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Life in the village of Nischindipur is viewed through the eyes of Apu and Durga, two young children of an impoverished Brahmin poet-priest, Harihar and his wife, Sarbojaya. Life is hard and the old aunt who stays with them is a further burden. One day Apu and Durga return home to find her dead in a bamboo grove. After the funeral Harihar leaves for the city in search of a job. The monsoon arrives and Durga dances exultantly in the downpour while Apu watches. She develops pneumonia and dies. Harihar returns home and the family decide to leave for Benares.
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Pather Panchali is perhaps the greatest Indian film ever made and was the film that really put India on the international film map. The film, Satyajit Ray’s directorial debut, was over three years in the making due to unceasing financial burden. Finally the film was completed with the help of the West Bengal Government. The film went on to win a special prize at Cannes for ‘Best Human Document.’ To quote Lindsay Anderson in the Observer
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“You cannot make films like this in a studio nor for money. Satyajit Ray has worked with humility and complete dedication; he has gone down on his knees in the dust. And his film has the quality of intimate, unforgettable experience.”
Thus began a sequence of events that was to place Ray almost at once among the great directors of the world and launching his extraordinary career.
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The film was based on a widely read novel of the same name by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee. Ray preserves the essential qualities of the novel yet enhances their impact with his vision. In a tradition going back to Robert Flaherty and the Italian neo-realists, Ray uses natural backgrounds and mainly non-actors. But even then, he is able to turn even seemingly mundane events into momentous experience as when Durga and Apu are held spellbound by a humming telegraph phone or the sight of an approaching train in the film’s most memorable sequence.
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The look of the film almost poetic in nature was due to the efforts of the cinematographer, Subrata Mitra. A much-admired still photographer, Pather Panchali was his first film and Mitra does an absolutely stunning job with his evocative compositions. The music was done by Ravi Shankar and is another highlight of the film. The sequence of Harihar being told of Durga’s death is taken to great heights by the splendid use of music rather than dialogue and is one of the most touching and unforgettable moments in the film. Although outdoor locations were shot 10-12 miles from Calcutta, much of the indoor work was finally done in a Calcutta studio and perfectly matched to the exterior. In fact, special mention must be made of Bansi Chandragupta’s absolutely wonderful art direction. The sets were constructed outdoors and for the first time all notions of artificiality were discarded in creating filmic décor – the outdoor sets of village huts, the costumes, the everyday utensils, the furniture, the pictures of gods and goddesses and other props looked extremely genuine and perfectly in synch with the characters’ milieu and habits and more importantly matched perfectly with the ethos of lyrical realism inherent in Pather Panchali. Another pioneering facet of this classic film was that perhaps for the first time in India that sets, costumes and props were designed keeping in mind aspects of camera movement, choice of lenses and the tonal variations in terms of black and white cinematography.
There are several unforgettable sequences in the film. One of the most lyrical passages in the film is the onset of the monsoon bringing hope, joy and new life. The first rain drops fall on the shining bald plate of an angler, the water hyacinths in the pond, the trees in the field. The momentum slowly builds drawing Durga to her dance in the rain. But as the storm rises in ferocity, it turns destructive threatening the foundations of their dilapidated house and ultimately Durga’s life.
An interesting aside – Though an unqualified masterpiece, highly placed Government officials frowned on the film depicting India’s poverty and thus damaging India’s international image even as the Central Government officially rejoiced over the success of the film! The film ran for 13 whole weeks in Calcutta. Most important, backers were now ready to back Ray’s subsequent films.
The two following films Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) completing the Apu trilogy following Apu into adulthood and marriage while having their memorable moments and in spite of much tighter cinematic construction however lack the simplicity and poetic quality of Pather Panchali. But still the trilogy as a whole has the rhythm and flow of life and Aparajito did win the ‘Lionne d’Ore’ at Venice in a jury presided by the great Rene Clair.
Bengali, Drama, Black and White