A timeless benchmark

Pather panchali
Last Updated : 22 August 2015, 18:38 IST

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Year 1955 was a significant bend in the curve of a newly independent India. Heroes were peaking. India under the stewardship of Jawahar Lal Nehru was cruising. Dilip Kumar, described as a “Nehruvian Hero” by Meghnad Desai, was at the peak of his career.

1955 saw the release of Devdas, which many consider the final frontier which Dilip Kumar conquered as the tragic hero. The trinity of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand were ruling the hearts of the film-going audience of India. It was all happening in 1955.

Then came August 26, 1955 and a Bengali film by a debutant filmmaker Satyajit Ray was released in India after it received a warm reception at its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), on May 3, 1955 in New York.

This one small step by Ray was a giant leap for Indian Cinema. The film was Pather Panchali ( The Song of the Road). It turns 60 this year and so does the enriching legacy of Indian cinema, the seed of which was sowed by Ray.

High standards

Ray went on to become a master filmmaker. And Pather Panchali, a seminal film. That Ray is a newborn auteur was acknowledged by internationally-renowned filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir and John Houston. Pather Panchali won the award for “The Best Human Document” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 amongst other national and international awards.

With a film made at a shoestring budget of Rs 70,000, Ray had put Indian cinema on the world map. Indian films before Pather Panchali were either loud and vulgar costume dramas or melodramas made with big stars on lavish sets. With Pather Panchali, all that changed.

Ray, a visualiser and a book cover designer, was in London where he was introduced to Bicycle Thieves, the Neo-Realist masterpiece of Italian director Vittorio D’Sica. The experience was overwhelming for Ray. He had stumbled upon Bhibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhya’s novel Pather Panchali while designing its cover in 1944 and had since then harboured the dream of making it into a film. Bicycle Thieves gave Ray the confidence of making a film sans big stars and lavish sets, with amateur actors on real locations. The three months Ray was in London, he saw close to 100 films. Ray had decided to adapt Bibhuti babu’s classic into a film.

Back in India, Ray collaborated with a motley group of inexperienced but passionate cine lovers. So Subrata Mitra, a still photographer who Ray met while Jean Renoir was shooting his film River in Kolkata, was given the responsibility of being the cinematographer. Subrata had never operated a film camera before. Dulal Dutta was brought in to edit and Bansi Chandragupt, the only person who had some experience, was appointed as the art director. The legendary Ravi Shanker did the music for Pather Panchali.

Pather Panchali went on floor in 1951 and took four years to complete as Ray kept running out of funds. Not many were keen to fund a film devoid of stars and songs. The film was finally completed with the help of the government of West Bengal in 1955. A filmmaker no less than John Houston was so impressed with the film that he became instrumental in a New York premiere for the film. Nehru personally intervened to enter the film in Cannes despite opposition from certain quarters.

The film opened to mixed response at the box-office, but went on to become a trade success. Pather Panchali has many firsts to its credit  but the most lasting impact of the film was the artistic inspiration it provided to a whole new generation of Indian filmmakers and film lovers. Pather Panchali ushered the parallel cinema movement as a counterpoint to big-budget, star-studded melodramas.

A pathbreaker

The film, shot on location in rural Bengal, was a human drama which told the story of Apu and his family which copes with poverty before deciding to migrate to the city. But not before Apu’s elder sister Durga is no more. Pather Panchali was the first of the three films which Ray made as a part of Apu Trilogy. It was followed by Aparajita and Apur Sansar. The romantic idealism displayed by Ray in the neo-realist mode touched many the world over.

Hence Pather Panchali’s gift to cinema cannot be gauged only in terms of introducing a genius like Ray but the aesthetic inspiration the film provided to a generation of filmmakers. Aparna Sen, Gautam Ghosh, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mani Kaul, Kumar Sahani, G Arvindan, Saeed Akhtar Mirza are some of the notable film artistes who nurtured and evolved the parallel cinema movement in India, thanks to the birth of Pather Panchali. Today, when mainstream films follow a singular and rather myopic target of crossing the 100-crore threshold with complete disdain for the narrative and aesthetics, it is the efforts by indie filmmakers which has kept hopes of Indian cinema alive. One wonders how much of this would have happened if Ray had not broken the shackles and questioned the hegemony of existing big budget dramas.

Published 22 August 2015, 14:30 IST

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