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Pop Stuff: Revisiting Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ Amidst Migrant Plight

Driven by survival, migrants leave their identities, their addresses and their votes in their villages, remaining ostensibly voiceless in the world’s largest democracy

Soleil Nathwani May 19, 2020

At a time of migrant plight, 'Panther Panchali' shines a light on the inner lives of the rural poor, the big city is a mere footnote.

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‘Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon’, said Japanese icon Akira Kurosawa of his friend and fellow directing legend Satyajit Ray. I felt the full force of this statement when I saw Ray’s debut work, Pather Panchali, many years ago. First in a series of three films that make up The Apu Trilogy and based on iconic Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s classic bildungsroman of the same name, Pather Panchali is the story of a poor family’s struggle to survive in their rural, ancestral village in Bengal and of Apu, the younger of two siblings, with whose birth the film begins. The sun-drenched wheat fields, the rambling pace of a day in the village for the children and the small cottage in which their mother toils and to which her work-weary husband returns, reveal an India that feels seen for the first time. Ray, with the lightest touch, depicts rural India with the wonder that other directors reserve for grand locations and ascribes an emotional depth to his subjects that Mughal-E-Azam could not match.

Recently under lockdown in New York and yearning for home or the past or both, I made my way back to Ray and the song of Pather Panchali’s open road. Ray’s film, now sixty-five years old and set over a century ago, felt more of the moment than ever. The human experience that has been both most aggrieved and most ignored during this pandemic is that of being poor. Despite statements from politicians, celebrities and pundits that the virus affects everyone equally, it is clear that this is not true. We can see it from the plight of people in New York’s minority-heavy jails, the terror in Brazil’s favelas and in the condition of the migrant labourers in India who would rather risk dying whilst walking hundreds of kilometers home to their villages than stay bereft of shelter, family or care in the cities that beckon them for a wage but never welcome them as a home. We are horrified by the headlines of migrant workers clamoring onto goods trucks to get home, dying of starvation as they walk or being run over by a train as they sleep, exhausted on the railway tracks. In spite of this their lives are still just statistics for us. It is this life that Ray shines a light on. The rural existence is Pather Panchali’s beating heart; the big city a mere footnote.

The bounty that is Pather Panchali stems at least in part from the passion that fueled it. At twenty-nine years old, Ray, with no background in cinema, felt compelled to make the film because of the humanism, lyricism and truth that he saw in the novel while he was creating illustrations for a new children’s edition. He scribbled his first animated notes for Pather Panchali in 1950 when he was still working for the British-run advertising agency D.J. Keymer. In 1952 Ray self-funded, drowning all his savings in a film that no one would fund given that it had no stars, no songs and no action. He began filming with mostly amateur actors and crew including cinematographer Subrata Mitra who was operating a camera for the first time. In the ensuing years, Ray pawned his life insurance policy, his treasured collection of gramophone records and convinced his wife to sell her jewelry to continue work on the film which he completed in 1955 after nearly three years of filming and numerous tussles for funding from independent producers, the West Bengal government and a final grant from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

A miracle of persistence, serendipity and some would say fate, when Pather Panchali finally released in India it was awarded the National Film Award for best feature. Later, Nehru, the first Prime Minister of a hard-won, post-partition nation walked out of a screening impressed and gave the film his blessing to be India’s competition entry for the Cannes Film Festival. He saw in Ray’s film the beauty of the country, a sensitivity to poverty and a forward-looking spirit that aligned with his ideals. The Cannes jury awarded Ray the Special Jury Prize for Best Human Document. Pather Panchali went on to win numerous accolades that set the tone for its eventual place in the canon as one of the best films in history and signaled the entry of a director who would go on to win thirty-two National Film Awards, an honorary Oscar and come to be known by many as the godfather of Indian cinema.

The story of Pather Panchali, one that is far simpler that its legacy, bears revisiting when the vast chasm between the haves and the have nots has been put into stark relief through the lens of a pandemic. The film delves into the life of a family, steeped in surroundings where the trees, fields and rivers are as much a part of the narrative as the people themselves. In Nischindipur, rural Bengal, in the early twentieth century Sarbajaya Roy (Karuna Banerjee) is doing all she can to make ends meet with a meager family income as she looks after her spirited daughter Durga (Uma Dasgupta) and begrudgingly cares for an old aunt, Indir (Chunibala Devi), who the family can ill-afford to support. Sarbajaya and her husband Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) soon welcome a son Apu (Subi Banerjee) but even this small moment of joy is overshadowed by financial worries because Harihar, who ekes out a living as a pujari (priest), even as he dreams of being a playwright, is entirely dependent on the whims of his employer.

As the story of the children growing up unfolds, Ray’s camera is trained on the countryside from the stone path that leads from their cottage (Pather Panchali literally means open road fashioned from stone), to the orchards from which Durga steals fruit for Indir, to the vast fields that line the railway track. Ray frames each shot so that the background is as evocative as the foreground, creating symbiosis between the natural world and the world of the children that inhabit it. He coaxes us into a place that no longer feels simply rural, but magical, reminding us that there is so much beyond the cities and towns in which we live, chasing ambitions and living out dreams that, more often than not, society has fashioned for us. In Apu and Durga’s world city life is irrelevant in much the same way that village life is made to seem insignificant by city dwellers. Ray examines the tension between city and village, one that is magnified in our current climate, where urban power centers are breeding grounds for the coronavirus and the rural poor fear cities as harbingers of disease, from the non-dominant perspective. In Pather Panchali the village is the nucleus.

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The tug of the city rears its head in the film for the first time when Apu and Durga escape school for a day to run to the fields from which they can see the train tracks. The whistle of the steam engine is as intrusive as it is piercing. Up to this point, our ears have been trained only to the sounds of nature, people and Ravi Shankar’s extraordinary flute which forms the film’s lyrical refrain. The now-iconic image of Apu and Durga looking towards the train as they stand amongst tall sheaves of wheat, at one with their landscape yet looking outward, is unforgettable for its beauty and symbolism. In this singular image, Ray captures the allure of the city for those who are not of it as he begs the question of whether the city lives up to the dreams it inspires. It is a question that is hauntingly relevant in the current virus-driven climate where trains have become a symbol of the journey home that is out of the hands of the poor. As if in ominous response to their adventure, when the children return home, they find that their old aunt Indir has died.

The event presages a point later in the film where Harihar, finally at breaking point, travels to the city to find work, returning only months later when Sarbajaya has all but given up hope of his coming back and the family is living off their last rations of rice. He comes home a physically broken man, who nevertheless brings hard-earned wages and small gifts for the family, only to discover that they have been visited by a tragedy so great, that neither money nor presents can solve. Durga, sickened by a monsoon downpour and lacking the resources for proper care, has died. This climactic moment hits an unsuspecting audience with the brutal trade-off between life and livelihood that our poor are consistently faced with.

Today, it is impossible to witness Harihar’s absence from his family and his worn down frame when he returns without thinking of the lives of the millions of migrants struggling in our cities. When we get in and out of the taxis, when we pass by construction sites crawling with workers, when the maid comes to clean our homes only to send most of her pay to her family, we rarely stop to think of the lives that people have forsaken miles away, as we live ours in real-time. The migrant labor forces that quietly power our metros are without a story until we broadcast the narrative of them swarming the train stations in unmasked delinquency, desperate to get home. The beauty of Pather Pachali is that Ray places them at home. Harihar may be defeated but he has voice, family, connection, story and history.

The greatest triumph of Pather Panchali supersedes Ray’s exquisite visuals. It is the emotion with which he imbues his characters. The relationship between Apu and his sister unfurls silently on-screen in their play and hits at our core when we see Durga growing up, adolescence creating an unbridgeable space between brother and sister. Later, when Durga falls ill, we know that to lose her would be to leave childhood behind for Apu. The exchanges between Harihar and his careworn wife are sparse but tender, his foolhardy optimism balanced by her anxious pessimism. We are ever aware of the delicate balance that she maintains between serving him and schooling him as the fate of the children falls on her shoulders. Ray’s direction is precise. His camera captures emotion like a silent observer. Without resorting to dramatic flourishes, Ray exposes emotions in his characters that are as big as the trees that shroud them and as deep as the river that runs along their homeland. By ascribing them this richness of being, he gives the poor that which we too often deny them, their dignity.

Pather Panchali, undoubtedly a revolution in Indian cinema, was also an unmitigated repositioning of the Indian psyche on screen. Ray’s melodrama stood at a complete counterpoint to Bollywood as it was then and even as we know it now. Until the release of Pather Panchali, the movies were mostly pure entertainment, replete with stories that were fanciful or outlandish. Ray brought reality into the realm of film, marking such a watershed moment that Indian cinema is conceived of by many as before and after Satyajit Ray.

Unsurprisingly then, Ray’s influences came from beyond his immediate world. Coming from a long artistic lineage, he was always passionate about storytelling and it was through his establishment of the Calcutta Film Society as a film critic in 1947 that he met his most significant mentor, French director Jean Renoir. In 1949, Renoir, an icon of humanist observation in film, arrived in Calcutta to shoot The River, a coming-of-age tale set amidst an upper-class English family living near the banks of the Ganges. Whilst Ray helped him scout for locations, Renoir gave Ray the encouragement he needed to make Pather Panchali. It was on set for The River that Ray met his future cinematographer Subrata Mitra and art director Bansi Chandragupta.

The following year D. J. Keymer sent Ray to work in their London office. On this single trip abroad, in the span of a few months, Ray constructed his own version of film school, watching ninety-nine films including Italian director Vittoria De Sica’s neorealist, Oscar-winning film, Bicycle Thieves, which told the story of a working-class family in Rome. The film had a profound influence on Ray, ultimately convincing him that it was possible to do what had never been done in India – to make realistic cinema, shot on location with an amateur cast.

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Pather Panchali shares the humanist spirit of The River and the neorealist qualities of Bicycle Thieves doing away with plot and sets, song and dance, sultry heroines and slapdash heroes and turning instead to life, nature and the complexity of human beings. Even as Ray’s films diverged in this regard from commercial Indian fare, they didn’t share the activist, political film-making tendencies that later defined his contemporaries, groundbreaking directors such as Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. For Ray, observation was paramount and he performed it with the eyes of a painter, philosopher and polymath. The characters of Pather Panchali are created neither to challenge nor indulge us, yet they stay with us long after the screen is dark.

This is not to say that activist filmmaking isn’t an enormously powerful tool to expose inequity. Numerous filmmakers have staked their careers on highlighting the plight of the poor amidst the failings of the class system. British filmmaker Ken Loach who has spent years steeped in working-class stories, recently released Sorry We Missed You which exposes the abuse of delivery workers by large corporates in a form of modern-day slavery. The film is especially relevant now as these workers risk their lives making deliveries for us in lockdown. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has artfully coated his class politics in laughs and thrills, making history last year when he won multiple Oscars for Parasite. His exceptional film set predominantly in the starkly different homes of two families living on opposite ends of the income divide, feels eerily prescient now when staying at home is a mild nuisance for the bungalow-owner and a death sentence for the slum-dweller. Yet Pather Panchali speaks to us in this moment, across almost seven decades, above and beyond our politics, because of its boundless empathy for the human condition. It is Ray’s very refusal to judge that makes his film exquisitely and universally powerful.

Although, Pather Panchali saw enormous critical and commercial success within and outside India, it had its detractors. A young and seemingly misguided Francois Truffaut famously walked out of the Cannes screening saying, ‘I don’t want to watch a movie of peasants eating with their hands’. He later apologized and ironically went on to make his own brilliant debut, The Four Hundred Blows, which itself was an exercise in authenticity and humanism. Over the years Ray’s work and Pather Panchali in particular, inspired numerous filmmakers from Scorsese, who called him ‘one of the four greats’, to Bresson who described him as ‘a giant in the film world’. Wes Anderson dedicated The Darjeeling Limited to Ray. The siblings in Anderson’s film. running wild across the landscape, have strong echoes of Apu and Durga. Ray’s influence closer to home is too pervasive to single out from Gautam Ghose to Shyam Benegal to Vishal Bhardwaj.

Landing less than a decade post-independence Pather Panchali fit into the government’s drive (a drive that has now arguably been subverted and over-censored) towards a New Indian Cinema that was socially aware and told authentic stories. Even here the embrace was not uniform. Truffaut was not the only one who had problems seeing ‘peasants’ on screen. Parliamentarian and former actress, Nargis Dutt, criticized Ray for ‘exporting poverty’. It was not the first time that people questioned Ray for romanticizing the poor. Yet while Pather Panchali is undoubtedly lyrical and beautiful, its depiction of poverty is anything but. Sarbajaya’s behavior towards the old woman Indir who she must support is ruthless by necessity, the family cannot think beyond their next meal, Durga cannot ‘secure’ a marriage for lack of a dowry and eventually, the family’s hope of happiness is sidelined because basic medical care is beyond their reach.

Ultimately, to object to the exportation of poverty is to object to the hard truth. To find it romanticized in the film is to deny that poor lives, albeit ugly in their circumstance, can be beautiful in their access to emotion, rich with love or complete within their surroundings. The privileged are scarcely in a position to judge what is poverty porn when the very judgement rests on the idea that a life of poverty is one that does not deserve silver screen treatment and that a life of wealth is somehow more consequential. Nevertheless, Pather Panchali has withstood the greatest test, that of time.

Money is no barometer of the plenitude of an inner life and by laying this bare Pather Panchali has enormous resonance in the current climate. Until they became a ‘problem’, migrant workers were largely invisible to us. Even now we struggle to assign their lives, emotions or origins the same due that we give lives that carry more economic value or political power even though they build our office buildings, staff our restaurants, drive our cars and care for our children. Even though, our ‘modern’ cities function on their backs. Driven by survival, migrants leave their identities, their addresses and their votes in their villages, remaining ostensibly voiceless in the world’s largest democracy. Even in trying to transport them home, society still treats them as commodities and not individuals. By giving voice to the father who must travel to provide and the family that endures without him, Pather Panchali is a small step towards really seeing a different world and in doing so, seeing the world differently, bringing us a shade closer to ensuring visibility for the invisible. Kurosawa knew this when he said that without Ray, we had not seen the sun and the moon.

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

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