One of the babies he “christened” was Satyajit Ray and what he composed for Ray is instantly recognizable as one of Tagore’s most famous short poems (though not many know it was for Satyajit Ray).
Translated to English (for those who have read the original, forgive me for my purely functional non-poetic translation), it says:
” I have been gone everywhere, spent a lot of money—travelled to the mountains, seen the sea…….trying always to find beauty. I now realize that all the time I wandered the earth, I missed seeing the splendour that lay before me, just 2 steps from my door—–a dewdrop glistening on a blade of grass”.
If ever someone lived upto their “dedication” it was Satyajit Ray.
“Pather Panchali” opened the eyes of the world to the beauty that lay in the most unexpected of places—-rural, poverty-striken Bengal. And in the lives of those struggling to live there.
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.
Yes Pather Panchali is about struggle. Satyajit Ray had to pawn his wife’s jewelry in order to finance the first stage of shooting. Shooting had to be suspended for lack of finances—wherein Ray prayed for two miracles—that Chunibala Debi (in my opinion, the star of “Pather Panchali”) who played the old aunt, Indir Thakurun, does not die in the interregnum and that the boy who plays Apu does not “physically” grow up.
The two miracles did happen and also a third. Dr. Bidhanchandra Ray, West Bengal’s much-loved first chief minister, ultimately financed the movie. Known to be an aesthetically-challenged but big-hearted man, he found the ending of “Pather Panchali” to be too depressing and suggested that Ray change the ending to show Horihor’s family becoming part of a government cooperative program and building a new house. Thankfully, the suggestion was not taken nor insisted upon. (An aside: the financing of “Pather Panchali” came from the Public Works Department because Dr BC Ray reasoned that the most logical source of finance for a movie called “The Song of the Road” has to be the department that finances roads)
When “Pather Panchali” was released, it became a huge commercial success all over Bengal. My father, who like Apu went to a village school with a straw hut and had a teacher who multiplexed as a shopkeeper, saw the movie when he was a kid. Going to the district capital of Siuri from his native village of Nagari , along with his aunts and other village folk in a cavalcade of bullock carts and watching a movie which told “their story”, was an extra-cinematic experience for him and the people of his generation.
To my father (and many like him) Apu was his own image projected onto celluloid—a dramatization of his struggles and aspirations, and a celebration of his way of life—–that of a village boy, who physically maybe in the backwaters of Bengal but whose mind encompasses the world (a theme that is developed through the Trilogy)
But the sheer weight of the visuals—- the trance-like dance of the raindrops on the pond, the wind rustling through the kaashphool, the sweet vendor’s reflection gliding over the pond —and the timeless simplicty of its story still have the power to hypnotize a generation brought up on cell-phones and laptops….a generation in which many of us have never seen or shall ever see a “real” village.
“Pather Panchali” has its critics not the least of whom were gentle white folk who got up midscreening in New York because they were repulsed seeing people eating with their fingers.
Back home, one group of haters led by actress-turned MP Nargis Dutt denounced Ray, particularly in reference to the Apu trilogy for “exporting images of India’s poverty for foreign audiences”. Others castigated “Pather Panchali” for its pessimism and gloominess.
Of course, there are several uncharitable reasons for Ms Dutt’s angst against Ray and “Pather Panchali” which I shall not get into here. (If you are still interested, please read the fable about the jackal and the grapes). However the point I wish to make is that such critics fail to perceive the heart of “Pather Panchali”(and the entire “Apu Trilogy)——– that being that poverty, death and deprivation are mere sidelights to the inexorable march of life.
My favorite “Pather Panchali” moment is when after Durga’s death, Apu throws the necklace which she stole (and whose hiding spot only Apu knew) into the pond and the lotus leaves cover up the place where the necklace enters the water— the burial of a small secret memory in collusion with Nature.
My mother cries buckets when she sees “Pather Panchali”. There are places where even I, a self-professed alpha-male, cannot stop tears from welling up. For me the most plaintive moment, (even more than Durga’s death or Horihor’s silent crescendo of grief when he gets to know that his daughter has died) is where Indir Thakurun, in the fading light of the day, sings in her sad feeble voice—-
“Hori Din To Gelo, Sandhya Holo, Par Koro Amaare”
which (apologies for my translation skills) translates to:
“God… the day is finished, evening has descended……..now please take me across”
Poetry on celluloid.
Pure and simple.