20th Century Fox, Academy Award, Agantuk, Akira Kurosawa, Aparajito, Apu trilogy, Apur Sansar, Bharat Ratna, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya, Bicycle Thieves, BK Karanjia, Breathless, Cannes Film Festival, Charulata, Davis Lean, Devdas, Devi, ET, Film Festival Directorate, Film Finance Corporation, Film Institute of India, Filmfare, French New Wave, Gandhi, Hollywood, Indian new wave, Indira Gandhi, Ingmar Bergman, Jalsaghar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, John Ford, Kafan, Kenzi Mizoguchi, Mahanagar, Mahatama Gandhi, Martin Scorsese, My years with Apu, National Film Archive of India, National Film Development Corporation, Our films their films, Paras Pather, Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, Rashomon, Renoir in Calcutta, Richard Attenborough, Ritwick Kumar Ghatak, Sandesh, Sarat Chandra, Satish Bahadur, Sequence, Spielberg, SRFTI, Subrato Mitra, The Alien, The River, Vittorio de Sica, Yasujiro Ozu
Pather Panchali is the Taj Mahal of Indian cinema. The film is not Bollywood—the thought would be sacrilege in India—but constructed on the universal principles of film language as understood all over the world. Also, in my judgment PP is among the least dated films in the history of the cinema. By the time of Ray’s arrival, the medium had achieved full adulthood with the likes of John Ford, Vittorio de Sica, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman and many others, and the French new wave’s ‘demolition squad’ was only just waiting to happen. Thus, combining the technological simplicity of the 50’s with ageless narrative skills and techniques that Ray came to be known for, the film is an ideal text to study and learn from for contemporary practice of the medium. And that should hold not just for the Indian dabbler but students of filmmaking anywhere in the world.
Based on Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyaya’s novel, Pather Panchali is first of the three films written and directed by Satyajit Ray that constitute his famous Apu trilogy. Starting with his birth and early childhood in PP, little Apu grows to be an adolescent over Aparajito, and attains adulthood and starts a family in Apur Sansar. Altogether the action of the three films moves between rural Bengal and Calcutta, going briefly to Banaras in Aparajito, and to Khulna in present day Bangladesh and a colliery near Nagpur in central India in Apur Sansar. The period covered should roughly be from 1910 until mid-30’s; Aparajito opens specifically in 1920.
The trilogy was made between 1952 and 1959. While PP was Ray’s debut film (1955) and Aparajito his second (1956), Apur Sansar (1959) came only as a fifth film after Paras Pather (1957) and Jalsaghar (1958) in between. He was forced to take this break from the trilogy mainly to secure his position in the trade since unlike PP, Aparajito in spite of winning top honors at Venice had been a commercial failure at home. However by the time of Apur Sansar, Ray had firmly established himself as a filmmaker of world renown who could be banked upon to win top awards in Delhi and abroad without losing money in the rather small and even shrunken home market of Indian Bengal. Also, from struggling for resources over five years to make PP, already from Aparajito onwards he had achieved a steady output of one feature film a year, a pace that he maintained right until 1980 when a heart attack stopped him for good 6-7 years. Thereafter he made three more films before he expired in 1992. His last, Agantuk, is the story of a global wanderer who after long years of absence returns for a brief stay with his niece’s family in Calcutta. While the hosts are forever suspicious of his motives, the stranger finally leaves them richer in many more ways that monitory. Many believe that the film has a strong autobiographical undercurrent, that this stranger may well have been Ray himself. Just before he died, he was awarded the Academy award for lifetime achievement and India’s top civilian honor Bharat Ratna.
Working in a Calcutta ad agency and looking to a possible career in films, young Satyajit sought out books that he learned had gone under production and would write two screen versions of them, his own and a guessed trade version; then go and compare them with the finished product in the theatres. In 1949, Jean Renoir visited Calcutta and Ray got to spend some valuable time with him as they went location hunting for his film The River. His Renoir in Calcutta is a brilliant short account of the episode commissioned by the English magazine Sequence and is revealing of both men in equal measure. Two years later when his British employers sent him for a few months to London, he devoured all the masterpieces of the world cinema that he had only so far heard and read about, not seen. That famously included Bicycle Thieves. It was while returning home on a ship that he wrote his first draft of PP. After futile attempts at raising finances from the market, he began shooting that film using savings over weekends with first-timers like himself. Going in sequence and with long stretches of idleness waiting for funds, everybody learnt as they went along. Finally government of West Bengal stepped in and rescued the project, taking over as producers. Vivid accounts—inspired and inspiring—of that rich experience are recorded in some of his early articles included in his brilliant collection titled Our films, their films. His other book My years with Apu, written from hospital bed and published posthumously, though rich on production details of the three films, makes for a rather flat reading by comparison.
Owing to its size and unfriendly translation, I must confess that I have not read Pather Panchali the book. And I don’t known many that have. To us non-Bengalis the film appears such a thorough, all-purpose rendition of that great piece of literature that it doesn’t seem to matter. (I have read other novels and short stories on which he made films and all seem to me as improvements upon the original sources.) There have been no remakes of PP either. For a film that has been a commercial hit, it’s surprising. Even Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless has been tossed around, at least in gossip, for a Bollywood remake but not PP. Sarat Chandra’s Devdas, nearly a contemporary of PP, has had about six remakes in different languages to date but, again, not PP. (Nor for that matter any other of Ray’s films curiously.) At least for PP my guess is that as long as children as main characters cannot be played by established stars (!)—and equally the doddering old granny (!!)—PP would be very difficult to successfully remake and make money on!
Being like no other Indian film before or since, reactions to PP have revealed interesting patterns. As a teenager growing up in Delhi I had been vaguely familiar with its success but there was no question that you’d ever want to go and check out a Bengali film! The belief was that not even miracles in the regional cinema could ever match up to a regular Bombay film! However once in the Institute there was no escaping PP; Professor Satish Bahadur screened the trilogy within first week of our arrival. The experience was magical; we were simply floored. Everything about the film—every single thing without exception—was just too good to believe. The charmed rectangle of the frame was for once completely invisible; it was as if you had had a direct rub with life itself. Already when we saw it, the film was 15 years old but looked as energetic and fresh as it does today. Those of us somewhat familiar with the filmmaking process wondered how the actors had been handled to give those achingly authentic expressions without any distinction between members of the main family and the rest like neighbours, the villagers, passers by, even dogs and cats. A mix of professional, semi-professional and urban and rural commoners picked up off the street, for once they all looked ‘people’ and not actors playing roles. Details were right and so was the story as a whole.
But the film fraternity of the time had been faced with a strange dilemma. In one stroke PP had ‘unmanned’ everyone and while you saw that the film was brilliant, how could you explain the stark tardiness of your own productions in spite of better resources? Your chant of ‘reasons’ had carried nicely so far—the evil star system, formula based stories with the inevitable songs and dances, stranglehold of financiers and distributors, the ‘suffocating’ censors, the diverse all-India market ranging from plain illiterate to cinema-illiterates that you were required to cater to and the rest. After Pather Panchali, wouldn’t they all begin to sound like excuses?
Then began a gradual process of “coming to terms with PP”. Having ingested the film—you couldn’t avoid that—let’s now try and digest it! Which in effect turned out to be a long process of shrugging off, both PP as well and its maker, since having followed that film by a steady stream of others, they saw, one, that PP was no fluke and two, that Ray meant to stick around for a while. He is an exception, a genius, they started saying. He is a mere neo-realist, began complaining film students and critics 70’s onwards. He’s pedaling Indian poverty to the west, screamed a film star nominated to the Indian parliament in the 80’s, quite unmindful that her own films had been pedaling Indian socialism to the Soviet Union. And finally, insult of insults: India is merely where he location-shoots, otherwise he’s for all practical purposes a foreign filmmaker!
The Indian government’s response to the phenomenon of PP flowed directly from the personality of the prime minister of the day, Jawaharlal Nehru. Freshly independent and committed to socialist ideals, New Delhi began to receive fervent calls from its embassies from the world capitals for other Indian films besides Ray’s and felt embarrassed that the country had nothing to offer except Bombay’s escapist, song-and-dance routine. With the timely backing of the recommendations of an enquiry committee around the same time, the government decided to start (or strengthen) a whole network of departments dealing with cinema in order to open up the medium for a wider participation. Nehru was a Ray admirer and is known to have intervened at least on two occasions in his favour: once in the face of bureaucratic objections clearing PP as official entry to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and later in 1961 to entrust him, in preference to historians, to make series of films to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s 100th birth anniversary. Later when his daughter Indira Gandhi was the prime minister, she sent feelers to Ray for making a film on Nehru but understood his position when the master failed to respond. As it happens Ray made films only on artists and steered clear of political personalities, even Mahatma Gandhi.
Beginning had already been made in 1951 with the hosting of an international film festival and as a part of the same agenda, the rest of the promotional bodies got to be taken up now on priority— a film school, Film Institute of India, later incorporating television as FTII, us; a film archive, the National Film Archive of India right next door in Pune; a film finance corporation, the FFC in Bombay; and all kinds of regional and national awards, and regional, national and international film festivals run by a department called Film Festival Directorate. This was the comprehensive alternative set up to tap fresh talent, train it, promote it and launch it. All these facilities were in place and working through the 60’s.
Early enough, in perhaps an offence-as-defense stance, these agencies committed themselves against Ray and in favor of experimentation (as if the two were conflicting positions). Through late 60’s and early 70’s, a bunch of no-star, no-song, low-budget films were produced. All financed by the Film Finance Corporation and directed by a mix of pan-India, FTII-non-FTII, young and old directors, these were mostly in black and white and based on stories of well-known litterateurs. (What committee can say no if a ‘senior’ applicant says in impeccable Bengali English that he wants to re-interpret Premchand’s Kafan in Tamil?!) Each claimed to be an experiment when not working—and most weren’t—and when they did, there was nothing much to distinguish them from one or the other existing streams. Starting from Bombay and in Hindi, the scene gradually began to spread southwards, notably in Kerala and Karnataka in their respective languages. Naturally some films were better than others, some regions more receptive to the idea than other regions. Led by the Times of India group—whose Filmfare’s editor BK Karanjia was also the chairman of Film Finance Corporation—national and local press supported the effort and bravely called the surge as the Indian new wave.
But a wave is easier to make than to sustain. The whole campaign had been run on the basis of private screenings of these films backed by newspaper write ups, but in spite of incentives from the government nobody was prepared to touch them for distribution. As bizarre demands began to be made for the government to even distribute these films—which they eventually did by calling them ‘classics’, showing them at odd hours on their own TV channels and writing off loans—quietly the FFC, or its later day avatar National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), began to impose conditions like inclusion of marginal stars and songs on the filmmakers that they were going to support. In early 80’s a boon fell in the lap of NFDC in the form of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Although small partners in that huge co-production, it was the money earned from that Hollywood blockbuster which ironically moistened NFDC’s coffers from the draughts of the past and for quite a while into the future.
In the mid-80’s while we were still trying to figure out the fate of our wave, Iranian cinema sprang a beautiful surprise upon the world and stole what many thought should have been our thunder. “Have you checked out the Iranian packet, sir?” went the opening line of our ex-student filmmakers invoking the Institute’s spirit of film screenings as we ran into each other in film festivals. “No, I was busy checking out the Indian packet,” would be my pained unsaid line. “Or rather your film in it.” Oddly, the period also saw the emergence of more and more film festivals in the country when there was less and less to celebrate in its cinema! Later in a free market climate after the collapse of Soviet Union, Bollywood unleashed its own star power and before you realized the Indian new wave lay buried deep inside history. A wag’s coinage—“From womb to tomb”—warning the government against ‘letting down’ the wave at the final stages had sadly come to pass. In the absence of even minority audience patronage, the government funds had ended up creating nothing but another vested interest, which continues to swear by the Wave until this day. That would include today’s highest level of Padma awardees, winners of all national and regional awards and a long queue of greying hopefuls patiently waiting for their own turn to be lucky. A misplaced culture of nationalism has since been put forth to obliterate shear lack of competence to perform on the world stage. Why, even Bollywood starlets today have learnt to flutter their eyelashes and chirp in the microphones, “But national award is special!”
This, incidentally, would be my no-nonsense history of the Indian new wave. Flesh it out with names, titles and pictures and it’s ready to go to the publishers provided, of course, the vested interest would allow passage.
To the wider world, of course, Pather Panchali was the first introduction to Indian cinema, much like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon had been to the Japanese. While Japan had many other filmmakers to offer beside Kurosawa—Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu to name just two of his contemporaries; and there have been many more since—India has had none besides Ray. The only other truly respected Indian filmmaker and an erratic genius from the 60’s, Ritwick Kumar Ghatak is very intense but limited in the number of films and range of subjects. All others before and since Ray are more famous as careers than as makers of durable masterpieces and do not stand easy and confident on the world stage.
“My first view of Ray was right here in mid-70’s,” recalled Martin Scorsese talking to an Indian journalist at the Cannes Film Festival as recent as May 2010. “I had grown up watching his classics, the Apu Trilogy, Devi, Mahanagar and Charulata. Each appeared a classic to me. In terms of sheer content and cinematic excellence, I rank Ray among the top ten directors of the last century.”
In the same interview Scorsese goes on to describe Ray’s familiarity with world cinema as superior to his own, and his knowledge of western classical music and international literature as something that he only noticed in David Lean and Akira Kurosawa. The shoestring budgets in which Ray made his classics had been unknown to Europe and Hollywood, he says, adding that Ray’s asset was his art of narrating very complicated issues in the simplest form on celluloid in the minimum number of shots and dialogues.
The distinguished American filmmaker offers his personal testimony on Ray’s well-known Hollywood misadventure. That in the late 60’s there was a big probability of Ray coming to Hollywood to shoot The Alien based on his own short story published in the popular Bengali magazine Sandesh. The film was to be produced by 20th Century Fox and Hollywood was waiting to embrace Ray with open arms. But due to some dirty politics played by unknown quarters, Ray’s Hollywood dream had to be shelved. Scorsese has no qualms in admitting that Spielberg’s ET was influenced by Ray’s Alien. Even Richard Attenborough had pointed this out to him, he reveals.
Scorsese concludes his homage piece with his favorite Ray moments. One is the scene in Pather Panchali where young Durga and Apu run through the village meadows and notice a train whistling by in the distance, describing it as a master shot conceived by a thinking maker and executed brilliantly by Subrato Mitra whom he acknowledges as one of the leading cinematographers of the international cinema. Another is of a young Apu sitting by a pond, hands folded, head down, weeping out his heart, remembering his late mother in Aparajito—perhaps, the greatest Ray shot he ever saw…
Martin Scorsese may well be summing up west’s view of the Indian master.
I have not known any film school in the world where Ray is a campus hero. He is far too disciplined for modern students. That would include the FTII as well as the other one in his own city of Calcutta, which was started after his death and named (much against his suspicion of film schools) after him, Satyajit Ray Institute of Film and Television (SRFTI). The campus hero’s position in these institutions is reserved for Ritwick Ghatak, which is understandable. The intense Ritwickda is so much easier and much more fun to emulate—success on the screen is besides the point—than the hard-as-nails taskmaster like Ray.
Just before I left the Institute in 2006, FTII hosted a 2-day seminar on What ails the screenplay of Indian films. All the leading scriptwriters from Mumbai—which means all those responsible for the uneven quality of scripts in the first place—assembled and addressing a houseful of students prescribed grandiose remedies to one another in the abstract. Quietly—as if on duty—Professor Bahadur entered and exited the theatre unseen like a guest from another world, from another times. No one brought up the issue of Hindi cinema’s routine stealing of plots from Hollywood. Not one thought it fit to make a mention of Ray or any of his screenplays to learn from.
As little Apu stood watching at the end of Pather Panchali, the scum had converged from all sides and obliterated all traces of the jewel underneath.