Parash Pathar: The most criminally underrated film of Satyajit Ray's career?
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
In 1958, after making two ‘serious’ films, namely Pather Panchali and Aparajito, both of which were critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful, Satyajit Ray wanted to make something light hearted, something with which he could connect with the average cine goer in Bengal. There were two choices which appealed to his sensibilities either make a film with song and dance, or turn to humour. With this end in mind, Ray set out to make Jalsaghar, which was to have elaborate song and dance sequences in it. But one thing led to the other, and he had to make and release another film first, one which he had adapted from a comic short story written by veteran Bengali author Rajshekhar Bose, also known by his pen-name Parashuram. This film was titled Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), and it is perhaps the most criminally underrated films that the veteran filmmaker has directed in his career spanning 37 years.
The story of the film is simple, and by and large, Ray did not deviate too much from the original short story while adapting it for the screen. A middle aged, middle class Bengali bank clerk named Paresh Dutta is caught in the rain while returning from office one evening, and he takes shelter in a park, where he stumbles upon a small shiny pebble. He picks it up and brings it home without giving much thought to it — but it soon turns out that the pebble is nothing but the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, which can magically turn any base metal that comes into contact with it into pure gold. Paresh Dutta’s fortune takes a sudden and drastic turn for the better and he becomes a rich man. But he soon realises that not only is keeping wealth far more difficult than earning it, but also that all the gold in the world can’t buy some of the most basic things in life.
Essentially a comedy by heart, the film is perhaps the only one in Ray’s filmography which is rather Chaplinesque in nature — in that it presents its humour always with an underlying layer of pathos. For instance, in the film’s opening scene, a narrator rues at the hopelessness of the middle-class office-going clerks of Bengal, whose lucks turn according to the whims and fancies of their British bosses. In another brilliant scene towards the middle of the film, Paresh Dutta’s wife Giribala laments that although she now has everything that she could wish for, she missed her old neighbours from the seedy by-lane where she used to live. Just like the humour is never in your face, the tragedy too is invariably subtle. Small things, like the fact that the Duttas never let go of their old and faithful servant, or that they were always generous in their donations, endear them to the audience, which feels for them when the tragedy strikes.
Despite the financial constraints under which Ray had had to work early on in his career, the film was technically brilliant. For one, it had some clever uses of light, especially in a brilliantly shot scene at a cocktail party to which Paresh Dutta is invited, and in which, despite all his wealth, he struggles to find social acceptance. In another side-scrolling scene juxtaposing common pedestrians against the lavish Governor’s House in Kolkata, Dutta is seen hastily walking back home after a charity football match, knowing very well that his tattered umbrella would not protect him from the impending thunderstorm.
In yet another scene, the poor clerk decides to throw the magical stone away, out of sheer fear of the wrath of God, but changes his mind when he accidentally finds himself in the middle of an industrial dumpyard, with mound after mound of metal scrap spreading as far as his eyes could see — the possibilities now slowly beginning to emerge in his head. With these scenes, Ray successfully connects with the fears and insecurities of the common man. These scenes are sure signs that Ray’s genius was anything but a one or two-film wonder. Also, consider this. The film’s lead role is played by a gentleman named Tulsi Chakarabarti — a veteran Bengali character actor — of whom Ray had once said that no comic scene in Bengali cinema would be complete without him. And yet, Ray uses the same man to depict the tragedy in the delusion of contentment that wealth has to offer. Only a skillful director, ably supported by a master actor can achieve something like that.
Humour, as we all know, is a difficult thing to execute and achieve. Among others, the one tricky thing about humour is that it works best in the context of its own milieu, and this is even more true when the humour is presented on screen, when it plays out in front of your eyes. Parash Pathar, is an apt example of this. Lauded more in Bengal than anywhere outside, and failing almost outright with foreign audiences, the film never got its due, which is why, it hardly features in any discussion of the cinema of Satyajit Ray. But make no mistake, it is one of the finest films that Satyajit Ray had made. While its humour may not have had a universal reach, the message of the film is no less far reaching in nature. The humanism, that Ray has always been known for, both in the Occident, as well as closer home, is very much there. Its unmistakable presence is vouched for by the fact that in Parash Pathar, Ray shows, with admirable dexterity, and without being preachy in even a single shot, that true magic lies inside a man’s heart, and that even a simple act of kindness can turn any base emotion into pure gold.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.