June 25, 2009
Pather Panchali - An exquisite article
Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s first film (1955), the epic one, was officially released on August 26, 1955 at the prestigious theatres of the then Calcutta like Sree, Basusree and Bina. It ran for quick six weeks at a stretch and then had a seven-week run at other theatres. The rare job of distribution was taken by Aurora Film Corporation with a pinch of doubt as many thought the young filmmaker’s film might come a cropper. But lo! Satyajit Ray wrote: “Pather Panchali was, in fact, a box-office hit”.
But, to one’s surprise, the great Ray divulged, and it was an irony of fate, that Pather Panchali was shown in the United States in 1955, much before it was released in Calcutta. Said Satyajit Ray: “The Museum of Modern Art in New York planned a big exhibition of Indian art, and one of their representatives, Monroe Wheeler, came to look for exhibits. He knew of me as a commercial artist and so he came to see me. I told him that I was working on a film project and he replied “If you finish it in time, I would like to show at the Museum of Modern Art”. Fortunately, the big American director John Huston arrived in Calcutta with actor Humphrey Bogart hoping to make his film The Man Who Would Be The King. Ray met John Huston and showed the ‘2500 metres of rushes’ to him and he, on seeing it, recommended to Wheeler thus: “I think this film will be very interesting. You must show it”. And then the film was finished in mad rush. Wrote Ray: “We took it straight from the laboratory to Pan American, where I fell asleep leaning on the counter. One of the Pan Am staff had to wake me up. The film left for New York, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art and released in Calcutta two months later”. It must be noted Pather Panchali broke the ‘record’ for the longest run at the Fifth Avenue cinema in New York.
Made on a budget of Rs. 1.5 lakh roughly, Pather Panchali was hailed as a ‘masterpiece’ by the Western critics like Robin Wood, Pauline Kael, Folke Isaakson and Robert Steele. Robin Wood, the scholar critic, praised the film thus: “Ray’s cinema is literary only in the sense that it is firmly rooted in the narrative. He thinks primarily in terms of plot and character, and the significance of the films grows naturally out of this, extractable ideas or themes being the product rather than the starting point. In this respect he is closer to the Hollywood masters than to European directors like Bergman, Antonioni or Godard”. Robert Steele heaped praise on Ray: “Here was an Indian film that was a film or that matched my concept of a film and a great one. It was the first film made in India that I had ever seen which did not embarrass, annoy or bore me”. Pauline Kael said: “Like Renoir and De Sica, Ray sees that life itself is good no matter how bad it is. It is difficult to discuss art which is an affirmation of life, without fear of becoming maudlin”. And the Time critic commented: “Pather Panchali is perhaps the finest piece of filmed folklore since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. It is a pastoral poem dappled with the play of brilliant images and strong, dark feelings, a luminous revelation of India life in language that all the world can understand”.
Pather Panchali, in fact, was shown at the competition section of Cannes International Film Festival in 1956. And the critics (Ray’s friends) who stayed to see the film, slotted at a very odd time of mid-night, included Lindsay Anderson, Lotte Eisner, Andre Bazin, Geoges Sadoul, Gene Moskowitch and Jules Dassin. They appealed to the Director of the Festival for another screening at a convenient time so that all the jury members could rightly judge the film, warts and all, in its given perspective. Ray lamented most of the Jury members did not see the film at the first screening. And surprisingly enough the second screening of Pather Panchali was held and it won the ‘special Jury prize ‘for the Best Human Document’, though the French filmmaker Francoise Truffaut left the hall half-way, degrading the film: ‘Pad, pad, pad through the paddy field’, a remark which he subsequently withdrew. And thereafter Pather Panchali, hailed as the path-breaking film, went on to bag a big dozen International awards and it now is history.
To complete Pather Panchali Ray had to pawn his wife Bijoya Ray’s jewellery for Rs.1200/-. Then he had to approach the then Chief Minister of Bengal Dr BC Roy, a legendary physician too. The Bengal Government finally gave the needed money to finish the film but not before Satyajit Ray had gone through a bad patch. According to Ray, he turned up at the office on the appointed date and met Dr BC Roy, the Chief Minister and gave Dr Roy an outline of what happened so far. Interestingly, by then Dr Roy had never heard the name of the great literary figure Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, author of Pather Panchali. Said Ray: “When the shortened story came to an end, Dr Roy asked: ’You have a tragic ending. The family leaves home to migrate to Benaras. Why? Couldn’t the other villagers persuade them to stay? Help them to rebuild their wrecked house? Can’t you inject a message which would go in favour of our work on community development?’ Well, finally the film got the rest of the finance from the West Bengal Govt. under the ‘Community Development Project’ and the rest is a golden history, emerging out of rough and tough struggle, many woes and pains, hiccups and hassles and human hope.
Pather Panchali, as it stands today, is not only 50 years old but lives with a celebration of life and Promethean pride.