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Pather Panchali (1955)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Satyajit Ray / India/Bengali/115mts
Pather Panchali is Ray's debut film, and the first film of his 'The Apu trilogy'. The remaining two films of the trilogy, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, follow Apu as the son, the man and finally the father. Though the film deals with the grim struggle for survival by a poor family, it has no trace melodrama. What is projected instead is the respect for human dignity that imparts it a universal humanist appeal.
Durga and Apu share an intimate bond. They follow a candy seller whose wares they cannot afford, enjoy the theatre, discover a train and witness a marriage ceremony. They even face death of their aunt - Indir Thakrun. Durga is accused of a theft. She falls ill after a joyous dance in rains of the monsoon. On a stormy day, when Harihar is away on work, Durga is taken ill and passes away.
The movie is replete with many episodes and sequences of great intensity and charm. Consider the scene of realization of Durga's death by Harihar. This happens when Harihar returns to find his house ruined and his daughter dead, followed by Sarbajaya’s breakdown. Her grief-stricken wail is expressed by her own voice by the Tashehnai playing a passage of high notes; the effect is to intensify Sarbajaya’s pain and transform it into nobler and universal. Another premeditated sequence is the passing away of Indir Thakrun. Her solitary death, followed by the children discovering the corpse, was entirely Ray’s invention; as Durga playfully shakes her squatting form, it crashes over and her head hits the ground with a sickening thud. Though Chunibala (the actress) demurred initially to act this scene, Ray persuaded her to do it and Ray says in an interview that there was a mixture of elation and exhaustion after she did that scene.
Ray had worked like a definitive artist in this film, planning and orchestrating minute details and improvising it with several takes to capture subtle movements and delicate emotions. Many scenes were even sketched before the commercial production. In fact beautiful scenes such as the village dog trotting behind Appu and Durga, Water-skaters and dragon flies exploring the twigs and plants in the pond like Appu exploring his village, the larger-than-life witch-like shadow falling on the wall from the lamp at night during the time of storytelling, the majestic and memorable steam train billowing black smoke in the backdrop of the white kaash flower fields juxtaposed with the innocence of the kids (Ray has mentioned that five trains were used to shoot the scene) speaks volumes about what an astute director Ray was. It's the film's uncanny grip on humanity, the perfect casting, the moments of beauty and joy caught in ordinary life, and its visual integrity that make it such a rare delight even on repeated viewing.
The most important passages of music in Pather Panchali were composed by Ravi Shankar in an all-night session lasting about eleven hours until 4 AM because of Ravi Shanker’s touring commitments. Ravi Shankar already knew the novel of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya, on which the film is based, when Ray met him. He hummed a melody with the feeling of a folk-tune about it that became the main theme of the film, usually heard on a bamboo flute. The whole recording session was ‘hectic’, according to Ray, ‘with Ravi Shankar humming, strumming and instructing at a feverish pace, and the indefatigable Aloke Ray transcribing the composer’s ideas into notations. Shankar also composed two solo pieces - a life affirming one in Raga Desh which is conventionally associated with the rains and a somber piece Raga Thodi to follow Durga’s death in the storm. The high notes of Tarshehnai played when Sarbjaya burts out in grief were played by Daksinranjan Tagore in raga Patdeep, chosen by Ravi Shankar.
If there is something at the heart of "Pather Panchali", it is this overwhelming power of life that asserts itself even in the face of poverty, misery and death. It's Ray's integrity towards each and every character that makes the film so transcendent.
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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