Apu: “Didi, have you ever seen a train?”
Sarbojaya Ray: “Don’t lie.”
Apu: “You know where the tracks are? Where?”
Durga: “Past the big meadow and beyond the rice fields.”
Apu: “Shall we go one day?”
And we do go see the train. We go to a field, and we see tall grass moving with the wind – and two silhouettes traversing through it to catch a glimpse of it. And there it is! Its darkness in striking contrast with how luminescent the whiteness of the landscape is below. And to the right of the screen, there’s a row of power lines. It all looks transfixingly beautiful and exotic as if it’s something that you’ve kept as a souvenir, and now you’re admiring it again. It feels foreign and comforting. There’s so much information on the screen for you to take in and harmonize. You may not fully be able to articulate it, but it is clear is that you’re having an emotional reaction to what you’re seeing. A flavorsome mood has been created.
Any serious film lover needs to become acquainted with Satyajit Ray – one of the giants of cinema. Martin Scorsese mentioned that “his work is in the company of that of living contemporaries like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini.” The Indian artist went on to create over thirty films. I’d go as far as saying that a true cinephile needs to see the three films that comprise “The Apu Trilogy”: “Pather Panchali” (1955), “Aparajito” (1956) and “The World of Apu” (1959). Accordingly, they cover the early childhood, the education and the marriage of a young Bengali – named Apu. They all stand on their own, but seen together they are life-altering. I will never forget seeing them all in one day as a young student. I would suggest just tasting “Pather Panchali” – and see how you feel. If you’re anything like me – I’d recommend clearing your schedule for you may get stuck watching them all. The films were shot at a very low budget, with a crew and cast who didn’t have any experience. His cinematographer Subrata Mitra went on to become one of the most influential cinematographers in history. He pioneered the technique known as “bounce lighting.” He improvised redirecting light to a room that was too dark. Ray also hired a then unknown sitar player – Ravi Shankar– to score his films. The Trilogy was at the vanguard of the Parallel Cinema movement in India – which became an alternative to the more commercial fare while rejecting the insertion of song and dance routines – and utilizing realism, symbolic components and sociopolitical commentary.
Based on a novel of the same name by Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, “Pather Panchali” took about three years to make because of financial problems. It covers the birth and early years of Apu – in rural Bengal in the 1910s. His father barely makes a living as a pujari (a priest) but has aspirations of being a writer of plays. Sarbajaya – his wife – takes care of the house and the children. “I had a lot of dreams too,” she mentions in a moment of introspection that catches you by surprise. “A lot of things I wanted to do.” They share their living quarter with an old aunt – Indir – who is one of the most memorable characters in cinema. She has no teeth, her skin is weathered and her back is hunched over. She lives at the mercy of whatever scraps the family gives her. “Can’t an old woman have dreams too?” she bellows at some point. She longs for a shawl for hers is full of holes. Sarbajaya resents the old woman’s influence on her daughter Durga who encourages her to take fruit from the wealthy neighbor’s orchard.
Things will unfold leisurely – lots of visual content – and you may think it’s just casual. No such thing. It all feels so alive and so human. No piece of information is wasted. Things that seem banal like the stealing of fruit or the disappearance of a bead necklace – it will all come full circle.
There are so many things to rave about when it comes to this film. Every time I see it again I’m amazed that it was done by first timers. Ray had assisted directed Jean Renoir and had become infatuated with seeing Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1949). There are parts that make my heart skip a beat. Their enclosed courtyard as the movie starts…the frame is so textured, the landscape – rich in detail. Kittens, hungry dogs run through it on a similar plane. There’s one sequence in which the camera catches dragon flies dancing lightly over branches and flowers on a pond. It’s truly remarkable.
The last 15 minutes are unforgettable.
Neighbor: “Rotting away in one place year after year does no one any good. It makes a person petty and mean.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy, The Criterion Collection and EROS NOW and to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and Apple TV.
Screenplay by Satyajit Ray. Based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Starring Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Chunibala Devi, Uma Das Gupta, Subir Banerjee and Runki Banerjee
Writer and Director Satyajit Ray on “Pather Panchali” and His Approach to Directing
“I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film. I know what it’s going to look like when cut. I’m absolutely sure of that, and so I don’t cover the scene from every possible angle—close, medium, long. There’s hardly anything left on the cutting-room floor after the cutting. It’s all cut in the camera. For example, the mother-daughter fight scene in ‘Pather Panchali’—that was all in my head and I merely told my editor to join this strip, now that, now this…. I had all the strips in my hand and then I popped them one after the other, now a bit of this, a bit of that…But I have an editor who’s very good indeed; he has often very creative suggestions. In small things, you see—particularly in long dialogue scenes involving three or four characters, where you can make small changes all the time, make improvements, he has very good suggestions.” (filmcomment.com)
The Partnership Between Writer and Director Satyajit Ray and Cinematographer Subrata Mitra
One of the most fortuitous collision courses in cinema history came about in 1950, when the French film director Jean Renoir went to India to film Rumer Godden’s novel “The River.” While he was there, on location in Calcutta, two middle-class Indians – besotted by cinematography – observed the great man at work. The older and more experienced was Satyajit Ray, and the younger – still studying science at university – was Calcutta-born Subrata Mitra…He tried to get work on the film, but, undeterred by a rejection, instead watched the lengthy shooting, making copious notes and observing the director’s brother Claude as he created the ravishingly beautiful images which were the film’s strongest element. Ray also observed, and having recently illustrated a Bengali version of Bibhuti Bannerji’s Pather Panchali, bought the rights to the book and set about filming it as his debut. Although Mitra only had experience as a stills photographer, plus a vast backlog of second-hand experience through watching films as diverse as “Louisiana Story” and “I Confess,” Ray chose him as his cameraman and – aged 21 – Mitra began work on the first part of the Apu trilogy – a project that took eight years to complete.
Most of the filming of “Pather Panchali” took place in a small village in eastern India in 1952, but the film did not emerge until 1956. It took the world by storm, winning innumerable awards, launching the somewhat aristocratic director’s career and setting Mitra on his chosen path. He and Ray collaborated on a further nine films from “Aparajito” (1957) – the second part of the trilogy – until “Nayak” (1966). Mitra’s contribution was invaluable and, like all fine cameramen, he became the second pair of eyes, the alter ego, to the director. He understood that Ray’s films were social and humanitarian, with a concern for narrative and Chekhovian nuances of behaviour. Mitra’s camerawork bordered on the pictorial, carefully framing the characters without ostentation or bombast. He had noted Renoir’s concern that light should be inspired by naturalism and nature and accordingly justified the source of his lighting, whether it was natural or artificial. He also perfected a system of bouncing light, allowing interior filming of apparently exterior scenes when the weather proved troublesome. Inevitably, Mitra shot in black and white – an economic necessity for these art films, which were totally uncharacteristic of mainstream Indian cinema. His later work embraced some of Ray’s finest films, including “Devi” (“The Goddess,” 1960), “Mahanagar” (1963) and “Charulata” (1964). All of them reveal a remarkable collaboration between director and cameraman. (theguardian.com)
Bringing “Pather Panchali” to the Screen
New films from Kurosawa, Bergman, Hitchcock, De Sica and Louis Malle caused anticipation to run high at the1956 Cannes Film Festival. But the biggest stir was caused by the festival’s quietest film, Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” (1955). Its profoundly moving evocation of an impoverished family in a 1920s Bengali village put India – and Ray – on the world cinema map. Today the stories of Ray’s struggle to raise the $3000 it cost to make the film seem almost comical. Ray, a novelist, graphic artist and composer who worked in advertising, pawned everything he could, was encouraged by Jean Renoir – in India to film “The River” (1951), for which Ray helped scout locations – and got money from the West Bengali government to make what they thought would be an upbeat documentary about road-building (the film’s English title is “The Song of the Little Road”)…At a film festival, Mitra said the production was lucky that the monsoon winds didn’t ruin his borrowed 16mm. camera or his limited supply of black and white film. The versatile Mitra also plays the sitar on the potent soundtrack. When Ray was trying to raise money, Indian producers demanded he include Bollywood numbers. Ray cringed and looked elsewhere. He found a young composer-musician named Ravi Shankar, who composed the score in a marathon 11-hour session. Given the film’s precarious origins, it’s perhaps remarkable that it has survived at all. The sometimes battered-looking print looks as good as it does only because the Merchant-Ivory Foundation, with an assist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, restored it. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, like many filmmakers, owe Ray… (tcm.com)
About Author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay was a renowned Bengali writer and a novelist. He was born on 12th September, 1894 in the village of Ghoshpara-Muraripur. His father’s name was Mahananda Bandyopadhyay. By profession, he was a Sanskrit scholar. Bibhutibhushan spent his early days of life in extreme poverty. But still, it did not affect his educational career. Removing all obstacles, he completed his graduation in history. Thereafter he tied knot with Gouri Devi, who died a year later while giving birth to her child. As all through his life, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay underwent hard times, his writings reflect that tragic feel of solitude. Before taking up writing as a profession, this noted personality was engaged in different professions. He taught in school, became an estate manager and a secretary to financially support his family. Thereafter in the year 1921 his first short story was published. However, Mr. Bandopadhyay’s first novel, “Pather Panchali” brought him world-wide recognition. With the release of this literary work, he became one of the leading authors in the field of Bengali literature. One of the best-known Bengali film makers, Satyajit Ray, made film on this novel. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay wrote many books and novels. Some of the most reputed ones are: “Chander Pahar,” “Aronyak,” “Mauriphool,” “Jatrabadol,” “Aporajito,” “Heera Manik Jwale,” “Ichhamoti,” “MeghaMallar,” “Dristi Pradeep,” “Debayan,” “Maraner Danka Baje,” “Adarsha Hindu Hotel” and “Bipiner Sangsar.” When he was 46, Bibhutibhushan got married to Rama Chattopadhayay. In the year 1947, their son Taradas was born. On 1st November, 1950 this noted figure breathed his last. While residing in Ghatshila, he had a coronary attack and at the age of 56 Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay died. (wbchse.nic.in)
About Director and Screenwriter Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray, standing 6′-4″ tall, was a towering figure in the world of cinema. He studied at the university in Calcutta and later joined Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s university to study art. He began his career as a commercial artist (1943-56). He founded Calcutta’s first film society in 1947 and made his first film, Pather Panchali (1955) while working at an advertising agency. Pather Panchali was an immediate success and won Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival. Pather Panchali with his “Aparajito” (1956, “The Unvanquished”) and “Apur Sansar” (1959, “The World of Apu”) are known as “Apub Trilogy.” His later films include “Jalsaghar” (1958, “The Music Room”), “Kanchenjunga” (1962), “Charulata” (1964, “The Lonely Wife”), “Ashanti Sanket” (1973, “Distant Thunder”), “The Chess Players” (1977), “The Home and The World” (1984), “Ganashatru” (1989, “Public Enemy”), and “Agantuk” (1990, “The Stranger”). Ray also edited Sandesh, a children’s magazine and wrote numerous fiction and nonfiction works. In 1992 he received an honorary Academy Award. (satyajitray.org)