Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pather Panchali

For the last several years I have been waiting for the restored version of the Apu Trilogy and when it released (theatrically in the US), I waited patiently for at least the DVDs to come to India. When that did not happen, I went to Amazon USA, bought the set and had it shipped to India – easily the most expensive individual piece of cinema I have bought.
I expected to not like it as much as my earlier viewings because I was now a cynical, jaded, middle-aged man – immune to (and far away from) the Bengali fandom of the legendary director. My reaction to Pather Panchali – which I watched today – was one of stunned silence, broken by the occasional tear. 
Pather Panchali – to borrow a phrase that came nearly six decades after it – was EPIC. I cannot recommend it enough.

From my earlier viewings of Pather Panchali, my most abiding memories were some of the striking scenes – the train scene, the sweet seller scene, Indir Thakurun’s death, Durga’s death and so on. I expected to be wowed by those visuals once again and more so, because this was on a restored print. But while the visuals were more vivid than anything I had seen before, what struck me this time was the purity of the emotions, realness of the relationships and the consistency of characterisations. And I say this not only in the context of this film but the entire Trilogy.

Sarbajaya and Harihar form such a real couple, with contrasting character traits – one hardened by the travails of a life of poverty, the other retaining an intellectual, idealistic and somewhat unreal view of life. Their uneasy partnership in negotiating life, celebrating little joys, looking forward to a better tomorrow while mired in penury did not touch me all that much when I watched it last (probably twenty years back) but as a married man today, it just broke my heart.
The ups and downs of their married life, the ebb and flow of their relationship is from a film made in 1956 and a book written in the 1930s… and yet, it is so real that I could recognize them in scenes that I see with married couples today. If this is not a triumph of characterization, I don’t know what is.

Durga and Apu form a very real pair of siblings, the kind of relationship that is again heartbreakingly real and only possible when the elder sibling is a girl. Apu’s devotion to his sister and Durga’s protective arm around her brother form some of the most beautiful scenes in the film. Again, the relationship stood out this time – even more than the beauty of the scenes they did together. Their chasing of the sweet-seller after having to say no to his wares establishes both the joys and sorrows of their lives succinctly and evocatively.
For me, the defining scene of Pather Panchali is the one where Apu gets ready for school after Durga’s death and walks down the village path alone – especially when contrasted with the earlier scene of Apu and Durga together.
One thing that struck me while watching the film today was that Durga had no photographs and Apu’s memory of his sister would have got obscured with time. Or maybe not. Maybe the memories grew vivid as his imagination would have taken over the fading memories.

A small but critical relationship in the film was the one between Durga and Indir Thakurun, the aunt-niece bond leading them to close ranks whenever either of them landed in any kind of problem. The 'villain' of this piece was Sarbajaya, whose maternal instincts often overruled any civility that she could have offered her sister-in-law. In such a context, it is particularly distressing that it was Durga who discovered her aunt's dead body and the sickening thud with which Indir's body falls is a devastating end to the relationship. 

I could go on and on about Pather Panchali and I will probably come back to it later. For the time being, I will end with two characters that stood out more this time than the earlier times.  
Chunibala Devi (playing Indir Thakurun) turns in a remarkable performance, given that it comes from a person who was more than eighty years of age when she did the film. Her emotions, her voice, her physical gestures are so perfect that it is difficult to accept her scenes as anything other a documentary. In this restored version, you could even see her parched leathery skin and her tattered saree – one a testament to the director’s casting skills and the other to the crew’s attention to detail.  
Tulsi Banerjee (as the teacher-schoolmaster) stood out in his short screen-time – his bulging eyes providing a canvas of expressiveness and his mannerisms bringing the character alive. This role was, of course, the precursor to an even more fantastic role he did in Paraspathar a couple of years later.

The DVD has some excellent supplementary material, all unseen and delightful.
A Long Time on the Little Road is an audio track of Satyajit Ray reading out his account of the making of the film (the text version of which appeared in Sight and Sound magazine). The beauty of the account is matched perfectly by the mellifluous quality of his voice.
An interview of Soumitra Chatterjee has him talking about the impact Pather Panchali – both book and film – had on the Bengali psyche and he is his usual articulate, Ray-fanboy self!
The most delightful part – for me – was an interview of Shampa Srivastava, who played the young Durga in the film (and was credited as Runki Banerjee) and is Karuna Banerjee’s daughter. She had some beautiful recollections of the shooting and listening to her recounting them in an American accent (while pronouncing the Bengali names correctly) was just amazing. [I never ever imagined I would find an actor of Pather Panchali on LinkedIn but I did! Here.]
Two short interviews of Ravi Shankar (who composed the music) and Soumyendu Roy (who was a camera assistant on Pather Panchali and became Ray’s cinematographer later on) brought out interesting angles to the making of this classic.

Many students of filmmaking have said that they have learnt from Ray’s films. I am not sure how much they gleaned from Pather Panchali because it seems – to me – not a craftsman’s output that one can learn from but the production of a genius working at the peak of his powers.
I am neither a film expert nor a student of filmmaking. I can only confess to being completely blown away by the film. I don’t think I have learnt anything from Pather Panchali. I just know I am a better human being for having seen it.


Manoj said...

Lovely thoughts. Just a suggestion. Hope you have read Andrew Robinson's stand alone book on the making of the trilogy. It would take your viewing experience many notches higher. Regards

Random musings said...

very nice writeup...whenever I watched the movie,it was impossible to control the tears and waiting for the impending
tragedies to strike. But Apu Durga running through the kash bon is an image all bengalis carry in their hearts ☺ Just a little thing,the name of the actor playing the teacher was Tulsi Chakrabarty.

Random musings said...

very nice writeup...whenever I watched the movie,it was impossible to control the tears and waiting for the impending
tragedies to strike. But Apu Durga running through the kash bon is an image all bengalis carry in their hearts ☺ Just a little thing,the name of the actor playing the teacher was Tulsi Chakrabarty.