Given the demands on my time in the past two weeks, plus the general difficulties of planning for a film festival (or, in some cases, even getting into an auditorium alive), I’m very pleased that I managed to see all five Satyajit Ray (henceforth pronounced Rai - Raa-ay) films that were screened at this year’s Cinefan. Technically speaking, Mahanagar was the only one I hadn’t seen before but I realised that of the others (most of which I’d seen on iffy video prints years ago) I had a crystal-clear memory of only Pather Panchali. Besides – why not admit it – this was the first time I was watching any of these movies on the big screen. So to a large extent it was a fresh experience.
Here are a few notes on the films. These aren’t reviews but scattered observations, and I don’t know how much sense they’ll make to someone who isn’t familiar with the movies, or with Ray’s oeuvre in general. But here goes:
Pather Panchali: Ray’s first film, still his best known (in both India and the West) and cited on many lists/polls as the Best Indian Film Ever Made - all of which has inevitably led to a trend of revisionism where we are repeatedly assured that it isn’t really his best. Aparajito, we’re told, is the one true masterpiece in the so-called Apu Trilogy. Charulata is a "near-perfect film", a polished diamond, an assured work by a master in full command, which Pather Panchali certainly isn’t. (How could it be, anyway?) Nayak and Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne are inventive in ways that the "song of the little road" wasn’t.
All probably true, and it’s also true that revisionism comes easily to most of us; we self-anointed phillum critic often take a film’s existing reputation into account, consciously or unconsciously. But here’s my take on Pather Panchali, and naturally it’s a personal one: it’s among a very select band of films that I just couldn’t tear my eyes away from, at least the first couple of times I saw it. (I became consciously aware of this when, while watching it in Siri Fort the other day, I got an important SMS to which I had to reply with a simple "OK", and I found it very hard to look down at my phone for even those few seconds.) But what’s interesting is that, of the other films that fall into this category for me, Pather Panchali is, cinematically speaking, the least dramatic - it doesn’t have as many "setpiece" scenes and it doesn’t have any one actor who holds you in thrall (like Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, or Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo or Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal - some of the other films on my list). I could never pick a favourite scene from this film, or even three favourite scenes. But it’s hypnotic as a whole, and in a way that’s very difficult to define.
This might sound pretentious, but I think of Pather Panchali as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that shouldn’t be compared with anything else made by its director. Some films exist so perfectly in their own worlds that it feels wrong to closet them in lists or to argue about whether they are best or second-best.
(to be continued)