60 Years of Pather Panchali and Some Questions on Indian Cinema
The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives commemorated 60 years of Pather Panchali with a seminar. A report on the star-studded event,
Satyajit Ray’s iconic Pather Panchali was released 60 years ago on August 26th in Kolkata. The film went on to transform the future and fortunes of Indian cinema, once and for all. The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives commemorated this event on 30th August 2015 with a seminar at Kala Mandir, Kolkata on the topic: “Indian Cinema: What Is National and What Is Regional”.
The speakers included actress Sharmila Tagore, actress/director Aparna Sen, actress Nandita Das, director Dibakar Banerjee, director Sujoy Ghosh, director Shoojit Sircar, director Suman Mukhopadhyay and former Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar and the engaging proceedings moderated by actor Dhritiman Chaterji.
It was a jam-packed gathering on a Sunday morning – the temperatures have been mellow with possibilities of drizzles from an overcast cloud cover. The stage was set. Dhritiman Chatterji, as eloquent as ever, started off by calling the ‘original’ Apu on stage – Subir Banerjee stayed in the audience though amidst ruptures and a standing ovation from the audience as well as the speakers.
Sharmila, Aparna and Dileep were the only three on stage who were born when Pather Panchali was released. The seminar took off with their personal reminisces as Sharmila recollected, ‘I was barely nine years old when the film got released. I can remember that we went to see it in the theatres and I got a new frock even! I remember the thunderstorm and the scene were Durga got beaten up – these had left an indelible mark on my young mind at that time.
Last year, the Academy of motion pictures celebrated the Apu Trilogy and screened them for the first time. I was there in LA and I can see that the young generation reacted to the films in the same way as they may have six decades back. Pather Panchali is the first film which compelled the world to take a note of Indian cinema and Ray has continued to dominate our culture – I don’t remember any year where something or the other has not been discussed about him or his films.’
For Aparna, being the daughter of erudite film scholar Chidananda Dasgupta who also happened to be a friend of Ray and co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society (in 1947) along with Ray and a few others, ‘we were literally waiting for Pather Panchali. Actually at that time in school the prevalent trend was to watch Suchitra-Uttam films. But baba always would tell us that Manik (Satyajit Ray) is making Pather Panchali, wait for that to get released in 1955. If I come to think of the film it has so much details, yet the details don’t come into the way of appreciating the film. There is so much Bengal in the film and yet it is so universal’. Dileep Padgaonkar confessed that he had seen the film much later but had actually read a review of it in 1956 by famous journalist Sham Lal in Times of India where the latter had decisively said that Indian cinema with Pather Panchali has been divided clearly as the pre-Pather Panchali era and the one post it. Of the younger brigade Dibakar Banerjee recollected his first brush with Pather Panchali through the Signet Press publication Aam Aantir Bhenpu based on the original novel by Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay. Dibakar added ‘the sketches of the book were done by Ray and it was much before the film was made. But you can make out from those sketches that he was preparing himself for the film with minutest details and visuals.’
As the focus of the discussion moved from a tribute of Ray to a more polemical one due to the topic in consideration, director Sujoy Ghosh reasoned ‘in India we don’t have the culture of watching films made in other languages with subtitles’ – which was supported by most of the other speakers in the course of the discussion. Ghosh’s short film Ahalya which had crossed few lakhs within a few hours of its release on YouTube added ‘no one ever told me that they have watched a Bengali film. They were only interested in the content. I am now convinced that there are numerous avenues, several windows to make our films literally cross over to the audience who are untapped. May be the internet is the one which we need to focus on even more in the future’.
Sujit Sircar reminisced how he slept off in the hall when his father took him forcibly to watch Pather Panchali in a mofussil town he was brought up but later the film stayed on with him after repeated viewings when he grew up and has almost become a Bible by now. Seconding Sujoy about the language of a film being representative of the mood of it he mentioned that his box-office hit Piku was essentially a Bengali film made in Hindi and the biggest business it made was in North India! The seminar literally took off from here as the questions between National v/s Regional cinemas stemmed from the long-standing debate of Hindi cinema vs vernacular cinema. Sujit was quick to add that unlike most of the other countries having only one official language, in India it is indeed difficult, ‘however in Maharashtra there are halls where at least one show has to be that of Marathi cinema per day. This is how the regional cinema can survive the onslaught of Hindi cinema.’ Nandita Das who acted in diverse films in as many as nine languages pitched in – ‘unfortunately we don’t have a culture of reading subtitles in cinema. Now a big portion of the audience is still illiterate. And may be for them cinema is probably the only form of entertainment. But even within the educated class there is no practice of watching Indian cinema with subtitles. We may be watching foreign films but we don’t do the same with our own films. The audience need to be more open.’
Suman Mukherjee who is primarily a theatre activist and also a film-maker drew parallels with National School of Drama where the productions happen to be always in Hindi and underlines that the problem is with economics where the independent voices get continually throttled. ‘Take the Calcutta book fair for instance. The little magazine enclave used to have a very prominent and eminent presence in it. But nowadays if you visit the book fair you will find that the little magazines have been cornered and pushed to the margins. Take the example of Court. It won a national award and is a marvelous film. But in Kolkata it ran for only two weeks with one show per day in only one theatre! In parallel Masaan is still doing business. It all depends how the film is marketed. If the distribution is not there, the film can’t be seen by a wider audience.’ The house accepted that there are binaries in the form of the mainstream vs the marginal and that is prevalent in all the other forms of art as well.
At this juncture Dibakar picked up a very interesting thread and questioned how the regional cinema is looked into and publicized within the same region or is it that regional cinema is mostly looked upon as a poorer cousin of Bollywood films? He explained, ‘we have debated about how regional films made in one region can be made popular in other region through proper distribution and with subtitles. But we need to also check how the regional film fares in the same region? The other day I happened to check an English language paper from Kolkata and I couldn’t find any review of a Bengali film but there were of English ones and Hindi ones.’ Aparna Sen took this further to the rural/urban divide of the Bengali cinema where the urban populace prefer to watch films in multiplexes, films which have a different destiny in the villages.
As the seminar drifted away to several relevant and pertinent topics Dibakar again sways it back to Ray citing the master’s works – ‘in this dilemma of regional cinema vs hindi cinema we can look at Ray. Apart from one or two cases he had always stuck to his own language and his own region and the people of that region. He didn’t try to homogenize and yet he remained so universal. I feel the regional cinema has much bigger chance of creating human documents that move people than the homogenized Bollywood mainstream cinema. In our try to tell everything to everyone we probably can actually say very little and that too to very few people.’
As the seminar got wrapped up Suman emphasized that the tradition of Bengali culture is in fusion, which started off with Rabindranath Tagore and also in Ray. Probably Bengali cinema and the culture practitioners have moved away from this and it is high time to go back to these basics.
The house though divided in opinion and scattered with too many ideas agreed that budget doesn’t necessarily mean a good film. It is primarily the director and the associated partners who need to pursue their dreams and play to their strengths. The distribution and the media coverages are as important but there are new avenues that get opened up consistently and with proper planning the hurdles can be overcome with at least moderate degrees of success.
The seminar was followed by a rare documentary on Ray. Titled Satyajit Ray, this was part of ‘The Creative Person’ series of the National Educational Television and Radio Center. The documentary directed by James Beveridge was shot in the mid-60s and had live footage of Ray on the sets of Chiriyakhana and planning for his next films. It captured Ray’s vision of film making and also some of the notable actors commenting about their association with Ray and his style of handling actors. In all, this was a fitting finale to listen to Ray himself as to why he never moved out of his region to make films in other languages and of other people.
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