Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Fifty Years of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali

In 1955 a 115 minute long B&W Bengali film titled 'Pather Panchali' was produced by the Government of West Bengal. Its director and screenplay writer was a Bengali named Satyajit Ray who was the art director of a British advertising firm. The film was based on a novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee. Its music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar. Some of the other members of this, soon to become immortal, team were as follows: cinematography: Subrata Mitra, editing: Dulal Dutta, art direction: Bansi Chandragupta, sound: Bhupen Ghosh. The film was a success in India. It opened to critical acclaim and audience approval and it even won the President's Gold & Silver Medals, New Delhi, 1955 but it was only after it had won the prize for the Best Human Document at Cannes in 1956 that the world sat up and took notice.

Once the West was won people all over India also 'discovered' this film and fifty years after it was made it continues to wow audiences with its powerful simplicity. Some of the other awards that this film picked up later included:
Diploma Of Merit, Edinbugh, 1956
Vatican Award, Rome, 1956
Golden Carbao, Manila, 1956
Best Film and Direction, San Francisco, 1957
Selznik Golden Laurel, Berlin, 1957
Best Film, Vancouver, 1958
Critics' Award - Best Film, Stratford, (Canada), 1958
Best Foreign Film, New York, 1959
Kinema Jumpo Award: Best Foreign Film, Tokyo 1966
Bodil Award: Best Non-European Film of the Year, Denmark, 1966

The writer Bibhutibhushan Banerjee may have never dreamt that his saga of an impoverished Bengali Brahmin family would attain celluloid immortality and that the characters he created would become household names. Almost all film loving Indians know the names of Harihar, the Father (played by Kanu Banerjee), Sarbajaya, the Mother (Karuna Banerjee), Apu (Subir Banerjee), Durga the young girl (Uma Das Gupta ) Durga the child (Runki Banerjee) and Indir Thakrun the old Aunt (Chunibala Devi). How this film was made is now part of the legend and 'mythology' of Indian cinema. The one year break in the shooting was a very suspenseful period for everybody who was associated with this film. Satyajit Ray himself was ecstatic about the fact that Apu's voice did not break, Durga did not grow up and Indir Thakrun did not die. The gods were with them.This year's Cannes Classic Series was "kicked-off" by a screening of Pather Panchali on May 12 2005. I felt sad when I read that the maestro's son Sandip Ray had not been invited to Cannes. I also feel sad about the fact that there more better prints of Ray films abroad than in India. This speaks volumes for how we care for our cinematic Kohinoors.

I had not been able to see this film till 1991 even though I had managed to see many of his other films. Luckily I was selected for the Film Appreciation course conducted by the National Film Archives of India at the FTII Pune in 1991. I still remember the effect the first viewing had on me. It gives me goosebumps whenever I think of it. Some of the scenes are permanently etched in my mind: Sarbajaya and Durga combing Apu's hair and making him presentable, Durga and Apu among the white Kash flowers, their first look at a train, their joy when the rains come, Harihar weeping inconsolably on hearing about Durga's death. Is there anyone who hasn't cried on seeing this scene?In his biography of Satyajit Ray titled 'Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye' the writer and film scholar Andrew Robinson reveals the fact that Pandit Ravi Shankar had composed the music for this film in one marathon session from 4pm to 4am.

I can go on and on but I would like to quote Kurosawa: "There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his (Ray's) cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence." Malaylam film maestro Adoor Gopalakrishnan had once been asked by the portal rediff.com to select the ten best Indian films made. He had chosen 'Pather Panchali' and 'Aparajito' as the first two. His views on 'Pather Panchali' are fascinating: "I think this is the first fully accomplished film in Indian cinema. Secondly, Pather Panchali really marks the beginning of the new Indian cinema. It is also the beginning of the non-Hindi film in India, that is, films made in a language other than Hindi." Aptly put.

I have a few excellent films by Ray in my collection but unfortunately I do not have a single film from his Apu trilogy. So now I know what my next big mission in life is. For lovers of good cinema I would recommend the following web sites to pay tribute to this giant of cinema:
www.satyajitray.org , www.imdb.com , www.sensesofcinema.com , www.asianfilms.org/india/ray.html , www.rayfoundation.mistral.co.uk

15 Comments:

Blogger Priyanka said...

Hi dev
You and your love for classy cinema. Its such a huge blog. I havnt read it but happy that you are writing your natural interests via this place
PG

11:23 AM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

I will be happy if you get the time and mood to read it and then tell me how you feel about it. I had posted this earlier in Sulekha.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Alok said...

Dev,

I would give a lot of credit to the author Bibhutibhushan Banerjee. His writing is so vivid that even I was inspired to convert it into pictures. I actually made illustrations when we were at KV Shillong.
At that time I read an abridged Hindi translation from the school library.

I have seen Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar long back on screen. Its available on DVDs now, and I might buy one of these days (I have been buying such DVDs recently; we watched Kurosawa's Roshomon last Sunday).

Alok

1:12 AM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

Hi Alok. I almost missed seeing your comment. Great to read yr words. Isn't it sad that as of today the Apu trilogy isn't available on VCDs/ DVDs in India. Though, luckily some of Ray's other films are. In the past few months two books on Ray have been released. There will not be another Ray. He was the last product of an age and an era. The Westernised Indian gentleman who produced exquisite cinematic depictions of Indian works. Juxtapose this with directors of commercial potboilers most of whom produce films which try to make the common Indian adjust to an India grappling with westernisation. During the seventies and eighties many Indians used to accuse Ray of exporting India's poverty abroad and earning fame from it. If I am not wrong one of Hindi cinema's most respected actresses was also involved in a similar spat. If cinema was the art form of the twentieth century Ray could be called one of its high priests.
p.s. I was watching Parineeta the other day. The Ray influence is unmistakably present.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Alok said...

Yes, what that actress said was disgraceful! The likes of Bollywood have no comprehension of what is artistic. (Poverty is all they saw in the movie and they thought its all that everyone else saw). Her point was that a modern India is also a reality. True. But what Ray showed realistically is a larger reality of India. And well to do Indians don't want to face that reality.

In any case, I don't think it was the intention of Ray to show povery; he just portrayed the characters realistically.

And its not just Ray's cinema vs the commercial ones. There are many excellent film makers producing excellent films in India. And sadly, none of their works is available on video or DVD anywhere (that's why their names don't figure on, e.g., filmref.com, or are not produced by, e.g., the Criterion Collection), and niether can be seen in movie halls (except in film festivals). One of them that I would want to see is Adoor Gopalakrishnan. I saw only one of his movies, in a hall, without subtitles (it was called Anantharam).

11:05 PM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

Hi Alok. I discovered Satyajit Ray's book The World of Apu on my bookshelf. Didn't know that I had it in my collection. It was sent to the publishers Penguin India by his wife Bijoya after he died. The original manuscript was stolen and this book is what she managed to piece together from his rough notes. A fascinating read nevertheless.
Talking of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, I was reading the weekly The Week issue dated Oct 2 2005. There is an article titled The Boy Wonder by Ashlesha Athavale. It is on M.F. Husain and his attaining ninety years of age. Along with this article there is a short interview conducted by Priyanka Chandra-Sinha. Husain's views on Indian directors makes interesting reading: "I liked film makers like P.C.Barua, Mehboob Khan and K.Asif. Satyajit Ray was good in Pather Panchali but that was the end of it. None of his films impressed me after that. However Bengali director Ritwick Ghatak was far ahead of his time. Today, no one can beat Adoor Gopalakrishnan. He is miles ahead of Ray."

11:09 AM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

Oops. The title of the book by Satyajit Ray is My Years With Apu, Penguin Books India (1996). I wonder who stole the final, corrected manuscript of this book. Maybe the idea was to make a huge amount of money by selling it some time in the future. Whatever, that person wasn't fit to enter Ray's room.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Alok said...

Oh, MF Husain's comments are interesting, though I don't believe all of it!! I guess his taste is not refined enough! "Aparajito," for example, is no less a materpiece than "Pather Panchali." (I actually enjoyed it even more).

By the way, what is this Ray's book about? Is it about his experience of making the movies on Apu?

5:21 PM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

Ray and Adoor are so different I wonder how MFH compared the two. The book My Years with Apu (ISBN 0140247807) is about Ray's experiences and growth from his student days till he has made Apur Sansar the last of the Apu trilogy. A must read for all lovers of good cinema. I just checked Indiatimes Book Club but it isn't available. Maybe I can send you my copy the next time you are in India. His Bengali book Speaking of Films has been translated into English as Satyajit Ray - Speaking of Films by Gopa Majumdar and was published recently by Penguin India.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

Alok do check out Rajesh's blog on Aparajito

7:35 PM  
Blogger Alok said...

I saw these books at the Amazon (also at Amazon Japan) and guess will buy them.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

I'd just forgotten Amazon (Amazon is amazin' !!!). I am sure you can get books there which are just not available in India. Another book worth having is Satyajit Ray: From Script to Screen by Nemai Ghosh who has around 95,000 negatives relating to Ray in his collection. This article from Frontline for you to read and enjoy.

1:26 AM  
Blogger Dev Kumar said...

Remember reading about this book a few days ago. Satyajit Ray A Vision Of Cinema, Viva Books, Rs 1,695. And a link to another interesting article, this time from rediff

1:31 AM  
Blogger Magically Bored said...

Chanced upon your blog through a random search on Satyajit Ray (I am interviewing Nemai Ghosh for a feature article today), and I have to say, this post is really well-written! It's easy to appreciate the genius of Ray, but not so easy to put it into words, and you have managed extremely well.
Pather Panchali is one of my favourites, so is Jalsaghar, though I would have to say Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is really fantastic as well.
Keep up the good writing!

12:25 AM  
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