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Posts Tagged ‘Pather Panchali’

I have wanted to watch Satyajit Ray’sPather Panchali‘ (‘Song of the Road’) for a long time now. Finally, I got to watch this classic today. I must be the last person to watch it.

The story told in ‘Pather Panchali‘ goes like this. In a small village in Bengal lives a family, a couple and their daughter. An old woman also lives with them. They are always short of money and the husband doesn’t have a steady income. But they find happiness in the small things. Then the wife becomes pregnant and the couple have a son. The story continues as we follow the adventures of the girl and her younger brother as they play in the woods nearby, go to their neighbour’s homes, talk to the old woman, get sweets from the sweet vendor, cross the fields and see a train for the first time, enjoy getting wet in the rains. Then one day the husband leaves for another town to find a job. And the family, whose everyday life is challenging, goes through tough times. You should watch the movie to find out more.

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I loved the realistic way rural life in India is depicted in the movie. How people find happiness in small things, how they inflict small cruelties on each other, how mothers expect daughters to be responsible but shower affection on their sons, how neighbours fight with each other but also show kindness towards each other, the affection kids and old people have for each other – all these are beautifully and realistically depicted. During the time when Ray’s popular Bollywood counterpart Raj Kapoor was playing the role of the charming, loveable rogue and dancing around in villages singing prescriptive songs and trying to walk like Charlie Chaplin, Ray’s first movie must have been stark with its realism. I don’t know whether it made money in the box office – probably not. I have heard oldtimers say that they went to the theatre to watch escapist movies and loved to watch the hero and the heroine dancing around a tree, and their real life was hard and they didn’t want to watch that on the screen too. So, I doubt that this  movie would have had a lot of mainstream fans when it first came out. But it takes a lot of courage to buck the trend and make a movie which showed things as they are, in contrast to Bollywood of that time which depicted people living in villas and having affairs and flying planes and having a ranch filled with horses – the kind of life most people never lived. We have to admire Satyajit Ray for that. Because Ray was a student of Renoir, I was expecting the European thing in the movie – the camera showing water dripping from the roof for a long time, or the rain falling or the wind blowing or the sound of footsteps, with nothing happening in the story. A little bit of that is there but Ray is careful not to extend it to European lengths. There is minimalism everywhere though – dialogue is there only if required, most of the movie doesn’t have music and we hear only natural sounds, but when music makes its appearance,  Pandit Ravi Shankar’s composition evokes magic. My favourite characters in the story were Durga, the daughter of the couple, Durga’s mother, and the old woman who lives in their place. Ray makes sure that this old woman looks old, instead of dressing her well and making her look like a matriarch. This old woman is beautiful, like the painting by Albrecht Dürer of his mother. The acting by all the actors and actresses is understated and realistic. The ending of the movie is sad but there is also room for future happiness and adventures.

After watching ‘Pather Panchali‘, I wondered why it is regarded as a great work and why it established Satyajit Ray’s reputation. The reason I thought of this was because I have seen many Tamil movies, which came out in the ’70s and ’80s which had a similar theme. Bharathiraja made movies exploring rural themes for more than a decade. They were wonderful movies. Others Tamil directors like Mahendran, Balumahendra, Bhagyaraj and Sridhar made some beautiful rural movies too. (I am sure this is true of directors in most Indian languages.) Why isn’t their work as acclaimed as Ray’s? Why didn’t they win the Golden Lion, for example? When I think about it, the explanation I can come up with, is this one. Ray, probably, was the first to make a realistic rural movie. He was the first off the block. Even the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Mother India’ came later. Many of these rural movies had the Indian / Bollywood formula – there were songs whenever the main characters were feeling happy or sad, there was a comedy track to provide distraction from the main plot etc. Most of these movies also had prescriptive endings, with one of the characters speaking a long monologue in the end, describing what is right and what is wrong. Ray’s movie, in contrast, had none of these. There were no songs, of course. There were no Bollywood-ish formulaic elements. And there was no prescription. Ray’s movie depicted life as it was. I read somewhere that Anton Chekhov once said that his stories didn’t tell people how to live their lives. It depicted how people lived their lives. He said that it was not the artist’s job to prescribe, to advice. It was his job to depict reality as it is. Ray’s movie does that.

I loved ‘Pather Panchali‘. I can’t wait to see the second part of the series ‘Aparajito‘ now.

Have you seen ‘Pather Panchali‘? What do you think about it?

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