If a child plucked a guava from your garden without your knowledge and gave it to her old, widowed aunt, would you call her a thief? If your husband on the sly bought the same old lady, who is his widowed sister, withered by age and a skeleton in body mass due to starvation and poverty, would you be jealous and throw up a fit?
You would if you were starved yourself – starved of a happy married life which was cut short by the early death of your husband; starved of attention to your needs by your husband.
PatherPanchali (Bengali; B/W) is a story of poverty and starvation at many levels and yet, a story that challenges the fact that the poor are bereft of all happiness. Weaved into the very fabric of the film, moments of stark poverty and deprivation meet moments of small joys that only the poor experience and know about. The train running across the village – koo-zig-zig-koo-zig-zig, running behind the mithai walla just to steal one sweetmeat from his large collection, a little picnic in the forest where you cook your lunch and share it among all the kids, dancing in the rains, soaked to the last bit – all and everything, that makes for the little nuances in the film that break the comfort of the elitist thinking, that there is no joy in poverty at all.
This said, dear Reader, I must not take you on a path of political stands. This was not why Pather Panchali was made, though for the keen eyed spectator, this is also one of the interpretations one could have. Perhaps, even debate upon.
Leave that as it may, the story takes you to rural Bengal to a large joint family who have rented out an almost dilapidated part of their large house to a poor family consisting of the central figure here, a child of seven years or so, called Durga, her father and her mother. Her brother Apu, arrives later in the film, born in the midst of this poverty in which they live. The family has an additional burden, a child widow who is an elder sister of Durga’s father, obviously come to stay with them after the death of her husband as was the done thing in Bengal of old times. The practice continues even to this day in some cases, especially among the economically challenged.
Naturally, she is the bone of contention for Durga’s mother. While she herself lives a life of abject poverty in terms of having not even her own needs fulfilled by her husband, who certainly loves her but his expression of this love shows in the bedroom more than anywhere else. He has never even bought her a toffee from the local shop, or a sari, or even on the sly a shawl, as he did his own widowed sister. In fact, she is the perennial worker in the kitchen, the server who has no other life except this one. Naturally, she makes Durga follow in her footsteps. At least in that she has got the company of her own daughter. Yet, when her husband says he must leave for Kolkata for two months to earn a living, she is saddened.
In the midst of all this of course, Durga is growing to be both a child as well as a caretaker. She is custodian to her little brother Apu’s needs. She bathes him, clothes him, combs his hair and takes him to school. She is also that “generous” thief who regularly steals from the neighbour’s tree a guava which she dutifully gives her widowed aunt to enjoy on the sly. She is the one who is constantly at her mother’s side, helping her with the kitchen work. But don’t forget that in the midst of all this, Durga still manages her moments of joy as stated above – the group picnics, the dance in the rain and the joy of watching the train run through the village.
However, it is the pure joy of the dance in the rain that finally takes her life. A violent fever sets in which cannot be treated except by a water soaked cloth on the forehead. Alas, poverty has no medicines to spare for those who it takes as companion. The windy night was only too telling, the storm outside depicted the chaos that was going to befall the family, the sight of the dead frog outside the house, too telling a message for the viewer to miss what was going to happen inside the broken down house – death had taken Durga from the screen of the film of life, Durga, the central figure in the film, leaving a mother who turned to stone with grief, a brother who suddenly grew up over night and a father who returned with all the goods and a sari for Durga only to find out that he would never see her again in life.
D-U-R-G-A he yelled setting off for the first time tears and howling from his wife’s throat as she held Durga’s sari to her mouth. It was the last deprivation which the family would never forget – that poverty had had the last laugh in their lives by taking Durga away from them. What use was the wealth thereafter got. Better to Kasi they would go.
But as they leave the dilapidated house, a large snake creeps into it to make its residence there.
So is this nuance significant at all? Does Satyajit Ray want to communicate that Durga’s life has transmigrated to the snake’s and she would continue to live in the house even if the rest left for Benares?
Other note worthy nuances that touched me were:
* Durga’s father writing in to say he was returning from Kolkata having made some money. Just two shots ago, his wife looked like the great famine of Bengal. The very prana in her looks were absent. She was like the dry leaves lying on the floor of the earth, waiting for the rains to come soak them. The letter brought a torrent of emotions to the forefront. The music changed to a lively one. The dragon flies played with each other, teasing and chasing one another, on the pond. The mood was spring; life had returned to the dried up leaves.
* Durga has stolen the guava from the neighbours garden and comes running to place it in the little basket in her aunt’s (pishi) basket so she can partake of the joy of a stolen fruit.
* Durga’s mother is not at all happy about her husband’s widowed sister staying with her. She frequently fights with her and asks her to leave the house. The old lady takes her only belongings – a torn floor mat, a small bundle of torn clothing and a torn blanket and leaves for another village where she has another relative. There she spends few days and returns to Durga’s house again. On one such return, Durga’s mother is having her lunch. The old pishi comes to have a glass of water from the pitcher sitting behind Durga’s mother. She happens to see that Durga’s mother is eating some fish. There is a smile of greedy desire for the taste of fish that arises in the face of the old lady and also fades away as quickly as it came. She remembers that she is widowed and in this lifetime she will never experience the joy of a meal of fish and rice again. She gets up and returns to her little spot at the back of the kitchen.
* The day before the family leaves for Kasi, the angry widow from the large joint family returns to place a little money on Durga’s mother’s hand. She apologises for her frequent bad behaviour in the past. After all, she explains, a widowed life makes a person small in heart because, they have nothing to look forward to in their own lives. A true confession that can make anyone wake up to the fact that deprivation of any nature can cause a person to become mean.
Harihar, the Father: Kanu Banerjee
Sarbajaya, the Mother:Karuna Banerjee
Apu: Subir Banerjee
Durga, young girl: Uma Das Gupta
Durga, child: Runki Banerjee
Indir Thakrun, Old Aunt: Chunibala Devi
Candy seller: Haren Banerjee
About Satyajit Ray: There is no introduction that can be ever given nor will it ever fulfil its primary task with regard to one of the world’s greatest genius to have touched planet earth. For the absolute uninitiated, they may visit Wikipedia to fulfil their need to know who Satyajit Ray was.
I may only state this that Pather Panchali was the first film that Satyajit Ray made in 1955. It is considered the first among the trilogy – the others being Apur Sansar and Aprajito.
Many of us know that Ray was one of the best film makers in the world, but few of us know that he was first a copywriter who also loved to sketch his own visuals. Each of his frames were first sketched by him and then filmed to perfection. For some of the shots in Pather Panchali, he waited for one full year to do a retake, like the one in which Apu and Durga run through a field of wild broom leaves. When he took the shot and reviewed it, he was not happy with the shot. But a month had passed since then and when he returned to the location, he found that the field had dried up. He waited for one full year to recapture the same shot. In the meantime, his character, Apu who was to run through the field was growing up and taller. But, luck was on Ray’s side. He managed to retake the shot the next year, without it showing any disjointedness. Ray loved rural Bengal and even before he became a film maker, he did many sketches on the panoramic beauty of Bengal’s picturesque natural wealth. Panther Panchali meaning, Song of the Little Road, like (My interpretation: Life’s Journey on a path), was shot entirely in rural Bengal.
© Julia Dutta., all rights reserved.