Pather Panchali (1955) (aka Song Of The Little Road)
Satyajit Ray
Bengali

“This is my home, too. But look at it. It’s like living in the forest. “

 

Satyajit Ray’s name has become synonymous with quality cinema from the country and his opera prima Pather Panchali, (1955) its prime example. Made under hopeless production situation like many other great films of that period, Pather Panchali has been hailed by critics, filmmakers and cinema lovers across the world as one of the greatest of all times. And what a legacy it has left behind!

pather-panchali-1Based on a book by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Pather Panchali is a series of loosely knit episodes in a poor Brahmin family in rural Bengal. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who also dabbles in play writing. His wife, Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee) manages the household and her two children Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and Apu (Subir Banerjee). There is also their old “aunt” Indir (Chunibala Devi) who loves eating the fruits given to her by Durga. Then there are their neighbours, the well-off Mukherjees, who share a love-hate relationship with their family. Mrs. Mukherjee helps out when Durga falls sick almost as her surrogate mother (as Ray hints early in his mise en scène) and Sarbojaya does the cooking in Mrs. Mukherjee’s daughter’s wedding. It’s a warm and isolated little world of theirs.

The biggest curse for Pather Panchali is that it was made immediately after the war. More precisely, at a time when neo-realism was the almost the in-thing. Almost every description or review of the film seems to kick off by assigning the neo-realistic tag to the film, perhaps more so after Ray’s enthusiastic comments about The Bicycle Thief (1947). It is beyond doubt that Ray’s employment of non-professional actors, use of natural locations, refusal of make-up and high-key lighting, the tendency of having the backdrop speak for itself and a complete abstinence from the exaggerated gestures and practices of popular cinema owe their debt to the masters of the neo-realist movement. But broadly calling Pather Panchali a neorealist film, basing arguments on the above conditions alone, is but unfair to Ray and his style. In fact, Pather Panchali often works against the “written principles” of neo-realism that pioneers like Zavattini proposed.

pather-panchali-5The neo-realists strongly emphasized that the neo-realist filmmaker be just a passive observer of reality without imposing his interpretations on it. That whatever the situation of their characters, – glory or misery – the filmmaker must maintain objectivity, always subordinating reason to action. Although many of the staunch neo-realists themselves couldn’t achieve this complete objectivity, they did attempt to do so in theory. However, in Pather Panchali, Ray never claims to be a mere observer. It is true that he does not comment on the characters’ actions and situation or throw hints to the audience so as to tell them what to feel. But that does not mean Ray does not take a stance (or a neutral stance for that matter). Ray is biased for sure, but not towards his characters but towards life itself. He takes immense joy in infusing life on to the screen and providing a channel of hope to his protagonists. Quite in contention with the neo-realist theory, Ray does not hesitate using Pt. Ravi Shankar’s soundtrack generously (but not without much caution) or in concocting sequences with a tinge of humour.

Further, deeming Pather Panchali to be a neo-realist film would only result in an over-simplification of Ray’s knowledge of cinema. Ray, being one of the country’s biggest and most renowned cinephiles, has evidently seen and absorbed a large cross-section of world cinema that spans various decades, geographies and cultures. And Pather Panchali stands as a testament for that wherein Ray incorporates many of his influences without ever making it look contrived or out of place. Apart from the overt nods to the neo-realist customs, Ray constructs sequences that conform to Eisenstein’s rules of montage (the scene where Durga is punished by her mother stands out), employs indoor sets that have an expressionistic touch to them. Some of his compositional practices, too, show closeness to Japanese cinema. If you ask me, Ray’s filmmaking in Pather Panchali is nearer to Fellini’s than De Sica’s. Ray’s penchant for close-ups, the dramatic zooms, the occasional submission to simple melodrama and the sheer lust for life that he paints on screen are closer in spirit to Fellini’s works, especially La Strada (1954), than any other director.

pather-panchali-3Like La Strada (another victim of the neo-realist baptism), that was as much away from its purely neo-realist contemporaries as it was close to them, Ray marries the neo-realist objectivity that avoids hyperbole and his own subjective view of life producing what may be, like Fellini’s film, called “neo-realism with a heart”. But again, Ray absorbs and deviates. Where, like many a film of later years, La Strada compares a road trip to life, Pather Panchali compares life to a road trip. Ray treats life as an inevitable journey which should go on no matter how shattering its events are. He punctuates his film with images of little roads through the woods and of characters arriving or departing from the village. In other words, Satyajit Ray presents life as a train journey where passengers may come and passengers may go, but the train itself never stops. Ray wasn’t kidding when he put that train in Pather Panchali – a train that Durga never manages to get on and one that Apu would, in Aparajito (1957), my favorite film of the trilogy.

But clearly, the most important character in the film is Durga – one that is very close to nature. Durga is Nature. Ray shoots her almost always amidst flora and fauna. She roams freely through the woods, groves, rice fields and in the rain without anyone stopping her. She is intrigued by man-made objects like locomotives and telegraph poles. Why, she even passes away after getting drenched in the rain. So is Auntie Indir who is nobody but a grown up version of Durga. Like Durga, she is also thrown out of house by Sarbojaya and who, too, passes away in the middle of the forest. Ray captures Auntie Indir and Durga regularly together in the same frame as he strikes a parallel by cutting back and forth between them. After all, both of them brought Apu up in their own ways. In the poignant end scene, Apu throws the necklace (that Durga was accused of stealing) into the river without an iota of hesitation – returning it back to Durga who has now returned to her nascent form.

pather-panchali-5

Because Ray lets us see only one world (with the occasional letter being the only mode of communication), – that of the village and its people – one can safely assume that Ray is normalizing the world into it and, consequently, that the statements Ray makes about the village are, in fact, applicable to the whole world (or the country in case of social and political observations). However, contrary to popular opinion that the film just talks about the misery of poverty, Pather Panchali goes beyond trivial economic connotations. Except for a few inherent observations about the class system, economics isn’t even a major concern for the film. So aren’t politics and theology that are kept are remote as possible. But that does not mean that the film is entirely universal and just for the sake of being so. Apart from the universal theme of man and nature, Ray’s major concern is the position of women in the society. Although Sarbojaya is the most thoughtful and resourceful member of the family, Harihar rarely listens to her. She is treated no better than a nanny for his kids. Like Mizoguchi (whom he admires, according to his essays) in Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Ray uses his mise en scène to express more than what the script does. But unlike Mizoguchi who used his aesthetics to denote the inevitability of fate, Ray uses it to comment on the pressing social condition of the family, especially Sarbojaya. Ray films her along the margins of the film frame. She is often seen stifled by artificial (physical and social) structures. Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra employ POV shots through doors, holes and ruptures to present a picture like snapshot of the family, with the image of a door often denoting freedom or the lack of it.

If there ever was life on celluloid, it has to be last twenty minutes of Pather Panchali. As the monsoon season takes over summer, skies darken and a breeze picks up. As the surface of the water starts pulsating, flies and other minute life forms start gathering. One wishes that this sequence never ends. The whole scene has a haiku-like visual quality and feel to it, not surprising considering Ray’s exposure to and admiration for Japanese art forms, especially cinema. He notes in his essay “Calm Without, Fire Within” (from his book Our Films, Their Films):

“Then there is the Japanese use of camera, of light. Light is used as the brush is by the painter – to feel and reveal the texture of things, to capture moods, to lend the right expressive weight to a given image.”

In fact, the same text can be used to describing Ray’s style in Pather Panchali that flourishes on the strength of its atmosphere, creating its own world and enticing the audience into it. Unlike the director’s later films such as Charulata (1964), which actually starts seeping through once it has ended, Pather Panchali appeals directly to the sub-conscious. Hypnotic may be the proper word. Throughout the film, there is almost no shot where life is not seen. We always see some life form or the other playing around on the screen. Dogs, cats, cattle and humans galore, Pather Panchali is a film that overflows with vitality. However, such reductive mapping would only lead to another over-simplification that Pather Panchali has been regularly subjected to. Both Pather Panchali and Ray have been called, rather labeled, humanist by admirers and critics all over the world. But such a reading of the film would just conform to a pseudo-liberal view of destitution and reinforce Nargis Dutt’s claims of selling of poverty to the West. In Pather Panchali, Ray turns out to be an animist rather than a humanist and the film itself, pro-life and anti-mankind.

pather-panchali-2Mrs. Mukherjee confiscates the family’s grove as a penalty for the failure of repayment of loan. Later, the people of the village persuade Harihar to stay and tell him that this place is their ancestral land. It is as if the people of the village have assumed the land to be theirs despite of the fact that it was already there much before them. Ray touches upon the conflict between man and nature that has been dear to so many filmmakers before and after him. And this is where Pather Panchali gets deeper than meets the eye. Exactly like Herzog would do in Signs of Life (1968), Ray often composes his shot such that there is interaction between man and nature, with the latter overpowering. It is essentially because of nature – the rains and the cold winds – that the family is forced to move out. Nature has indeed taken revenge. Earlier in the film Sarbojaya tells Harihar that it feels like living in the forest, insisting they move on, and Mrs. Mukherjee that no names are written on fruits. She is, in fact, the only adult in the film who realizes that Land belongs to no body except nature itself. As Harihar and his family move out, a huge cobra is seen moving into the now-deserted house of his. At last, Nature has reclaimed what was always its.

Our Films Their Films
Satyajit Ray
Orient Longman, 1976

 

Surely, God is not a socialist. Why then would he bestow so much talent upon a single person and deprive the rest of the artists of country of any comparable finesse? Be it Japanese architecture, German music, English literature, Chinese paintings or world cinema, Satyajit Ray’s knowledge of the seven arts is everything a connoisseur could ever desire to have. And his book Our Films Their Films clearly shows why a true love for cinema is the only pre-requisite to be a filmmaker.

our-films-their-filmsI have hardly seen Satyajit Ray’s films and was apprehensive about taking up this book. I was afraid that it would require a prior introduction to films he talks about and especially to his own films. But as it turned out, I was completely wrong. Shubhajit here recalls how this book single-handedly induced him into the film culture. Why not? Our Films, Their Films is a rare book that works two ways. I can’t imagine any other book that is as interesting for strangers to cinema as it is for the film buffs.  Ray never does it like an academic scholar churning out one jargon after another nor does he go too low-brow elucidating every shred of observation. Ray’s tone is conversational and at the end of the book, one does feel like he has spent a good few hours with an interesting man.

The book could be plainly called a bunch of essays by Ray assembled in a chronological order. But surely, it can pass off as so many other things too. Each of these articles has the charm of a short story, the depth of a critique, the personal quality of a diary entry and observations of a great essay. With a language that is neither overpowers the content of the text nor undermines its quality (which I think is true of his films too), Ray sets a standard for not only analytical but also for the verbal component of film writing. No wonder he also stands out as one of India’s key literary figures.

Cinematographe has this to say about the book: “The originality of Ray appears in an indirect manner: whilst talking about others, he offers us a subtle self-portrait“. This is so true. The essays in the book gradually and subtly unravel Ray’s perception of cinema and what he believes makes for great filmmaking, all of which reveals itself through the very many critiques of world films he presents. But the fascinating part is that he never takes the role of a filmmaker when he writes these pieces. He could well have elaborated on what lens John Ford used or what editing instruments Kurosawa employed. But the sections where Ray presents his views of international films could only have come from a true-blue cinephile whose very love for cinema is infectious. Look how he presents his opinion on Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972), Kaul’s Duvidha (1973), Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973), which organically unfolds into a fantastic review of the films.

But what really swept me off my feet are the observations that Ray makes in these early essays, the last of which was written in 1974. These observations – their almost prescient and intensely accurate quality just goes to show how deep Ray’s understanding of cinema was – both as a person behind and in front of the screen. I’ll give you an example. Ray met Kubrick just after he had made Spartacus (1960). He recollects: “On the strength of his Paths of Glory (1957), Kubrick had seemed to me to be one of the white hopes of American Cinema. He had first rate technique, he had style and I had a feeling that he had also something to say.”. Not just that, his opinions of Billy Wilder, Antonioni, Kurosawa and many others prove to be bang on the money.

If one takes a survey of the favorite section in the book among those who have read, it would definitely produce variegated results, for each section has the power to top the previous, no matter what order you read them in. My favorite section in the book Problems of a Bengali Filmmaker (along with Calm Without, Fire Within and An Indian New Wave?) provides an answer to almost every question I have had about the state of filmmaking in India. But again, this is one opinion that may change even before I finish this review. An Indian New Wave? may be just the winner in the long run, I suspect.

Reading the very many experiences of Ray abroad, one is regularly surprised about the range of people he knows in cinema and the dream-like way they meet each other. Reading these is almost like hearing a splendid raconteur recollecting his road trips with wide eyes. But all that is only because he presents himself with such simplicity. And that is partly a reason that this book shines with honesty. I’m sure, there would be hundreds of pages written from the other side of these meetings that would really give an idea of this monumental figure called Satyajit Ray.

 
Verdict:

P.S: Some essays of the book can be found here. Do read it. I think this book is a must read for film-geeks and not-so-film-geeks alike.

oscarYes, the nominations are out and we have an interesting line up dominated by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire with 13 and 10 nominations respectively. The Mozart from Madras A R Rahman gets 3 nominations – two for best original song and one for best original score. He may become just the third Indian after Bhanu Athaiya (Best Costume design , Gandhi (1982)) and Satyajit Ray (Honorary Oscar). Incidentally, another Indian, Resul Pookutty has also been nominated for the award in Best Sound Mixing category. 

 

Here is the complete list of nominees (courtesy: IMDB)

 

Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall

Frost/Nixon (2008): Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Eric Fellner

Milk (2008): Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks

The Reader (2008): Nominees to be determined

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Christian Colson

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Richard Jenkins for The Visitor (2007/I)

Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon (2008)

Sean Penn for Milk (2008)

Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008)

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Angelina Jolie for Changeling (2008)

Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008)

Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008/I)

Kate Winslet for The Reader (2008)

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Josh Brolin for Milk (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder (2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt (2008/I)

Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008)

Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road (2008)

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for Doubt (2008/I)

Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Viola Davis for Doubt (2008/I)

Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler (2008)

 

Best Achievement in Directing

Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Stephen Daldry for The Reader (2008)

David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon (2008)

Gus Van Sant for Milk (2008)

 

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Frozen River (2008): Courtney Hunt

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Mike Leigh

In Bruges (2008): Martin McDonagh

Milk (2008): Dustin Lance Black

WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon

 

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Roth, Robin Swicord

Doubt (2008/I): John Patrick Shanley

Frost/Nixon (2008): Peter Morgan

The Reader (2008): David Hare

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Simon Beaufoy

 

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Changeling (2008): Tom Stern

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Claudio Miranda

The Dark Knight (2008): Wally Pfister

The Reader (2008): Roger Deakins, Chris Menges

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Anthony Dod Mantle

 

Best Achievement in Editing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter

The Dark Knight (2008): Lee Smith

Frost/Nixon (2008): Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill

Milk (2008): Elliot Graham

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Chris Dickens

 

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Changeling (2008): James J. Murakami, Gary Fettis

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Donald Graham Burt, Victor J. Zolfo

The Dark Knight (2008): Nathan Crowley, Peter Lando

The Duchess (2008): Michael Carlin, Rebecca Alleway

Revolutionary Road (2008): Kristi Zea, Debra Schutt

 

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Australia (2008): Catherine Martin

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Jacqueline West

The Duchess (2008): Michael O’Connor

Milk (2008): Danny Glicker

Revolutionary Road (2008): Albert Wolsky

 

Best Achievement in Makeup

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Greg Cannom

The Dark Knight (2008): John Caglione Jr., Conor O’Sullivan

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Mike Elizalde, Thomas Floutz

 

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Alexandre Desplat

Defiance (2008): James Newton Howard

Milk (2008): Danny Elfman

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman

WALL·E (2008): Thomas Newman

 

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Gulzar(“Jai Ho”)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Maya Arulpragasam(“O Saya”)

WALL·E (2008): Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman(“Down to Earth”)

 

Best Achievement in Sound

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, Mark Weingarten

The Dark Knight (2008): Ed Novick, Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty

WALL·E (2008): Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, Ben Burtt

Wanted (2008): Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño, Petr Forejt

 

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

The Dark Knight (2008): Richard King

Iron Man (2008): Frank E. Eulner, Christopher Boyes

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Tom Sayers

WALL·E (2008): Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood

Wanted (2008): Wylie Stateman

 

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron

The Dark Knight (2008): Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Timothy Webber, Paul J. Franklin

Iron Man (2008): John Nelson, Ben Snow, Daniel Sudick, Shane Mahan

 

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Bolt (2008): Chris Williams, Byron Howard

Kung Fu Panda (2008): John Stevenson, Mark Osborne

WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton

 

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)(Germany)

Entre les murs (2008)(France)

Revanche (2008)(Austria)

Okuribito (2008)(Japan)

Vals Im Bashir (2008)(Israel)

 

Best Documentary, Features

The Betrayal – Nerakhoon (2008): Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath

Encounters at the End of the World (2007): Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser

The Garden (2008/I): Scott Hamilton Kennedy

Man on Wire (2008): James Marsh, Simon Chinn

Trouble the Water (2008): Tia Lessin, Carl Deal

 

Best Documentary, Short Subjects

The Conscience of Nhem En: Steven Okazaki

The Final Inch: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Tom Grant

Smile Pinki: Megan Mylan

The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306: Adam Pertofsky, Margaret Hyde

 

Best Short Film, Animated

La Maison en Petits Cubes: Kunio Kato

Ubornaya istoriya – lyubovnaya istoriya (2007): Konstantin Bronzit

Oktapodi (2007): Emud Mokhberi, Thierry Marchand

Presto (2008): Doug Sweetland

This Way Up (2008): Alan Smith, Adam Foulkes

 

Best Short Film, Live Action

Auf der Strecke (2007): Reto Caffi

Manon sur le bitume (2007): Elizabeth Marre, Olivier Pont

New Boy (2007): Steph Green, Tamara Anghie

Grisen (2008): Tivi Magnusson, Dorthe Warnø Høgh

Spielzeugland (2007): Jochen Alexander Freydank

 

 

And as a part of this run up to the Oscars, I would like to present brief opinions on the films that are hogging the limelight this evening.  This will not be an exhaustive series by any chance, but will be trying to cover only the biggies.

Cheers

Mahanagar (1963) (aka The Big City)
Satyajit Ray
Bengali

“I think you should apologize to Edith”

 

MahanagarWhat is more surprising than the fact that Ray’s films are universally accepted with open arms and considered timeless, is that a large part of the west is able to relate only to works of Satyajit Ray whenever cinema of India is discussed. Similar to how Satyajit Ray’s phenomenal body of work eclipses all other commendable efforts from the country, his own Apu trilogy overwhelms his other worthy films. Case in point – Mahanagar (1963).

Read More…

Charulata (1964) (aka The Lonely Wife)
Bengali
Satyajit Ray

“Give me your word that no matter what might happen, you won’t leave”
 

CharulataFor a large part of the rest of the world, the name Satyajit Ray would immediately relate to the Apu trilogy and would probably stop at that. Ironically, a great number of his fabulous films have never reached the eyes of the Occident. Charulata (1964) is one such gem that never gets a mention when briefing the director’s work.

Bhupati is the owner of a newspaper The Sentinel and gives his heart and soul for its development so much so that he neglects the presense of his wife Charulata. Charulata kills her time doing petty stuff such as looking at people on the street through her opera glasses and doing embroidery. Bhupati asks his graduate brother, Amol, to somehow induce her to write which she seems interested in. Amol pretends to Charu that he is interested in writing and spends his afternoons with her trying to get valuable inputs from her. Finally, Amol manages to make Charu write an article and get it published in a renowned magazine but not before the latter develops a strong bond with her brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Charu’s brother and treasurer of The Sentinel doesn’t see prospects in running the newspaper and decides to run away with the funds. Bhupati comes to know of the betrayal and decides to suspend production after which Amol leaves the house with the intention of easing his brother’s burden. After a few sombre days, Bhupati and Charulata decide to resurrect the newspaper with both of the contributing. This is immediately followed by the climax where Bhupati accidentally discovers Charu’s attraction towards his brother and realises his mistakes.

Not one character is wasted or overdone in the film. In many ways, Charulata is Satyajit Ray’s most daring and open statement on the position of women in the society. Charulata is the epitome for the free and thinking woman of new India as opposed to her sister-in-law Manda. The tale of constrained relations between a man who has been complacent in his marital life, a woman who seeks forbidden love and a young man who becomes an involuntary catalyst for the exposure of truth is not only a commentary on contemporary India but also a fine work of art. Charulata won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965.