The World of Pather Panchali

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Anyone who has seen Pather Panchali knows that the film is an experience that sinks deep within and becomes a part of one’s being. The film enlightens, shapes, modifies. One could recall individual scenes and reactions to them. The pathos of old age in Pishi. The sheer terror of the night and helplessness at Durga’s death. Even amusement at the placing of the first raindrop on a bald head, or at the pranks of Apu dressing up like a prince and getting beaten up by Durga. Or, for that matter, the sheer lyrical beauty of the dance of insects. One may not talk of scenes, but themes or abstract values: the dynamics of a poverty-stricken family, or the genuine feel of a Bengali village or the authentic Indianness of the mentality of the characters. Whatever the level of recalling to memory, the modifying influence of the film is self-evident. Or, one could go beyond the casual response and think of the whole film and enquire into the why of it. And then one necessarily starts thinking of the film as a structure.

Any film, considered as a work of Art, is made of elements of film language. What will get into the film ( and be kept out of it ) is the decision of the director, taken on the basis of his expressive intentions. He creates a work of fiction. The village of Nischindipur, Harihar Ray, Durga, Apu, and the bamboo grove in which Pishi dies are the creation of the imagination of the director : they are parts of Satyajit Ray’s fiction. The whole work creates a self-contained world. This world has to be understood in terms of its inner logic of elements and their relationships.

That it has a resemblance to the world we know increases its expressive strength. It creates a total response, deeply emotional and highly contemplative. Pather Panchali makes us think and re-evaluate several frames of understanding of life with which we have grown up. It is a case of the world of fiction influencing our understanding of the world of reality. This, in fact, is the hallmark of all great fiction, its raison d’etre.

The period is 1910-20. Pather Panchali is about Harihar Ray, a traditional Brahmin priest in the village of Nischindipur, in Bengal, who is unable to maintain his family and eventually has to leave for Banares in search of a better life. Around this thread the film weaves a design of characters, events and places in a manner which explores several seminal issues of Indian life.

Nischindipur is a remote village, tradition bound for generations, with a well set organisation. Harihar’s ancestors had lived here and thrived, but he cannot. How did Harihar Ray come to abandon his village home is what the film investigates.

The main characters are Harihar, his wife Sarbojaya, and Durga, his daughter. Apu, the son is born in the course of the film, whereas Durga dies in the course of the film. Pishi, her name is Indir, but everyone calls her Pishi ( father’s sister ). She is a distant cousin of Harihar. She has no other living relation. By custom, she has a claim on Harihar and has attached herself to this household. She keeps on the margin, very indulgent to the children, but never a part of the core. The film investigates the change in inner relationships within this family.

And the relationship of this family with other families in the neighborhood. The Mukherjees living in the big house are distant kin relations. They have taken to money-lending. Harihar’s father had borrowed three hundred rupees from the Mukherjees and they have usurped Harihar’s fruit trees towards the repayment of the loan. The prominent lady in this house is Shejobou who seems to have a running quarrel with Sarbojaya, all around the trivial issues created by little Durga. She attempts to humiliate Sarbojaya, on every possible occasion making little Durga’s pranks devices for reminding her of her status. But Ranu, the daughter of the house, and Durga, of same age, are close friends.

The other neighbor is Nilmoni. His wife is sympathetic to Sarbojaya and stands by her in periods of stress. She too has a daughter, Bini.

And crowding the courtyards and the open spaces of village are numerous boys and girls. They play, shriek with joy, and generally provide a backdrop to adult concerns.

Harihar’s house is in sad need of repairs. It is crumbling, The kitchen and the cowshed need a new thatch. The doors and windows are rickety and worn out. On the night of the storm when tragedy strikes, the roof and the doors give way first.

And the Mukherjee house is a well built solid structure with a heraldic lion on the main gate. The fresh water well in their courtyard is customarily used by other Brahmin families in the neighborhood. Between Harihar’s house and the Mukherjee house there is a pond, lined with a bamboo grove, through which children run, as also Chinibas, the sweetseller, wends his way, his heavy pots swinging with delicacies.

Nilmoni’s house has a secure door. It is shown only once in the film and the solid iron bolt stands out in the memory.

Well beyond these houses, somewhere is Raju’s house. Pishi goes there for shelter whenever she fights with Sarbojaya.

In another locality is Prosanna’s school-cum-shop-cum-gossip centre. Apu goes there for his first lessons. Prosanna gives a dictation to the children while he sells wares. Various people like Majumdar, who is the chairman of the Puja committee and others drop in at Prosanna’s. Chakravarty is inseparable from his fishing rod. All these characters enter the scenes on various occasions, contribute their mite to the image of the village community and flit out.

Well beyond the open fields and the meadows is the embankment overgrown with tall kash grass through which pass the telegraph poles. And beyond it, the railway line. Apu and Durga, on one excited afternoon, meander that far and discover the hum of the telegraph wires and the roar of a passing train. The railway and the telegraph connect the growing towns of India, out there. But in the houses in Nischindipur only the train whistle can be heard in the dark stillness of the night.

Nature is a constant presence in Nischindipur. The luxuriant vegetation merges with the houses here. And the wild growth just about threatens the crumbling house of Harihar. Rain is the life giver : it also kills.

And the animals, cows, dogs, cats, birds, frogs, spiders, the frisking insects and the slithering snake, all these co-exist with the human beings here.

This is the little world of Nischindipur with its emphasis on the seasonal cycles and festivals. People from the outside come on special occasions. Chinibas, of course, comes regularly selling sweets, and so also the baul, the mendicant, collecting customary alms from door to door. The Durga Puja celebrations bring in the drummers and the Jatra players. Ranu’s marriage brings in the unshaven band players in their tattered English finery playing a British marching tune, ‘It is a long way to Tipperary’.

A picture-box-wallah comes in and shows visions of the distant growing cities of modern India – Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta . For Apu, the village boy, these are attractive possibilities.

Surely, around Nischindipur are bigger places like Dasghara, Ranaghat, Bishnupur. Harihar goes to these places, looking for additional clients. For Sarbojaya, these are mere place names. Harihar Ray, in his youth, had gone away to Benares. At the end of the film when his efforts to stay on at Nischindipur collapse, the family goes to Benares where Harihar Ray hopes to encash his traditional skills of reciting the scriptures on the ghats.

What were Harihar Ray’s dreams? And why were they shattered? He wanted to write plays, educate Apu, arrange a marriage for Durga, repay debts and keep the ancestral roof over his head. Sarbojaya was even more modest. She set her sights on two meals a day and a few changes of clothes in the year...... and so on. And yet, it came to nought. The drift of Harihar’s life reveals several significant aspects of the situation. Harihar Ray trusts benevolence of fate in a naive optimistic way. The growing demands and the economic tensions become just so many strokes of bad luck. This is a case of the poor not grasping why they are getting poorer. The sense of purpose of the changing systems is lost. This is brought out in the views and methods in education at Prosanna’s school. Nobody seems to plan for a better equipment for survival in the fast changing circumstances. Each one tends to keep within the narrow focus of personal life. The scale of the problem lies beyond the comprehension of individuals. The minor adjustments are regarded as permanent mechanisms.

And there is, at the same time, a tough and tendinous tissue of the traditional norms, contradicting but co-existing with the new ways determined by economic relations. All the characters in the film address each other by honorifics as in an extended family set up. Shejobou and Sarbojaya would fight bitterly, but be traditionally entitled to get help from each other : Shejobou sits through the night of Apu’s birth and Sarbojaya helps in the kitchen at Ranu’s wedding. Shejobou would bitterly resent Durga’s expectation to receive sweets from her on every other day of the year except the Puja days. Pishi would slight Sarbojaya and stay in Raju’s house but would insist on spending the last days in the ancestral house and when this is refused, not go to Raju, but die in the bamboo grove close by.

This exploration of the inevitable process of cracking up of a way of life is the stuff of which Pather Panchali is made. It shows a collapse but not annihilation. And all this is created by interweaving of the moods and acts of human characters and of nature as they interact.

It would be seen that the structure of the screenplay derives its logic from the elements of the world of Pather Panchali as hinted above. The world of Pather Panchali as we receive it, derives its logic from the expressive rhythm of the portrayal of the village and people of Nischindipur.

All this is, of course, fiction, placed at the beginning of the present century in India. For the viewer today and at any time, anywhere, Pather Panchali, the film creates a potent world. It offers nuances of feeling and this experience enhances our capacity to notice them in the film, and in real life as well. Actually it is such films that create the possibility of a film culture and of the Cinema shaping a cultured taste.

From a discussion of Satish Bahadur and Shyamal Vanarese about the basic structure of Pather Panchali.

Published-, a non profit venture not affilliated to Ray trust.
Arup/ Asiam Ghosh zine.


indianidollive said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jagriti said…
I saw this film recently, and liked it, and later saw the Apu trilogy and it impressed me a lot.
Joanna Arcieri said…
Such a good movie. I haven't seen it in a while though. I might watch it again, now that I have a break from school
nitesh said…
Thanks for the comment cinefile.

True...Pather Panchali is masterpiece and it did have a major effect on Indian cinema. I also recommend that you watch the trilogy it would be fun.

Btw, which film school you in?

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