Bengali Classic Film Review

Pather Panchali

Life in the village of Nischindipur is viewed through the eyes of Apu (Subir Banerjee) and Durga (Uma Das Gupta), two young children of an impoverished Brahmin poet-priest, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) and his wife, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee). Life is hard for them and the old aunt (Chunibala Devi , 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 and for better prospects. The monsoon arrives and Durga dances exultantly in the downpour while Apu watches. Tragically, she develops pneumonia and dies… Harihar returns home and is shattered to hear of her death. The disconsolate family finally leaves for Benares for a new and hopefully, better life…

Pather Panchali is arguably  the greatest Indian film ever made and was the film that really put India on the international film map. The film, Satyajit Ray’s amazing directorial debut, was over three years in the making due to unceasing financial burden with his wife even pawning her jewellery at one point. Finally, the film was completed with the help of the West Bengal Government. The film then went on to win a special prize at Cannes for ‘Best Human Document’ thereby putting Ray and Indian cinema on the world scene in a big, big way. To quote Lindsay Anderson in the Observer, “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.”

As is well-known by now, the film is based on a widely read novel of the same name by Bibhuti Bhushan Bannerjee. While adapting it for the screen, Ray preserves the essential qualities of the novel yet enhances their impact with his profound cinematic vision. In a tradition going back to the documentaries of Robert Flaherty and the Italian neo-realists following World War II, Ray also used natural backgrounds, real locations and cast mainly non-actors. Through astute observation and a strong eye for minute details, he makes the film a most enriching experience as he is able to turn even seemingly mundane events into momentous and magical experiences. We see this when Durga and Apu are held spellbound by a humming telegraph phone or by the sight of an approaching train in one of the film’s most memorable and iconic sequences. In fact, there are several unforgettable sequences in the unforgettable 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 and the trees in the field. The momentum slowly builds drawing Durga to her ecstatic dance in the rain. But then as the storm rises in ferocity, it turns fatally destructive threatening the very foundations of their dilapidated house and ultimately ending up in taking Durga’s life.

The performances of each of the actors is extraordinary. Kanu Bannerjee and Karuna Bannerjee bring much strength and dignity to their roles as they struggle with the rigours of day-to-day survival, living as they are in abject poverty. Subir Banerjee makes for a perfect Apu while Uma Das Gupta vividly brings Durga alive. Her tragic death creates a huge void not just in the life of her family but also in the viewer’s mind. Special mention must be made of Chunibala Devi who is absolutely stunning as the old aunt, Indir Thakrun. A theatre and film actress, who had retired in the 1930s, she was coaxed to come back by Ray at 80 for the film after he traced her out in a house in Calcutta’s red light district. She would go on to win the Best Actress at the Manila Film Festival for her act in the film, the very first International Award for an Indian actress.

The look and feel of the film, so very poetic and pulsating with the rhythm of life, is largely due to the efforts of its cinematographer, Subrata Mitra. A much-admired still photographer, Pather Panchali was his first film as a cinematographer and Mitra does an absolutely brilliant job with his evocative compositions. The music, composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, 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 taking on Harihar’s lament 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.

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 adolescence and then into adulthood and marriage, while having more than their share of memorable and poetic moments and in spite of much tighter cinematic construction and a high degree of polish in Ray’s cinematic craft, however, lack the natural inherent beauty, simplicity and poetic quality of Pather Panchali. Still, they are great films in their own right and the trilogy, as a whole, makes for wonderful, enriching viewing. And Aparajito did win great critical acclaim for Ray including being awarded the ‘Lionne d’Ore’ at the Venice International Film Festival by a jury presided by the great French master filmmaker, Rene Clair, no less.

Bengali, Drama, Black and White

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