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Pather Panchali (Song of the Road)
Iconic Indian film in Bengali/ 1955/ dir: Satyajit Ray
(aka 'The Lament of the Path,' 'The Saga of the Road' and 'Song of the Road')
UC Santa Cruz Year 1955
Producer Govt. of West Bengal
Distributor Govt. of West Bengal (NFDC, Mumbai for overseas distribution)
Screenplay Satyajit Ray
Based on The novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee
Photography Subrata Mitra
Editor Dulal Dutta
Art Director Bansi Chandragupta
Music Ravi Shankar
Sound Bhupen Ghosh
Length 115 min.
Print Black & White
U.S. Distributor: Merchant-Ivory/Sony Pictures Classics
Harihar Kanu Bannerjee
Sarbajaya Karuna Bannerjee
Apu Subir Bannerjee
Durga Uma Das Gupta/Runki Bannerjee
Schoolmaster Tulsi Chakravarty
Mrs. Nilmoni Aparna Devi
Indir Chunibala Dev
Rich Neighbor-Woman RajLaksmi Devi
The story revolves around a poor Brahmin family in early years of the century in Bengal. The father, Harihara, is a priest who is unable to make ends meet to keep his family together. The mother, Sarbajaya, has the chief responsibility for raising her mischievous daughter Durga and caring for her elderly aunt Indir, who is a distant relative and whose independent spirit sometimes irritates her. With the arrival of Apu in the family, scenes of happiness and play enrich their daily life. Life, however, is a struggle, so Harihara has to find a new job and departs, leaving Sarbajaya alone to deal with the stress of this family's survival, Durga's illness and the turbulence of the monsoon. The final disaster, Durga's death, causes the family to leave their village in search of a new life in Benares. In spite of poverty and death the film leaves one not depressed but moved, filled with the beauty, and subtle radiance of life. The film suggests an intimate relationship between loss and growth or destruction and creation.
Ray's comment on this film: "It is true. For one year I was trying to sell the scenario, to peddle it... since nobody would buy it, I decided to start anyway, because we wanted some footage to prove that we were not incapable of making films. So I got some money against my insurance policies. We started shooting, and the fund ran out very soon. Then I sold some art books, some records and some of my wife's jewelry. Little trickles of money came, and part of the salary I was earning as art director. All we had to spend on was raw stock, hire of a camera and our conveniences, transport and so on... I had nothing more to pawn." The original negative of this film was lost in a fire.
Pather Panchali: No 12 best arthouse film of all time
Satyajit Ray, 1955
The Guardian, Wednesday 20 October 2010
It was the birth of a cinema, certainly the birth of a new kind of Indian cinema. On the first day of the shoot, the director had never directed, the cameraman had never shot a scene, the children in the leading roles hadn't been tested and the soundtrack was composed by a then obscure sitarist (the great Ravi Shankar). Perhaps this inexperience gave everyone involved the freedom to create something new. Certainly director Satyajit Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra showed a miraculous gift for lighting scenes, coaxing intimate and utterly convincing performances from children and other non-professional actors, and allowing narrative to grow seamlessly – just as happened in the best of the films by Ray's western mentor, Jean Renoir.
The story seems superficially insubstantial. A small boy, Apu (Subir Bannergee), is living with his impoverished Brahmin family in rural west Bengal. His father, a priest lost in dreams of writing plays and poetry, is so weak he won't even ask his employer for his back-pay. His mother (the marvellous Karuna Bannerjee) is mired in daily tasks – looking after Apu and his sister Durga, struggling with the demands of her ageing sister-in-law and her impractical husband.
It's a film that blindsides the viewer by showing a child's perspective on the world: it is Apu and Durga's perspective on a train passing by, their discovery of their aunt's body or their excitement at the sound of the sweet-seller's bells that captivate us jaded adults. This is the first of a trilogy in which Apu leaves childish things behind and goes into a world every bit as confounding as the one his father could not master.
Pather Panchali is Ray's debut film, and the first film of his 'The Apu trilogy'. The remaining two films of the trilogy, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, follow Apu as the son, the man and finally the father. Pather Panchali has a universal humanist appeal. Though the film deals with the grim struggle for survival by a poor family, it has no trace melodrama. What is projected in stead is the respect for human dignity.
The most loveable character is that of Indir Thakrun, an old, cynical, loving and storytelling aunt of Apu and Durga. It was played by an 80-year-old Chunibala, a retired theatre performer who relished coming back into the limelight after 30 years of obscurity.
The sequences of Apu and elder sister Durga, exploring their little world and sharing secrets are most remarkable aspect of the film. These include the scenes of - discovery of train by Durga and Apu in field of white Kash flowers, the candy seller sequence, and Indir Thakrun's death.
In the inspired 'candy-seller' sequence, as Durga and Apu secretly relish tamarind paste, their mother is complaining about hardships to their father. Durga hears a faint bell. She knows it is the candy-seller. Both go out and look longingly at the the pots with sweets in them. Durga sends Apu to ask for money from their father. Mother intervenes, and Apu returns empty handed. But the site of the pot-bellied candy-seller caring two bobbing pots of sweets is too tempting to resist. Both start following him. A stray dog joins the procession as it is reflected in a shimmering pond.
The film develops its characters and the atmosphere slowly and resolutely. The narrative builds up to a powerful climax as we begin to empathise with the characters.
Some critics found the film to be too slow. Satyajit Ray wrote about the slow pace - "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."
Towards the end of the film, after death of Durga, we see Apu brushing his teeth, combing his hair... going about performing tasks, which would have involved his sister or mother. Sarbajaya (mother) has a lost look...
Harihar returns, unaware of Durga's death. In a jovial mood he calls out his children. Without any reaction, Sarbajaya fetches water and a towel for him. Harihar begins to show the gifts he has brought for them. When he shows a sari that he has bought for Durga, Sarbajaya breaks down. We hear the high notes of a musical instrument "Tarshahnai" symbolising her uncontrollable weeping. Realising Durga's loss, Harihar collapses on his wife.
We see speechless Apu, for the first time taking the centre stage in the story. Till now the story was seen through the point of view of either Sarbajaya or Durga. It is only in these final moments that we see Apu as an independent individual.
In the USA, Pather Panchali played at the 5th Avenue Playhouse for a record 36 weeks, breaking the previous record held by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
What others say...
"The first film by the masterly Satyajit Ray - possibly the most unembarrassed and natural of directors - is a quiet reverie about the life of an impoverished Brahman family in a Bengali village. Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen." - Pauline Kael
"A beautiful picture, completely fresh and personal. (Ray's camera) reaches forward into life, exploring and exposing, with reverence and wonder." - Lindsay Anderson
"One of the most stunning first films in movie history. Ray is a welcome jolt of flesh, blood and spirit." - Jack Kroll, Newsweek
" As deeply beautiful and plainly poetic as any movie ever made. Rare and exquisite." - Hazel-Dawn Dumpert, L.A. Weekly
(Indian) President's Gold & Silver Medals, New Delhi, 1955
Best Human Document, Cannes 1956
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
Other Films of The Apu Trilogy
Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)
Victor Banerjee’s inside story
The Times of India, Oct 18 2015
Ray's first film, and a meddlesome sexologist
As Pather Panchali completes 60 years in 2015, actor Victor Banerjee gives us the inside story
One of the greatest philosophers of contemporary times, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had said: “If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.“ The world can find no new words or language to describe with any degree of originality, the phenomenon called Pather Panchali. As Japanese director Akira Kurosawa famously put it: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray was like existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.“ But if the first film that Ray ever wanted to make had been made, I would not have been asked to write this piece today . In 1948, a Hollywood-returned nuclear physicist Harisadhan Dasgupta paid the Tagore Estate Rs 20,000, a fortune then and three times the price paid for Pather Panchali, for the filming rights of Ghare Baire which he was to direct and Ray had written a script for.
“I consider that the best of Hollywood and British films by John Ford and David Lean, should be the goals for filmmakers in this country -we are very much lost,“ he boomed as he scornfully manoeuvred the bylanes of Calcutta in his imported Chevrolet from the coffee house to Ray's pokey little flat where their intellectual addas continued into the night. They , together with art director Bansi Chandragupta, spent a great deal of time with Jean Renoir who was an early inspiration for our Ray-in-the-making.
Their first financier, a slimy Ghosh, who traded in gold bars from Nepal, disappeared mysteriously. Later, while Ray and Bansi Chandragupta were scouting locations and looking for an actress to play Bimala in Ghare Baire, in walked a meddlesome venereologistturned-producer who wanted changes that Harisadhan accepted unwillingly but Ray rejected outright. I'd give anything to know what those requested changes were, coming as they did from someone who had obviously made a fortune dealing with the fallout from illicit sexual relationships. The film was shelved, and the Dasgupta-Ray liaison ended.
Thirty years later, I was driving and being driven crazy by the Raja of Santosh's antique 6-cylinder coupé, a Studebaker Flighthawk, as it stopped and spluttered and ground to several halts on our way from Calcutta to Bombay. I lay back on a flea and bedbug infested charpoy, gazing at fireflies climbing into a starry sky, at a roadside dhaba. On the charpoy beside me, giggling naughtily as he always did, was my dear friend Pratap who always had amazing stories to tell. One such story, that Manikda later confirmed, was that Pratap had lent Ray his father's movie camera for a few days, during the filming of Pather Panchali.
Pratap, the grandson of the Raja of Santosh, and the young Ray , then working as a visualizer for DJ Keymer (a British advertising agency) were friends. The polite and charming Manik and the elegantly mischievous Pratap were, to put it discreetly , doing more than designing visuals for the Paludrine malaria pill ad campaign but I'll save the amusing details for a memoir I shall never pen.
Ray started Pather Panchali during his stint at the ad agency but ran out of funds.West Bengal CM Dr B C Roy sanctioned the money from the road development fund since he mistakenly thought it was a documentary on rural development.
I remember once sharing a laugh about how the cigar smoking RSP loudmouth Jatin Chakraborty , who was infamous for cracking the whip on Usha Uthup for her “Apasanskriti“ would have been glad to propagate the fiction that it was the West Bengal government's PWD department, his ministry, that once funded and paved the “little road“, and thus made the greatest contribution, not just to our Sanskriti but to the world of cinema at large.
I had the delightful pleasure of being acquainted with the family of a charming Brahmo lady who, in her youth, made Dr BC Roy weak-kneed but seldom took advantage of his affection, except to once hold his hand tenderly and ask for the salvation of an unusual film being made by an outstanding young Brahmo Samaji. He melted and complied, and later went on to invite Jawaharlal Nehru, who was on a visit to Calcutta, to a private screening of Pather Panchali. Nehru was impressed and ensured that the film was entered in the 1956 Cannes Film Festival despite a move by some to oppose the entry .It went on to win a special jury prize, and allowed Ray to become a full-time director.
And while Manikda may have been the auteur at the helm, it was his oarsmen on either side, Subrata Mitra, a 21-year-old still photographer who Ray chose as cinematographer despite his lack of experience, and Bansi Chandragupta, who helped bring the ship home to international applause and acclaim.
I had the pleasure of working with both of them and so I saw first-hand just how pernickety, meticulous and brilliant they were at their respective jobs and how well they complemented each other's work. To my mind, Satyajit Ray , without them, would have been like a Mallory who never peaked.
Together, Manikda, Subrata and Bansi were the calligraphers of cinema who transformed the mundane graphemics of the extremely ordinary consonants of existence into sensational and memorable pictures of humanity . Pather Panchali and The Apu Trilogy, therefore, in my opinion, with all its kudos, belongs to that great trio.
Damian Cannon: A review/ 1998
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998
Outwardly a reassuringly peaceful reflection of one Brahman family, Pather Panchali calmly demonstrates the fragility of this serene illusion. Set in the early years of this century, in a Bengali village far off the main cultural artery, we learn of the shockingly destitute Ray family. The head of the clan, Harihar Ray (Kanu Banerji), dreams of becoming a feted writer and poet. Yet to put food in the mouths of his children, Harihar must set aside this fantasy; he works as bookkeeper for a local landlord. As Harihar slaves for a pittance, occasionally moonlighting to carry out religious ceremonies, his wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerji) struggles by. With two rambunctious kids, it's an endless chore.
In some respects it's fortunate that Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi), an old and wizened aunt, shares their run-down compound. She bonds wonderfully with Durga (Uma Das Gupta), Sarbojaya's daughter, and tries not to get in the way. That friction exists between Indir and Sarbojaya is perhaps unavoidable, given the circumstances, though still unfortunate. Both antagonise each other, especially where the kids are involved. The youngest, Sarbojaya's son Apu (Subir Banerji), is always careering around and exploring, when not in school. It's a wild streak that he's picked up from Durga, who lacks the influence of school as a behaviour modifier. Unless press-ganged by her mother, Durga's favourite pastime is to scrump fruit from their neighbour's garden; it's a recipe for trouble.
The first film to be directed by the now internationally respected director Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali is a change of pace for most viewers. Its essence lies entirely in the domain of the Ray family; the incidents from which their lives are composed form the tapestry of the story. Thus Ray starts at the beginning, with the birth of Apu, and takes us by the hand through the delights and tribulations of the following years. In following this line, a less sure director might exaggerate or embellish, creating a wild ride of emotion. Not Ray. Such is his confidence in the unadorned characters, he trusts that we will wish to invest in them. At the other extreme, however, such an approach could be numbing, a tedious exposition. While Ray tacks close to this line, he never crosses it; his feel for the material and gift for story-telling serve to deliver a happy outcome.
For all of Ray's talent, however, there is perhaps an even more amazing side to Pather Panchali -- the acting. So divorced is this film from the usual cinematic conjuring tricks that an unusually heavy burden falls upon the cast. They must set their character's roots, imbue them with distinct personality and make vivid the dynamics of their interactions; in short, they must be utterly natural without ennui. A tough assignment for a professional cast, let alone Ray's amateur one. Disregarding this consideration, the ensemble acting in Pather Panchali is superb, with it there are scarce words to describe the quiet power invoked. The way in which the actors work off of each other, reacting with emotion rather than thought, is a wonder to behold. There is never the slightest doubt that we are privy to a real family.
This cohesion is especially impressive where little Durga and Apu are concerned. Both kids act in a delightfully unselfconscious and unsentimental manner, larking around and running after interesting people. They behave just like "real" children, bundles of excited, selfish and devious energy. The crowning aspect here is the powerful bond of affection that exists between them, drawing Durga and Apu close; this is where Pather Panchali ventures towards the magical and evades the miserable. When Durga and Apu are happy, sharing a memory, the clouds lift and the entire family celebrates. These instants of happiness may be fleeting but they are no less essential for that.
It's interesting to note that while the film resides in a society where boys are prized over girls, women dominate Ray's vision. Though Harihar is the unquestioned head of the family, his absence ensures that Sarbojaya wields the power. She cements them together, against the blows of existence, while all Harihar does is earn too-little money and waste it on tobacco. In some respects he is similar to Indir, a part of the family but not quite in the inner circle. Luckily Indir has presence, a cranky and cunning spirit, to make up for her physical failings. Without this how else could she tolerate being abandoned to fend for herself? Of course, in a wider sense, this is just what happens to Sarbojaya and the children when Harihar leaves; as the funds slowly drain away they slide further into poverty, despair and misfortune. Karuna Banerji shoulders this transition almost alone; her performance of desperation and hope has astonishing clarity for such depth.
When Ray depicts this bleak conclusion, he resists the urge to force a single scene, emotion or moment. The sharp edges of tension, surprise and terror that tear through the fabric of Pather Panchali grow naturally from within the story. Events happen, then the consequences; destiny, good or bad, comes to be inescapable. What makes Pather Panchali more than just a lyrical work of fiction is that Ray addresses universal concerns; how families deal with random catastrophe, how people unwittingly hurt one another, how parents love their children unconditionally. Yet as insightful as Ray is to the reality of rural India, a place of little opportunity, there's a distance between audience and cast. For viewers suckled on the primary emotion of Western cinema, Ray's undemonstrative and muted approach can fail to make an impact. Combined with Ray's extensive use of symbolism, some of which is sure to go over foreign heads, Pather Panchali may seem less than the sum of its critical acclaim.
Pather Panchali 1955