NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - Sixty years ago, maestro of serious Indian cinema Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” or the “Song of the Road” based on a popular novel transformed the fate and fortunes of the Indian screen and continues to bridge the divide like no other film, before or since
It is hard to believe that 60 years have rolled by since the release of Satyajit Ray’s iconic directorial debut, Pather Panchali, because not only did it transform the face of Indian cinema once and for all, its legacy endures. The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives commemorated the event on August 30 with a seminar at Kala Mandir titled, “Indian Cinema: What Is National and What Is Regional and the speakers included Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, Nandita Das, Dibakar Banerjee, Sujoy Ghosh, Shoojit Sircar, Suman Mukhopadhyay and Dileep Padgaonkar. Dhritiman Chatterji, at his eloquent best, played moderator.
If the weather outside was grey and foreboding, there was little that could be called gloomy inside the auditorium, packed to the seams as it were on a lazy Sunday morning. Though Chatterji started off by inviting Subir Banerjee, the original Apu, on stage, the self-effacing former child actor decided to soak in the rapturous applause from the audience as well as speakers, staying where he was. Thereafter, discussions began with the personal reminisces of Tagore, Sen and Padgaonkar — the only people on stage who were born before Pather Panchali was released. Sharmila recounted how, as a nine-year-old she’d been taken to watch the film in a new frock. “I remember the thunderstorm scene and the sequence when Durga gets beaten up. Both left an indelible mark on my young mind at the time,” she said.
For Sen, the experience was markedly different. Being the daughter of film scholar Chidananda Dasgupta, who also happened to be a friend of Ray and co-founded the Calcutta Film Society (in 1947) along with him and a few others, she was veritably waiting for it to release. “Actually at that time in school, the prevalent practice was to watch Suchitra-Uttam films. But Baba would always tell us that Manik (Satyajit Ray) was making Pather Panchali, wait for it to get released. When I come to think of the film, it has so many details yet they don’t come in the way of appreciating it. There is so much Bengal in the film but it is so universal,” she said.
Padgaonkar confessed to having seen the film much later but had actually read a review in 1956 by famous journalist Sham Lal, in which he had decisively said that “Indian cinema has been divided clearly into a pre- and post-Pather Panchali era”.
Of the younger brigade, Dibakar Banerjee recollected his first brush with the film through a Signet Press publication, Aam Aantir Bhenpu, based on the original novel by Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay. He said, “The sketches in the book were done by Ray and it was much before the film was made. But one can make out from those sketches that he was preparing himself for the film.”
As the focus of the discussion moved from a tribute of Ray to being more polemical in nature, Ghosh, whose recent short film, Ahalya, became a rage on YouTube, reasoned, “In India we don’t have the culture of watching films made in other languages with subtitles.”
This sentiment found favour with most of the other speakers during the course of the discussion. “No one,” he said, “has ever told me that they have watched a Bengali film. People are only interested in the content. I am now convinced that there are numerous avenues and several windows to make our films literally cross over to an untapped audience. Maybe we need to focus more on the Internet in future.”
Sircar recollected how he’d dozed off in the theatre when his father took him forcibly to watch Pather Panchali in the mofussil town he’d been brought up in, but how the film later made a huge impact on his cinematic psyche to the extent that he now considered it “almost a Bible”. Seconding Ghosh about the language of a film being representative of its mood, he mentioned that his box-office hit Piku was essentially a Bengali film made in Hindi and the biggest business it did was in North India!
From here on the seminar took flight as questions flew between what constituted national cinema and what regional. Sircar was quick to add that the scenario was different in India as unlike most other countries, we did not have one designated official language. Lauding the recent ruling of the Maharashtra government, he said, “There are halls in the state where at least one Marathi film has to be screened every day. This is how regional cinema can survive the onslaught of Hindi films.”
Nandita Das, who has acted in films in as many as nine languages, pitched in, saying, “Unfortunately, we don’t have a culture of reading subtitles in cinema because a big portion of the audience is still unlettered. And maybe for them cinema is probably the only form of entertainment. But even within the educated class, there is no practice of watching Indian cinema with subtitles. We may be watching foreign films but we don’t do the same with our own. The audience needs to be more open-minded.”
Mukhopadhyay drew parallels with the National School of Drama, where productions happen to be always in Hindi, and underlined the problem with economics, because of which independent voices got continually silenced. “Take the Kolkata Book Fair, for instance. The little magazine enclave used to have a prominent presence. But nowadays if you visit the book fair you will find that the little magazines have been cornered and pushed to the margins. Take the example of the film Court. It won a national award and is a marvellous film. But in Kolkata it ran for only two weeks, with one show per day in only one theatre! In comparison, Masaan is still doing business. It all depends on how a film is marketed. If the distribution is not there, the film can’t be seen by a wider audience.”
The speakers accepted that there were binaries in the form of mainstream versus marginal — a fact prevalent in all other art forms as well. At this juncture, Banerjee picked up on an extremely interesting thread to ask whether regional cinema was well publicised within its region of origin or was it mostly looked upon as a poorer cousin of Bollywood. He explained, “We have debated about how films made in one region can be made popular in others through proper distribution and with subtitles. But we need to also check how the regional film fares in the same place. The other day, I happened to read an English language paper from Kolkata but I couldn’t find a review of a Bengali film though there were those of English and Hindi ones.”
Sen took the point further when she said that while the urban populace preferred to watch films in multiplexes, the situation was poles apart in villages.
Citing the works of the master, Banerjee said, “In this dilemma of regional versus Hindi cinema we can look at Ray. Apart from one or two cases, he always stuck to his own language, region and the people of that region. He didn’t try to homogenize, yet remained so universal. I feel regional cinema has a much bigger chance of creating human documents that move people than homogenised Bollywood mainstream cinema.”
As the seminar was about to wind up, Suman Mukhopadhyay emphasised that the tradition of Bengali culture was in fusion, which started off with Rabindranath Tagore and continued in Ray. “Probably, Bengali cinema and culture practitioners have moved away from this and it is high time we got back to these basics.”
The house, though divided in opinion on many occasions, agreed that a massive budget did not necessarily ensure a good film — that lay in the expertise of the director. The distribution channels and media coverage were important too, but there were newer avenues that had opened up and with proper planning the hurdles could be overcome with at least moderate degrees of success.
What followed was the screening of a rare documentary on Ray titled Satyajit Ray — a part of “The Creative Person” series, sponsored by the National Educational Television and Radio Centre. The documentary, directed by James Beveridge, was shot in the mid-’60s and had live footage of Ray from the sets of Chiriyakhana. It not only captured the master’s vision of filmmaking but also some notable actors commenting on their association with Ray and his style of handling them. In all, it was a fitting finale to listen to Ray himself on why he never moved out of his region to make films in other languages and about other people.
But the last word should belong to Sharmila Tagore, who summed up the influence of Pather Panchali in particular and the Apu Trilogy in general when she said, “Last year, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences celebrated the Apu Trilogy and screened them for the first time. I was there in Los Angeles and could see that the young generation reacted to the films in the same way as people did six decades ago. Pather Panchali was the first film that compelled the world to take note of Indian cinema and Ray continues to dominate our culture — I don’t remember any year where something or the other has not been discussed about him or his films.”
- India, Satyajit Ray, Cinema