Pather Panchali: How Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves inspired Satyajit Ray to write his first film

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

February 25, 2018 12:39:42 IST

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, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was in May 2017), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

"During my six-month long stay in London, I watched 99 films. My first travel outside the country would thus be etched in my memory forever, for all the beautiful films I watched. But the one film that truly had an impact on my mind was Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The appeal of the film cannot be described in mere words. But what appealed to me even more was the fact that whatever I had ever wanted to do in my films, De Sica had done exactly the same, and quite successfully at that. Who said inexperienced people cannot be made to act? Who said one can’t shoot in the middle of the rains? Who said make-up is mandatory? If my mind was looking for a sanction for everything radical that I had wanted to do if I ever made a film, I had found it in that one film by De Sica. I stayed in the continent for one more month, touring Paris, Venice, Lucerne and Salzburg. Then I returned to London and boarded a ship to return home. It was on this voyage back home that I wrote the first draft of Pather Panchali."

Still from Pather Panchali

Still from Pather Panchali

These are the words of Satyajit Ray. It is now widely known that his debut film Pather Panchali took Indian cinema to a whole new level. It made the world sit up and take notice of our cinema, which, before the film came along, was looked upon merely as a means of escape from reality. The fact that cinema can be used as a medium to tell real human stories and that it has a space independent of other performing arts such as the opera or the theatre, was largely unknown, and certainly not practised. But the history of Indian cinema dates back to as early as the end of the 19th century. We had been making films for decades before Ray made his debut in 1955. Why is it, then, that his film suddenly brought a new wave of thought in our cinema? What is so special about Pather Panchali that even today, it stands out, strong and tall, as the beacon of Indian cinema in the world? Before we try and answer that question, a few quick words about the film itself.

Pather Panchali is based on the Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay novel of the same name. Bibhutibhushan was Satyajit Ray’s favourite novelist, because according to Ray, no one described the joyous beauty of nature and its impact on the human mind as elegantly as Bibhutibhushan did. Pather Panchali — the film — does not have a story in the conventional sense of the term. It describes the harsh life of a poor Brahmin family in a village of Bengal. The father – Harihar – an educated priest, is an optimist, and pursues his literary ambitions without caring where the family’s next meal is going to come from. His wife Sarbajaya has a firmer grip on the household, and hence comes across as a strict and ill-tempered woman. She is perpetually worried about the future of her children – Apu and Durga – and resents that her husband has to feed and shelter his sister, the 80-year-old widow Indir Thakrun. The film largely follows the two children though, who despite their poverty, find great joy in the pure beauty of their village and its surroundings.

Pather Panchali has been critically acclaimed for its humanism, but that’s only one of the many reasons why it is considered a great film. It is not like western audiences had not seen humanism on screen before. A significant influence on Ray, Jean Renoir’s 1945 film The Southerner is a classic example. But if you take a closer look at Pather Panchali, you’ll realise that Ray’s mastery over the medium of film is derived from the same source as Bibhutibhushan’s skill with the written word — and it lies in the very manner a scene is depicted. Consider a scene for instance, in which a sweetmeat vendor passes by Apu and Durga’s house. The two children are poor, they do not have money to buy sweets, but why should that stop them from following the man along as he makes his way through the muddy roads of the village? And why shouldn’t a street dog follow them too? The image of the vendor, carrying a basket of joy on his shoulder, followed by a pre-teen Durga, followed by her brother Apu and finally followed by a dog — reflected in the tranquil waters of the village pond — makes for such a magnificent juxtaposition of poverty, innocence and the simple pleasures of life. There are thousands of ways this scene could have been depicted, but like a true master who knows his craft, Ray chose this one — and stole our heart.

The film is filled through and through with such beautiful palettes. Every frame is a painting in itself – a beautiful depiction of village life. Or a fascinating study of human nature. Watch as the frail old Indir Thakrun gets thrown out of the house by a heavily pregnant Sarbajaya, but an excited Durga brings her back after a few days to catch a glimpse of the new-born Apu. The simplicity of the scene is far more precious than the years of experience professional actors could have brought in. When the same Indir Thakrun is found lying dead in the middle of a bamboo grove by Apu and Durga, the tall bamboo trees creaking gently in the breeze as the two children witness death for the first time, we realise that no amount of production budget and technical wizardry can achieve what the simple and sincere habit of observation can. A seasoned artist, Ray had the watchful eyes of a painter, and an open mind that was willing to accept and absorb the various shades of life. This is evident in the famous scene, in which Apu and Durga wander out in search of their calf and see a train for the first time in their lives, a massive beast whose angry roars they had only heard from their village. As the iron serpent rumbles its way through a field full of white catkins, it leaves a trail of dark smoke on the cloudless sky.

One might ask — is it only the aesthetics that make Pather Panchali the film it is today? Hardly. Because the film makes such brilliant statements too. Statements about human life, about poverty, about the very notion of happiness. Harihar is an aspiring playwright, everyone respects him because he is a learned Brahmin, and yet, there’s no tangible value to either his literary genius or his lineage. Sarbajaya knows that her resentment towards her aged sister-in-law is wrong, but every time she feels the pangs of conscience, she summons the memories of the old hag stealing from her kitchen, if only to justify her own cruel actions. Poverty is shown as a strange thing — one that promptly breaks down all conventional norms of right and wrong. Indir Thakrun is aware that she has no place to go, and she feels the hurt and the angst when her brother’s wife insults her, but her love for her family is far stronger, and she keeps returning like a bad penny. Durga, the first born, is close to her aunt, and steals guavas from a neighbour’s orchard to bring home the fruits to the old lady. Watch her witness a girl friend’s wedding with longing in her eyes, knowing very well that her parents would probably never find a good bridegroom for her. And then, there’s Apu — the pampered son, taken care of by everyone in the family. At the end of the film, when tragedy strikes, and neither his mother nor his sister is around to take care of him, he takes a dip in the village pond all by himself, combs his hair, puts on a dress and steps out of the house with an umbrella almost as big as himself in his hand. It is that one moment, that moment of realisation in Apu that he has grown up, along with the feeling of void in his life left behind by dear ones, that the rest of the film culminates to. And it is a moment that will take your breath away.

One can go on and on about the many marvels of the film — the soul-stirring music by Ravi Shankar, for instance, or the beautiful camerawork by Subrata Mitra, who — believe it or not — had never so much as looked down a film camera ever before in his life, or the remarkable art direction of Bansi Chandragupta. Shot entirely on location, on a shoestring budget, mostly with actors who had never faced a camera before, and with technicians with virtually no experience of filmmaking whatsoever, Ray accomplished what seasoned filmmakers with sound financial support could not achieve in decades — neither before Pather Panchali, nor after it. For as long as the medium of film will exist, for as long as people will watch cinema, Pather Panchali will always remain one of the greatest films ever made, and a reminder that one may need money to make a film, but one needs a deep and respectful understanding of human nature to make a great one.

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.

Updated Date: Feb 25, 2018 12:39 PM