By Chandrima Pal Aug. 27, 2019
Satyajit Ray’s films, starting with Pather Panchali, gave utterance to the suffering that the other, invisible India was going through. In an era of spin doctoring, of twisting statistics and data and rewriting history to fit the narrative of New India, Pather Panchali is exactly the kind of story we would want to distance ourselves from.
The greatest stories ever told on celluloid are also the most deceptively simple. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali – first instalment of The Apu Trilogy that released in August 1955 – is one such example of how a five-line plot could transform into a staggering epic on the human condition. Funded by the government of West Bengal and based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s eponymous 1929 novel, Ray’s debut film took three years to complete. It chronicles the rural childhood of Apu and Durga, siblings who grow up in the face of crushing poverty and the harsh inevitability of death.
For the longest time, we were not allowed to watch Pather Panchali even though it remains one of the greatest pieces of art to have come from post-independence Bengal. It was considered “too sad” or “too tragic” and “too realistic” by the adults, who had wept through the seminal film. As a result, I grew up watching only snatches of the film – Apu and Durga running through a field of Kash flowers, next to a steam locomotive that ripped through the tranquil landscape; the dance of the grasshoppers in the village pond just before the first drop of rain created ripples in the water; the playful sequence of Apu trying on a moustache and a paper crown as he joins his sister in yet another adventure that transforms their sleepy village into a magical kingdom.
These delicately mounted scenes acquired an added poignancy, partly due to Pandit Ravi Shankar’s background score, that featured Bengali folk instruments, his inimitable sitar, and a plaintive flute melody that managed to evoke the soul of the bittersweet film.
Over six decades later, there might not be anything new left to say about Pather Panchali, that continues to be dissected with frenetic admiration. But the marker of a true classic is in the way it connects with successive generations. Our parents and grandparents were closer to Apu-Durga’s universe than we were, in space and time. They had lived through Partition, migration, witnessed how poverty and untimely deaths ravaged families, and they knew drought and famines, a high child mortality rate even in urban homes. They did not want their children to watch a young girl – full of life and spunk – die. Yet, decades later, when I watch it over and over again, I find my own reality in every frame.
Pather Panchali was considered “too sad” or “too tragic” and “too realistic” by the adults, who had wept through the seminal film.
Harihar Roy, Apu’s father, a middle-aged priest who is faced with the loss of livelihood, struggles to cope with the realisation that he may have to sacrifice his dreams of becoming a poet and playwright some day. His wife Sarbajaya suffers social ostracisation for their impoverished state. Whatever social currency they may have earned by virtue of belonging to a higher caste and their learning, is lost in the pit of their financial distress. Their story acquires a special significance in the backdrop of our economy’s worst performance in 70 years, with lakhs of skilled and unskilled workers losing their livelihoods. An age that will be defined by its farmer suicides, a testament to the inefficiencies of rural reform. It’s also a period when the female mortality rates and child poverty statistics put us next to sub-Saharan nations. In fact, Apu and Durga’s less-than-humble abode could have been in any part of the country that has been ravaged by drought, floods, communal, or political violence. The old, widowed grand aunt who barely manages to live off the scraps of the family’s generosity is that lonely, abandoned senior citizen we have all seen. Whose death, however inevitable, leaves us devastated. The antagonist in Apu-Durga’s lives is not a person, but circumstances.
According to Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, the kind of poverty that we continue to live in today, affects the female child more than the male. In the film, when the feisty Durga is subjected to abuses by her affluent neighbours, is beaten up by her hapless mother or chastised for her rebellious streak, you cannot help but wonder if her suffering is aggravated because of her gender. Even her most carefree moments are underlined with a deep sense of foreboding. Decades later, our culture still has little or no space for the free-spirited girl from an impoverished family. It’s why when she dies, you are left with a sense of collective guilt: We had failed Durga back then and we continue to fail our Durgas even now.
Decades later, our culture still has little or no space for the free-spirited girl from an impoverished family. It’s why when Durga dies, you are left with a sense of collective guilt. Aurora Film Corporation
Decades later, our culture still has little or no space for the free-spirited girl from an impoverished family. It’s why when Durga dies, you are left with a sense of collective guilt.
Aurora Film Corporation
Ray was sometimes criticised by mainstream film personalities for presenting this face of India to the world: His films, starting with Pather Panchali, held a mirror to the other India; one that the upwardly mobile India did not wish to acknowledge. Even at its most subtle, it made for uncomfortable viewing at a time when we were keen to take our place in the world.
Two years after Pather Panchali was released to critical acclaim around the world, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, dressed in Eastman colour extravaganza, high on histrionics, mounted on a lavish scale, and starring the top matinee idols of the time, made a bold bid for the mascot of Indian cinema in all its new-found glory.
Mother India’s Radha had little in common with Pather Panchali’s Sarbajaya, other than her suffering and her sacrifices, which were ironically dressed up in calendar art kitsch and replete with song and dance routines. Although, like Pather Panchali, this “Bollywood” film spoke about social inequalities and exploitation as well, in spirit, it was more reality TV than reality itself. It’s no wonder that we seemed overeager to share this cinematic achievement with the world. It was after all, a sugared-down version of suffering that was palatable dramatically.
Which begets the question, had Ray’s Pather Panchali been made today and if its unflinching, visceral gaze on economic inequalities be feted globally for its lucid realism, would he be branded an anti-national?
Ray’s films, starting with Pather Panchali, held a mirror to the other India; one that the upwardly mobile India did not wish to acknowledge.
After all, Ray offers no hope, no triumph, no poetic justice. We are left moist-eyed at Sarbajaya’s helplessness as a mother who suffers the worst kinds of indignities to keep her family afloat and the film ends with the bereaved family leaving the village in a bullock cart, a haunting gaze in their eyes, as a ‘house snake’ takes over their decrepit home – an artistic metaphor for decay. There is no chest-thumping space mission to celebrate, no Pakistan or China to defeat at the border, and no cricket or hockey matches to be won.
Harihar Roy and his family belonged to the mostly marginalised, disenfranchised India then, but they would fit right into the narrative today. But in an era of spin doctoring, of twisting statistics and data and rewriting history to fit the narrative of New India, Pather Panchali is exactly the kind of story we would want to distance ourselves from.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).