June 14, 2009

The unsung verses of Pather Panchali

By Dhritiman Chaterji

Published in Newindpress, September 12, 2004

It is said that up until a few years ago, every time there was a solar eclipse, Doordarshan Kolkata had a simple but sure way of keeping people indoors - it showed Pather Panchali. I don't know whether the formula still works or whether PP has been displaced by some other film. Oddly enough, though, if you had to think of an alternative that would keep middle-class Bengalis of all ages glued to the screen, it would probably have to be yet another Satyajit Ray film - perhaps Gupi Gyne Bagha Byne.

Before you start feeling a warm glow about the timeless, universal appeal of Pather Panchali etc, let me tell you another story. A few months ago, I spoke at a Ray seminar organised by a senior film journalist here in Chennai. Soon after, a young lady phoned from one of the countless supplements (no, not health, horticulture or housing, fortunately) of one of our city papers, announced that she was doing a piece on the seminar and wanted to know whether I could tell her a little bit about "the movies Satyajit Ray makes". When I told her that he was no longer able to "make movies" as he was dead, she seemed a little bewildered.

So there you have it. 50 years down the road (the title of the film translates as The Song of the Road), responses to Pather Panchali range from utter devotion to utter ignorance. There is nothing particularly strange in that. Legends fade and icons crumble, whether it is in the arts, society or life in general. Sensitive societies, however, try somehow to distil the essence of the good and sometimes great things that happen; they try to absorb this essence in their fabric.

Volumes have been written about Pather Panchali. An occupational hazard of being a classic is that classics are analysed to oblivion, if not to death. One of the most perceptive comments about the film was made by one of our most perceptive film critics, Chidananda Das Gupta, in a 1981 article: "For all the sensation Pather Panchali caused at the time, it had done apparently no more than transfer the values of other contemporary arts to the cinema. Realist narrative, social awareness, compassion for the individual human being, trueness to the medium..."

Pather Panchali was in many ways a product of its times, born in a particular social, political and artistic context. What was so startlingly and refreshingly new about it was a sense of discovery, a spirit of adventure, a willingness to take risks. A thoroughly urban, some say thoroughly Western, man set about making a film about a milieu of which he knew nothing. Most of his key technicians, and many of his actors, were starting work in a medium of which they knew nothing. They didn't have much of a plot and even less money. And yet, in today's lingo, they made it happen! That, surely, was the essence of Pather Panchali - adventure, commitment, discovery. And from this emerged a distinctive, if not definitive, idiom that enriched the language of Indian cinema.

When we fret about the "legacy" of Pather Panchali and its "relevance" today, there are some hard questions we have to ask ourselves: where has the spirit of adventure gone? Why, at the heart of all the glitter, is there such emptiness? Why are even our once-admired veterans so unwilling to take risks even as younger filmmakers shine with Lagaan and Maqbool? Why has being the poor man's Hollywood, even if it's only Bolly, Kolly or Tolly, become the ultimate criterion of success? Why are we disowning the film language we had started to evolve even as Iran, China, Taiwan, Israel develop their own lively vocabularies?

The answers, if they emerge at all, will come not so much from theoretical constructs as from a renewed energy in practice, from the conviction that real life makes good cinema and, above all, from respect for the audience. That, if anything, is the legacy of Ray and of Pather Panchali. As for theory, Ray was always a little suspicious, if not disdainful, of it. Let me end with yet another story from a decade and a half after Pather Panchali.

We were shooting a scene in Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary), in which I played the protagonist. It was a dream sequence and the shot was an extraordinarily complicated one on the beach, involving a great deal of commotion in the background. In the foreground, my sister, whom I see as a nurse, runs towards me. Ray was a man of great economy and seemed to have got what he wanted in the first (or was it the second?) take. An assistant, however, tiptoed up to him and whispered that the shot needed to be done again. Ray demanded to know why. Because, explained the assistant, a hairpin seemed to have come loose from the actor's hair and was dangling next to her ear during the take.

"Don't worry," replied Ray. "This is a dream sequence. Critics will read some symbolic meaning into it." And his guffaw came close to drowning out the waves in the background.

Perhaps it's this guffaw, this sheer exhilaration, that Indian cinema needs to reclaim.

The writer worked with Ray as an actor in 1970 and in the early 90s, just before Ray died. He can be reached at DhritimanChaterji@electricshadows.org

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