Explaining to people why you love a Satyajit Ray film is like trying to explain to the love of your life why you love him – There are too many things to be said, too many details to be gone over, and after a certain point they all start to sound very repetitive, and you realize no matter what you say, words couldn’t possibly do justice to how you feel. And especially what new thing could be said about Pather Panchali, when so many people, way more qualified than me, have already done so. However, the sad reality is, Ray’s body of work is largely unknown to the general audience. When you bring up the notion of Indian cinema to people, their minds automatically go to the songs and dances, the lavish sets, and the larger-than-life melodramatic affairs that Bollywood has unfortunately popularized. Heck, even most people in his homeland haven’t sought out his films. Yes, every Bengali is aware of Satyajit Ray at some level and has probably watched or read something by him, but very few have done the deep dive and watched the entire filmography.
Satyajit Ray arrived at the scene at a time when the Indian film industry was bound by set conventions and heavily depended on factors that were favourable to the commercial valuation of films. He broke away from all these conventions and alleged “indispensable set rules”, whether it be working with an entire cast of non-actors to shooting the film in natural light, Ray did it all. Funds did not come easy but that didn’t stop Ray. After surmounting all these hurdles, came Pather Panchali– a film that revolutionized Indian cinema.
Ray’s first (and probably the most well-known) film, Pather Panchali is a household name and is considered a bonafide international classic that placed Satyajit Ray in the leagues of the all-time greats. Filmmakers from Akira Kurosawa to Martin Scorsayzze have held it as one of the best movies ever made. So what is it about Pather Panchali that makes it so special? How does a film become a masterpiece?
STORYTIME – THE MAKING OF
Before that, to truly understand the impact of Pather Panchali, at first one needs to know the context of how it was made. Okay, so quick storytime. It is the early 1940s and Ray has started a film society in Calcutta with a couple of his “hipster friends”, where they mainly view and discuss artsy European and Russian films. Ray was an illustrator at an advertising agency then, but the idea of making a film of his own had already started to take shape in his mind. But He was not interested in the commercial cinema popular in India at that time, which were largely mythological tales filled with broad strokes and multiple music/dance sequences. Ray wanted to tell stories about real people and their real struggles, and Indian cinema to him felt as far removed from reality as possible. To Ray, the idea of making films felt like a distant dream that could not be possible because of conventional notions that films cannot be shot in natural light or working with nonactors would prove disastrous. It wasn’t until he saw Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist Italian film “The Bicycle Cycle” which changed his entire conception of filmmaking and he for the first time identified a cinema style that spoke to him and one that he could dabble in. Ray had been playing around with the idea of adapting Bibhutibhusan’s Pather Panchali for the big screen and shooting it like the neo-realist films made perfect sense to him. In an essay from the book Deep Focus, Ray talks about describing his idea first to the french filmmaker Jack Renoir who had come to India to shoot The River. Renoir showed great interest in Ray’s pitch and encouraged him to go through with his plan.
The production of Pather Panchali was unconventional, to say the least. After deciding on making the film, Ray had to start planning the shoot. He was still working in the advertisement firm so the movie had to be shot on weekends strictly. Also because of the minimalist nature of the film and Ray’s inexperience, he couldn’t get any financial backing from any investors, and there came a point when he had to part with his rare books and music cassettes and even had to mortgage his wife’s gold jewellery. To keep the budget in control he had to stick with inexperienced technicians, most of whom were working on a film for the first time. He also mostly cast non-actors in prominent roles keeping in the tradition of the neo-realistic films. But this organic filmmaking process is also what gives Pather Panchali its signature lifelike quality, almost a documentary-esque style as it captures life as is, which was Ray’s ultimate goal. Everything about Pather Panchali is living and breathing, and you can tell that right from the beginning as the credits start, as the names appear handwritten on a dusty and crumpled piece of paper it’s alive and that it is there for you to witness.
PEOPLE AND THE VILLAGE
In an interview, Aparna Sen stated that ‘Satyajit Ray’s Films Gave Faces To The Rural Poor And Dignified Them” and added, “In an atmosphere vitiated with formula mainstream cinema…Ray’s realism came like a breath of fresh air.” Pather Panchali, an adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel of the same name, very much inspired by Bibhutibhusan’s own life, is about a family caught in the vicious snare of dire poverty and the harsh sordid reality that comes with such existence.
Set in the village of Nischindipur in rural Bengal, we get to see what life is like in an actual village which rings true even today. We see Kids running around, small mud houses with thatched roofs, Bangla Natok during festivals serving as a pleasant distraction from the humdrum of village life, or kids sitting down for their picnic and bickering over superfluous things, we get a very detailed visual description of rural life through which we learn of their simple ways of existence. Even the sound of the birds calling or the wind blowing is carefully recorded to set the mood of the film right and to have it appear as authentic as possible.
Now in the very first scene, we see little Durga innocently picking guava from her neighbour’s garden. Upon seeing her do this, we see the vexation on the neighbour’s face as they throw a sneaky remark at her mother. Durga too little to understand anything, goes on doing whatever she was doing, not comprehending the unfair politics of such situations, we also learn later that the land actually belonged to her father but because he owed his relative some money and was unable to repay the amount, he was compelled to part with the land. As the film progresses, we see Durga blossom into an adolescent, full of life and spirit. She is often lost in the recesses of the woods and despite her mother’s complaints about not being enough dedicated to household work like “other girls of her age”, we don’t see much change in her. It is important to note that, unlike her brother, she doesn’t go to school nor do we see any other girls in the school. As viewers, we realize how restrained women’s lives were, only limited to household work and the gender expectations could not have made itself clearer. Though for Durga, her circumstances have never gotten in the way of her happiness, we see her tease Apu, go around playing with her friends but soon when the realization hits her that she probably will never get married like her friend because her parents don’t have enough money to pay the groom a dowry, we see her sad for the first time because this means that she’ll never be able to escape from her impoverished reality. She is wholly aware of the abysmal state of affairs at her house and at once confesses to her friend that she will not marry, we see her crestfallen with tears in her eyes as she witnesses her friend getting married, slowly the realization creeps in that she will probably never get to be a bride and thus, she’ll never be able to escape from the poverty and humiliation that envelops her life.
The character of the mother is drawn sympathetically. We see Sourbojaya as a woman with grit and patience but at the same time seething. Sourbojaya is a woman with a lot of dignity. She loathes her daughter stealing fruits from her neighbourhood. She has needs and expresses those needs to her husband, all of these desires pertain to their children- a saree for Durga, a new set of clothes for Apu. Even though we see her often shout at Durga and even at one point drag her out of the house by her hair, we also see her crying profusely after doing so. When Durga gets very sick, we see Sourbojaya as a pillar of strength, sitting beside her at all times, cupping her face with her hands affectionately. She has a natural proclivity to not desire help, even though her husband hasn’t reached out to her for months on end, we don’t see her pleading for money but selling whatever valuable thing she can lay her hands on. Durga’s death hits her like a colossal and all her desires end with it. Sourbojaya’s life is a difficult one, nobody realizes the problems that come with poverty better than her, she has to provide for a family when there is no money for it. Keeping aside her own desires, we see her play the role of the sacrificial mother whose path is of immense difficulties and ends in the tragedy which we get to witness in the film Aparajito.
The story of Pather Panchali is one that I have been in love with since I was a kid, so it almost feels sacrilegious for me to try and analyze it. My mother had read Bhibutibhusan’s novel “Aam Aatir Bhepu” as bedtime stories to me even before I could read on my own. And once I could read, I read those stories again… And again. So even before I watched the movie, that brother and sister, their playful routines, the narrow road that leads to the village of Nischindipur, they had all been part of my life. I knew Apu and Durga as people, and not characters, I felt elated with them at any slight glimmer of happiness, and I broke down into a mess each time tragedy struck. But the thing about Pather Panchali is. Despite being a gut-wrenching story about a family trying to survive their poverty, it has moments of purity. The book (more so than the film) is almost a feel-good story. It is about the little joys of life. The games they play, the happiness from just a little good food, Apu’s dreams.
I have read too many essays on Pather Panchali from Western critics who call it to be an “Indian experience”. I don’t know what “Indian experience” means but as an Indian while watching it, everything feels so distant. This is not the life I have experienced, but it is still all so familiar. The thing about Pather Panchali is that it touches the very core of our humanity, which is part of the reason why I think this movie has touched a note internationally. Pather Panchali can be interpreted to be about many things, but it is the characters and their humanity that leaves a mark on you. I feel like I know Durga, I know a Sarbajaya and I know a Horihor – it can be a story of any poor household in Bengal. I guess that’s what is meant by the Indian experience, we have seen this life somewhere even if we haven’t lived it. When you Apu and Durga’s happiness over one mango, it puts things into perspective. We have forgotten to enjoy the small things in life, the story always brings me back to that feeling of joy and genuine wonder I felt as a child.
Satyajit Ray gives a lot of the film’s credit to Bibhutibhusan himself, and he deserves it since all of it comes from his writing. But Ray also makes the best choice at every step along the way to adapt the material. Ray didn’t write a script for the film and rather decided to stick with the lines from the books. But he had to draw and create extensive storyboards beforehand because Ray had planned for visual language unknown to Indians at that point. The novel is more of an episodic affair, there are no clear acts. Ray changes the order of events in the story to streamline the script and give it more of a three-act story structure with classic build-up. He also omits out long episodes from the story and rather progresses the story visually. In the book, the plot involving the Jatra or the play has more character reactions and reveals Apu’s imaginative power and early signs of being a storyteller. Ray juxtaposes this entire development in one screen, as the camera cuts to Apu being deeply engrossed in the play, with the next scene showing him wearing a prop moustache and acting out his imagination. It’s a simple thing, but it conveys a range of emotions. And it is also the strength of Pather Panchali as a film. Everything that can be conveyed visually is always done so. The dialogue is sparse and life-like, it’s like observing life play out in front of you as is. And in that way, it is also an interactive feeling. Ray invites you to think and feel for these characters and never spoon-feeds you any information or statement that he is trying to make. You get the sense that you are watching someone you know go through the hardships of life.
VISUAL LANGUAGE & NATURE
Film by its nature is a visual medium, and the best movies use this quality to enhance their visual storytelling. Throughout Pather Panchali, Ray develops a lot of the characters and the themes in the story visually. Let’s take the character of Apu for example. Despite being the lead character of the entire trilogy, Apu barely gets any lines in the movie. In fact, the original novel is written from Apu’s perspective, so a lot of it takes place in his head. Ray does this entirely through close-ups of Apu’s face, and when he chooses to cut to them. Eyes tell a thousand stories, and an image is worth a thousand words – and it is all prevalent here. In every scene, it is so cleverly positioned that one look into the young Apu’s eyes conveys what he is feeling. You know when is staring in wonger and when he is hiding in fear. And after his sister’s death, when we get a close-up of Apu’s face, we realize he has undergone a change. He has lost the innocence in his eyes, and it is further revealed in his stride and mannerisms following the death.
Bhibutibhusan is a writer who is known for his love of nature. Ray uses this quality of Bibhutibhusan’s storytelling and uses nature for pure visual storytelling. The small village setting lends a degree of freedom and also immediate danger. It also separates the kids from outside information, thus even trivial things are exciting to Apu and Durga. Arguably, the happiest scene in the movie takes place on one bright autumn day, with the sparse clouds of Bengal sky and white kash flowers all around them, bringing in the vibes of Durga puja and joy. It is also understood very well through the symbolism of water running around. When the good news of Harihor’s job arrives, Ray cuts to footage of the lake brimming with life, ripples formed by dragonflies flying over it. When Durga falls sick, it is the same lake and ripples, but now not formed by life, but by the strike of scary nature. The storm signals Durga’s untimely passing away and leaves the household in shackles. Water, in general, is used repeatedly as a motif, from Indira’s glass rolling over and falling into the mud signalling her death to Apu throwing the necklace in the lake as it disappears in the scum, showing us the secret has been hidden forever.
Now there are three motifs that are central to the narrative-the first and second, being the Train and death both of which appear in all the three films but the third one, is peculiar to this film only, that being Durga’s stealing tendencies if it might even be called so.
The motif of Durga stealing is crucial as it firstly shows us that the land she steals from belonged to her father but due to past debts were seized by their relative, divulging before us their abysmal financial state and secondly –the hypocrisy of their blood relatives who don’t seem to oppose to others taking heaps and heaps of vegetable from the garden but are absolutely vexed at the sight of Durga taking mere guava. The second time we see Durga accused of stealing, only this time it’s not a mere fruit but an actual pearl necklace–till the very end of Pacher Panchali, we are led to believe that she hasn’t taken it until Apu himself chances upon the necklace. We learn so much about Apu’s character through his response to him finding the necklace. We don’t see Apu mourn her death even once but this scene shows how much he loved his sister without having him utter even one word. It is also crucial because it is an emblem of Apu’s maturity as he seems to perfectly understand what happens when the entire village comes to know about this discovery.
The motif of the train is inextricably connected to death, common to all the three films symbolizing the uncanny fact that modernity is waiting for none, though the development of the railways is supposed to be a sign of advancement, the picture we get of Harihar’s family suggests otherwise. The falsity of this dream is shattered completely in all three films, part by part. The train thus is used as a harbinger of death in the trilogy, a very conscious choice on Ray’s part. In Pather Panchali, The chuffing of the engine and the whistle sounds are heard by Apu right before Indira’s death. We hear the mention of the train by Durga while she expresses to Apu her desire to go ride the train with him moments before she dies. In the previous scene, we see them stare at it in complete awe and board it to go away to a bigger place with high hopes, and yet it is what separates them from their nature. Like everything else in the movie, the train represents a contrast. In Apu’s Sansar-the final film from the trilogy, we last see Aparna(Apu’s Beloved) sitting inside one of the compartments of the train while Apu stands outside and watches the train go by, watches Aparna go by for the last time.
Death thus becomes an inevitable force, one which is merciless. Though present in all three films, we see Apu witness it for the first time in Pather Panchali, marking the end of his innocence. When Apu brings her aunt upon the request of his mother after Durga’s death. He innocently asks his aunt if Durga is asleep? As he sees her lying with her eyes shut on his mother’s lap. This very dialogue uttered by Apu is heartbreaking because we as an audience already know the truth. We never for once see Apu mourn his sister’s death, nor do we see him mourn his parent’s death in Aparajito. Death in the trilogy like in real life, though in the most twisted fashion teaches Apu the most important lesson- the art of being resilient, doesn’t matter how many people he has lost, we see him get over his grief and find the strength to go on with his life which is all that ever mattered.
Now the two most crucial motifs that are common to all the films in the trilogy are death and the train. Moments before we see the demise of Durga, we see her telling her brother Apu that once she gets better again, they’ll go to ride the train again. So, when Apu travels on the train for the first time, it is bitter-sweet for him. The sound of the train is the harbinger of death and a symbol of modernity, we see Apu hear it before Durga’s death. Like everything else in the movie, the train represents a contrast. They stare at it in awe and board it to go away to a bigger place with high hopes, and yet it is what separates them from their nature. the sound of the chuffing of train and the whistle is the harbinger of death itself.