Archive for August, 2006

The Song of the Road well travelled

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

Exactly 51 years ago, my father had an altercation with his best friend. For years, every Friday, after office, they had been catching an evening show. This evening, my father wanted to see a film called Pather Panchali that had released that day, and his friend wanted to watch Suchitra Sen in Kalo Bou (The Dark-Skinned Daughter-In-Law). The talks broke down; for the first and only time, they watched their own choices alone. This remained a favourite joke between the two men till their last days.

But at that time, who could have guessed? Not even possibly Satyajit Ray, though he had put everything he had in life at stake on the film. He had quit his high-paying advertising job, exhausted all his savings, sold his wife’s jewellery and his beloved collection of Western music LPs, cleaned up his uncle’s provident fund. Finally, he had managed to get West Bengal Chief Minister Dr B.C. Roy to provide a grant, from — of all things — the state’s road development fund (because Pather Panchali literally means The Song Of The Road).

Yet the film signaled a tectonic shift of massive scale. Forget the beauty, the touching humanity, the first use of montage in Indian cinema; no Indian film before Pather Panchali had ever shown anyone eating with his hand.

I have lost count of how many times I have seen the film, on screen, on TV, with diverse groups of people, in different cities. But I have never seen anyone not connecting with each and every character, with all their flaws. Apu’s father Harihar is an impractical dreamer; mother Sarbajaya has no compassion for the aged Indir Thakrun, who himself is greedy and thieving; Durga is always stealing from the neighbours’ orchards; yet you love all of them, because you understand each of them. Compared to the usual Indian film, there is little dialogue.

Yet Pather Panchali is pure communication. Nothing much happens, except for two wrenching deaths, yet it gently aligns the viewer with the rhythm of life in Nishchindipur village, and then gets him to see that world through the eyes of little Apu. The film creates, as US reviewer Roger Ebert put it, “a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived”.

Pather Panchali was perhaps not the best film that Ray ever made. I believe its sequel, Aparajito, is even more powerful, and then there’s Charulata, which Ray himself considered his best. But in 1955, it was a magical revelation. It was, to quote Ebert again, “a promise of what film can be”.

And 51 years later, that promise still packs the same power. Inside the creative mind, it can still open up windows of possibility, change thought frameworks, light fires. Fifty-one years later, it can still set people free.