Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos


The song of the little road

Ok, I had a terrific experience watching Pather Panchali yesterday. There have been very few movies which have held me totally enthralled, and to tell the truth, this was one of those rare movies which had that capability. Put very simply, this was a movie which made poetry on film a reality.

Spoiler warning: Plot details follow

Based on Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s novel of the same name, this movie is centered on a poor family in rural Bengal struggling to make both ends meet. The husband is frequently away from work. The struggles of the mother trying to train the mischievous Durga, and trying to control the elderly Aunt Indir Thakuran are the talking point of the first part of the film. That’s when Apu is born, and happiness, play and exploration become a part of the family’s daily feelings. Durga and Apu’s bond is an intimate one, and one to be cherished. Death comes early in the film, when they stumble on the dead body of their pisi (aunt) Indir. The monsoons come to the village and Durga gets drenched in a joyous dance in the rains, while Apu cowers under a tree. Durga falls ill after the dance, and on a stormy night, as Sarbojaya (Durga and Apu’s mother) tries her best to close the doors on the rain and wind, Durga dies. This represents the climax of the film, and a heart-broken family leaves the village for Benares after Harihar, the husband returns, in the hope of a new and better future.

The last time I had seen Pather Panchali was when I was twelve years old, and to be quite frank, I remembered bits and pieces of the film. Watching it yesterday, on a well-restored DVD was an enriching and rather fulfilling experience after all these years. This was Ray’s first film, made immortal by the stories of the enormous amount of struggle which the budding director had to go through to complete the film. This was followed by the two other movies of the trilogy: Aparajito and Apur Sansar. The most interesting part of the movie is the way it deals with drama without indulging in melodrama. It’s a lesson in subtlety and one of those movies which accepts the fact that the viewer is an intelligent person and has the brains and the inclination to figure out things for himself. Right from the characterization of the old woman, Indir Thakuran with a penchant for kleptomania, to Durga and Apu’s wanderings through the village, as they come across a candy-seller, a wedding ceremony and the first sight of a running train, everything is beautifully picturised and filmed. Interestingly, when this film had been released, some critics had found it too slow, to which Ray had replied: The cinematic material dictated a style to me, a very slow rhythm determined by nature, the landscape, the country. The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself, contained a clue to the authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.

There are a number of rather inspiring and delicate scenes in the movies, but some of which will forever stay in my memory are the candy-seller sequence, with the stray dog in trail, reflected in the simmering waters of a lake; Durga dancing with sheer joy in the rain; the coming of the monsoons picturised with water flies dancing on the surface of the water; Apu and Durga running with unbridled joy towards the first running train of their life through a field of kaash flowers. Beautiful! Simply Beautiful!

Some interesting trivia on the film:
  • The film was funded by the West Bengal Roads and Buildings Department in the hope that The Song of the Road would be a promotional documentary for the roads of the state!
  • Time magazine described the film as the finest piece of filmed folklore since the “father of documentary” Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.
  • When Ray ran into financial trouble during the making, and was even contemplating giving up the project, it was singer-actor-director Kishore Kumar who helped him out with Rs 5,000, getting Pather Panchali back on the road.
  • After watching the film, celebrated exponent of French New Wave Cinema, Francois Truffaut said: “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.”
  • The one film which moved Ray the most before he started scripting Pather Panchali was Italian Neorealist film-maker Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, which he reportedly saw 55 times.
  • In its 1992 poll of the 10 Greatest Films of All Time, the British Film Institute’s Sight And Sound magazine rated Pather Panchali at number six in the list alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and The Godfather.

6 Responses to “The song of the little road”

  1. # Anonymous -d-a-d-a-

    I saw the Apu Trilogy too recently - on the newly restored DVDs - I think its the same thing you saw. Last time I saw Pather Panchali was when I was 9. Dont you think Apur Sansar and Aparajito lacks the tight screenplay of Pather Panchali? Apur Sansar especially.  

  2. # Anonymous Sandy

    @-d-a-d-a

    I guess we all went through the same feeling during Apur Sansar. What I felt was in trying to treat topics which are more mature, and somewhat out of the normal scheme of things, Ray missed the lilting screenplay of his first movie.

    Somehow, I found Pather Panchali to be the tightest of them all. However, I found Aparajito a more interesting movie (Shall write a note on that soon). More interesting because of the rather different portrayal of the mother-child relationship. If I were asked to rank the movies of the trilogy: I would place Aparajito higher just because of a very interesting portrayal of an absolutely mundane and commonplace situation.  

  3. # Anonymous Aru

    Sandy, good one. Seems like I have quite a bit of catching up to do..
    Pather Panchali would always remain a master piece  

  4. # Anonymous Sandy

    @Aru

    Thanks. Well, Pather Panchali is a masterpiece for several reasons. This post is actually inspired by this book I am reading right now, "Portrait of a director" by Marie Seton. Nicely written, the woman really has an inimitable style of writing.  

  5. # Blogger Sav

    A true classic, Pather Panchali is. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen it. Evokes a strange nostalgia for an era and a culture I was not part of, especially the train and the fields of kaash.  

  6. # Blogger Sourav

    Pather Panchali is the only Satyajit Ray classic I've ever seen. I'm thirsting to get hold of the whole Apu series, along with other classics.

    What struck me most about the movie was the setting. Being from that part of India (Orissa), I know for a fact that the setting of the village, the forests, the house, etc perfectly resemble a Bengali village. Even the dialogues were the most authentic rural Bengali.  

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