Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)

Satyajit Ray, the mastermind of the Indian film industry needs no introduction. The Bengali gem started his career as a commercial artist and was fascinated to by film-making. Once, while designing the cover and making illustrations for the famous Bengali author Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali, Ray thought of making a film based on this novel because of certain qualities that, according to him, “made it a great book: its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth”. During his London trip, he watched 99 films, out of which the Italian neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio de Sica and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Rashoman had a deep influence on him, firming his determination to be a film-maker.

Pather Panchali, the first film of the well-acclaimed ‘Apu trilogy’ was his debut film as a director. The film revolves around the lives of members of a poverty-stricken Brahmin family, living in their ancestral house in rural Bengal. Harihar is a priest who earns a very small living and struggles on a regular basis to support his family, dreaming of a better career writing scholarly plays and poetry. Their impoverished financial conditions often prick his wife Sarbajaya, as she is anxious about raising her two kids; Durga and Apu. Durga is a vivacious, notorious girl, more like a motherly-figure to her younger brother Apu. She wanders merrily in the woods, plays with animals, and steals fruits from her neighbour’s orchard for her old aunt Indir. Indir is an extremely old and frail aunt of Harihar, living merrily with them in their house. Though Sarbajaya constantly nags and affronts her, considering her to be a burden, she continues to be the favorite of the two children who have immense love for her. Apu, the youngest and the most adorable character of the story, is the apple of the eyes of his mother and sister, whose birth in the family is seen as an enchanting moment.

The playful activities of Durga and Apu epitomize the tender bond of love between a brother and a sister. Together they experience the most joyous and adventurous moments; such as following the sweetmeat seller who comes to their village and running through the ‘kaash’ fields to get a glimpse of the train, and also the gloomiest phase of their lives when they discover aunt Indir lying dead in the forest. The family falls deeper into the clutches of poverty and Harihar decides to leave the village in search of a better job. Soon the monsoon approaches, and Durga catches cold after enjoying getting soaked in the rain. Due to unavailability of proper medical care, her illness becomes worse and on a stormy and rainy night, she eventually dies. Harihar returns to the village after being successful in earning a good sum of money, only to find that the thunderstorm has left his house in ruins taking away with it his most precious possession, his only daughter. The film ends as the family decides to depart from their village and move to Banaras, with a hope to start afresh.

Perhaps the most astonishing fact is that the legendary movie did not have any script. The genius artist relied on his drawings for accomplishing his dream-film. He modified the novel-based story, eliminating certain elements, and introducing new sequences. The novel did not have the most memorable scene in the movie of children running through the kaash fields to see the train. Even the ending in the novel was not similar to that in the movie. He had to convince the author’s widow to grant him permission to make a film based on the novel.

The actors fit aptly into their character’s role. One would find it difficult to believe that none of them had any prior experience of acting in films, excluding Kanu Banerjee (Harihar) who was a Bengali film actor. Karuna Banerjee, an amateur theatre actress played the role of Sarbajaya. Uma Dasgupta who played Durga was also experienced of acting in theatre. The role of Apu was played by Subir Bannerjee, a boy in the neighbourhood spotted by Ray’s wife. For the role of Indir, Chunibala, a retired stage actress living in a brothel was chosen. Likewise, the cinematographer Subrata Mitra had no earlier experience of operating a camera.

Inspite of several obstacles such as the constant lack of funds, frequent suspension of shooting, difficulty in finding actress suitable to play Indir and pawning his valuables, Ray did not lose his spirit. Pather Panchali was released in Calcutta on August 26 1955. Within a week or two, screenings started filling up and it became a major commercial success all over Bengal. Following its release in U.K in 1957 and in U.S in 1958, it was the first film made in independent India to receive major critical attention internationally. The film was honored with a number of awards, including President’s Gold and Silver medals, Indian National Film Award for Best Film, Diploma of Merit at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, ‘Vatican Award’ at Rome, and ‘Golden Carbao’ at Manila, Kinema Junpo Award: Best Foreign Film in Tokyo, ‘Bodil Award: Best Non-European Film of the Year’ from Denmark and many other international awards. It was also awarded the ‘Best Human Document’ at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956.

Even after five decades, the classic continues to be one of the finest films in the movie history. The subsequent films of the Apu trilogy- Aparajito in 1956 and Apu Sansar in 1959 continued the tale of Apu’s life and won multiple awards. I agree with Akira Kurosawa when he says “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”.

Kanika Bedi

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