Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pather Panchali – Pictures of Reality

Pather Panchali – Nidarshanathin Pathivugal (Tamil)
By S Ramakrishnan
Uyirmmai Books - Synopsized in English by Shaji


Some film or other becomes an unforgettable part of one’s thoughts and dreams and grows with that person. S Ramakrishnan says that his efforts as a humble fan of Cinema to understand finer points of the entire spectrum of Cinematic art has made him an avid filmgoer and has watched at least one film a day in the last five years.

According to the author, in Tamil there is very little, by way of books or literature on Cinema, to understand the creations of this art and its effects. He says his book on Pather Panchali is the first step in his mission to write on the entire canvas of films so richly endowed by Kurosawa, Fellini, Goddard, Truffaut and others.
This book, Pather Panchali – Pictures of Reality is about Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali the film, its influence on the author, the continuing growth in his appreciation of the film as he read about Ray’s opinions, inputs on how the film was made and so on.

Author dedicates the book as a small tribute to Satyajit Ray, the maestro on the occasion of commemoration of completion of 50 years since making of Pather Panchali.


Author describes in the first chapter, where he first watched the film Pather Panchali by sheer chance and then goes on to describe how he was mesmerized by Ray’s characters, Durga in particular. He tells us, how after watching the movie countless times his understanding of his childhood increased with every viewing of the film. Author pronounces Ray as an empathic poet and Pather Panchali, an impeccable first song. He says that Ray’s trilogy on Apu’s life comprising Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar had beaten the path that led Indian Cinema to International Cross Roads.


Author says in this chapter that a good poem or a good novel increases our appreciation with every reading but that our filmgoers rarely get to see good films and repeated seeing of the same film is out of question. Author emphasizes the need for training to appreciate the many facets of Cinema, before good cinema can be appreciated.

Author avers that in India, a person grows up with some cultural experience and understanding of its various arts while cinema is not considered as an art but an entertainment. Therefore, the cultural understanding that a person brings to bear on the appreciation of other arts and literature is absent in the case of Cinema. Author describes cinema as an art form that brings together Drama, Music, Painting, Story and Technology. He also says that cinema can be analyzed on the basis of the Director’s Philosophy, Cultural Background, Logic and Organisation as well as on the basis of ideologies like Post Modernity, Third World Approach, Cinema of the Oppressed, Protests, etc. According to the author, all these factors call for training for a sound approach, understanding and appreciation.

Author also records as a sad fact that even after 50 years of Pather Panchali, many technicians in the film industry has not seen this film yet.


Author records the fact that Pather Panchali, the song of the road, filmed on characters in Bibhuti Bhushan’s novel Pather Panchali, was Satyajit Ray’s first film and was released on 26th August in 1955.

Author then goes on to give a brief biographical account of Satyajit Ray and how he developed interests in films, how he developed the contacts that enabled him to assemble the team that worked with him in the making of Pather Panchali. He tells us about the many troubles and impediments Ray faced in making the film started on a shoe-string budget of Rs. 15,000/-. He tells us how the funds sanctioned by Dr. B.C. Roy came in dribbles thanks to Bureaucracy, how Ray worked amidst fears that the voice of the boy doing Apu’s role may break or that the child doing young Durga’s role will grow up or the eighty plus years old Chunibala, doing grandmother’s role will die on their hands.

Author narrates the story of Pather Panchali. In brief we have Harihar Ray, impoverished and improvident, Sarvajaya, his wife, subjected to humiliations of poverty and visiting her anger on Harihar Ray and Durga, Durga, his daughter and Indra, the grand mother. Story starts with Apu’s birth, goes on to narrate closeness of Apu and Durga and the closeness of Durga and Indra. Indra, the grand mother and only friend and shield of Durga dies. Marriage of a friend and her own prospects doubtful, Durga resigns to her fate. Rain acts as a cathartic force. A fully drenched Durga dies of fever. Harihar Ray returns to learn of Durga’s death from Sarvajaya’s outpouring of grief. Harihar Ray breaks down. He leaves with family for Kasi.

Author says, the film portrayed a real village, real people and children who were children. Ray had found strength from small joys of life and pains of deprivation that every human can relate to. Author tells of the picture winning an award at Cannes Film Festival for the best Human Document.


In this chapter, author tells us that unlike literature, Cinema in India has not shown much enthusiasm in portraying childhood. He contrasts the sensitive portrayals of children in Truffaut’s “400 Blows” Akira Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” and “Dreams” and insensitive and absurdly precocious portrayals of children in Indian films or total avoidance of portrayal of children even when it is warranted. Author says that coming from such an Indian background, Pather Panchali’s documentation of childhood is the best ever in the annals of the world film industry. Author narrates how the character of Durga is etched by Ray portraying a childhood clutching at straws to stay a child and be happy. Durga’s loneliness and her sad denouement has been picturised matter of factly and nevertheless, according to the author, heart-wrenchingly central to the film. Author also notes that Apu, while not moving the audience quite like Durga, is portrayed with much realism and empathy. Apu’s relations with Durga, Apu in the school conducted in the village stores premises, his playing the foil to Durga’s adventures are all a sensitive narration of childhood. Apu trying to portray himself as a warrior after watching the drama performed by a visiting troupe is, according to the author, a revealing insight of childhood all over the world. Film, according to the author makes a distinction between other children of the village who are noisy and ever ready to play and Durga and Apu, the outsiders, who are sad eyed with Durga working all the time and Apu interested in studies. Even the train scene shows Durga and Apu setting out purposefully. The wonder of children seeing anything for the first time, is universal and according to the author Train scene establishes that. Children drenching in the rain, too, shows universal reaction of children to the rain. Pather Panchali, as author avers, is truly a last page on childhood.


Author postulates that Modern literature is mostly about decline either of an individual or a family and that our inability to estimate the pace or the extent of the decline makes it the centre of our attention.

Author tells us that Bibhuti Bhushan tells us of the decline and fall of the village, the film concentrates on the decline and fall of Harihar Ray’s family. We are also told about how Indian cinema uses a lot of song and melodrama to tell us about poverty and how Ray concentrates on the effect it has on people. Therefore, Ray never felt constrained to answer carping critics who accused him of selling Indian poverty through his cinema. The author also tells us how while novel has emphasis on the death of Durga, Satyajit Ray shifts the emphasis to the next scene where Harihar Ray learns if Durga’s death from a grief-stricken Sarvajaya. This has the effect of using Durga’s death to document the fall of Harihar Ray family and, according to the author, convey an account of how villages were slipping into decline as people left them to populate the cities.


In this chapter, author suggests that Durga and Indra are the two central characters of the film on whom the story pivots. Both are women, both are lonely and both have unfulfilled desires. And both according to the author are the pawns of Fate. Author goes on to tell us that Ray’s Pather Panchali is about these two women and their close relationship.

Author speculates on the course of events that would have followed had Durga lived. Author also relates Durga to the real life character in his village and suggests that all migrations from villages may have untimely deaths behind them.

Author suggests that while Durga prances around like a child and has all the aspirations and desires of a child, he sees her accepting her fate assuming a more mature attitude as suggested by her sending away the sweet seller, even before Apu could come and tell her that Mother had refused. Her assuming a mother-like tone with Apu, is a sign of maturity and also suggestive, according to the author, of her confusion about future.

Grandmother, Indra, for all her age is still active, has a big appetite for food and will to satisfy it somehow, even stealing from an already poor Sarvajaya. According to the author, with all her gumption, she still has to leave without any place to go and die on the path.

Death is what shows Durga and Indra, as the author says, the pawns of fate.


Author describes the difficulties of translating a novel into a Cinema. It took a virtuoso Director like David Lean to make Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago into a successful Cinema.

The manner in which a novel is read and cinema is seen is different. A two line sentence in a novel needs a lot of thought and footage to establish the salient points in Cinema. A famous novel is widely read and establishes in readers certain ideas about the storyline. According to the author, under the circumstances, it is difficult to live upto the established fantasies and understanding of the storyline in the novel. Author cites the failure of Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta made into a film.

On the other hand a less well-known novel “God Father” by Mario Puzo, skillfully made into a film by Francis Ford Cappola was not only successful but made the novel more famous and widely read.

Author cites success of Kurosawa in making films from Shakesperian themes. Author says Satyajit Ray’s success in making Pather Panchali by adapting Bibhuti Bhushan’s novel to a form that can be expressed cinematically made Bibhuti Bhushan’s novel world-famous. Author describes ten important points to be kept in mind while making a novel into a film and goes on to discuss how various parts of Pather Panchali, the novel, has been adapted by Ray for better cinematic expression.


The author explains the fact of symbolism as a narrative tool. He describes how Kurosawa, Tharkovsky and Hitchcock had used symbolism to carry the narration forward. Author recounts Durga, Apu and the Dog following the Sweetseller, Apu throwing the necklace stolen by Durga into the pond after her death, the Train scene and snake entering the abandoned house of Harihar Ray as symbolisms that effectively carries forward narration at every stage. Train is a symbolism that Ray has used in the entire trilogy as props of narration at every turning point in Apu’s life, author tells us. In Pather Panchali, according to the author Ray has laid proper foundation before a symbolism is used. For example, the drama troupe that comes to the village, stages a play that shows the snake in a negative light. It, according to the author, naturally follows that snake entering the house is a sign of the fall of the house and the family.

Author tells us of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali winning the award for best Human Document in August company from a Jury that was highly respected. Author lists 12 awards won by Pather Panchali. Author gives nuggets of incidents and informations around Ray. Author also gives us brief biographical accounts of his Cinematographer - Mr. Subroto Mitra, Pt. Ravi Shankar, who scored the music for the film, Art Director - Mr. Bansi Chandragupta, Editor – Mr. Dulal Dutta, Artiste – Chunibala Devi, Artiste – Mr. Subir Banerjee, Artiste – Uma Dasgupta, Artiste – Kanu Banerjee and Artiste – Karuna Banerjee.

In the end, the author has appended an interview with Satyajit Ray.

The Author has also provided a list of References. Thoughtfully, a detailed Satyajit Ray filmography in English has been provided in the end.

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