich cinematic experience for the viewers to experience the protagonist’s joys and sorrows. The two characters that truly stand out in the film are that of Durga and her old aunt, Indir. Ironic to Indir’s wrinkled features, her presence lights up the scenes with vitality. Durga is a spirited girl who absolutely enchants the viewers not only with her liveliness, but, also, her imperfections. Her death, after a stormy rain sequence, is replete with tragedy. It seems her mother and her brother will never be able to overcome this tragedy. And, yet, life goes on. Apu grows up, without his beloved sister. He learns to comb his own hair.
The first show was muted in terms of audience response in Calcutta, it is said. But the buzz slowly spread. Henceforth, both the film and the filmmaker acquired a greatness unprecedented in Bengali or Indian cinema. Pather Panchali became an iconic and intimate movie for film students and filmmakers all over the world
There are some high points conceptualised by Ray that take the story forward. One such being the train sequence, wherein, Durga and Apu experience the magical phenomenon of watching a train hurtle down the railway track which symbolizes the arrival of modernity. Parallel to this ecstatic moment is the sad scene of Indir’s demise.
The film’s visuals, like that of the stormy night, depicts the commotion that seemed to be wating to hit the family. The visual of the dead frog outside the house seems symbolic of what was going to happen inside the house. Monsoon is symbolic of change because it brings relief after the heat. However, rainstorms can bring about destruction as well. Hence, monsoons in the film symbolize promise with a speck of threat. Ray builds up this narrative beautifully accompanied by a montage of images of lotus flowers, dark clouds and tiny aquatic insects. With great music and cinematography.
Ray’s work will continue to converse with those whose human instincts allow them to glance deeper into society and its complex and simple nuances. The images in Pather Panchali might turn yellow like beautiful books do, but the aesthetic narrative will continue to remain in the mind and hearts of cinema lovers for all time to come.