Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Notes on Ray (Rai?) films 1: Pather Panchali

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)

20 comments:

  1. Ei..Cool blog! You seem to be a cool person too..
    See my fresh blogs in my profile and in my webpage..Make a comment if you like..See yah!

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  2. Gasp! Ultra-cultured you leaves cell phone on during film screening? Fie! Even a silent mode cellphone buzzes very loudly. Unless it's on Lights Only mode in which cases it's still not allright because the light distracts people around you.

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  3. cell phones, SMS's and replying to them too? - tsk tsk and all that complaining about pens being denied. Not for bombs but for sheer annoyance, the cell-phones MUST be confiscated.

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  4. sloth: I usually turn the thing off but that time it was on, and on silent.

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  5. i love that scene with the dog and apu and durga following the sweetseller...

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  6. Uma: oh yes! with their reflections in the mirror. but that's just the thing - I remembered the scene vividly when you mentioned it, but offhand I tend to be mesmerised by the film as a whole, not by specific moments. On DVD, it's one of the very few movies that I'd opt to see from the beginning rather than go to "Scene Selection".

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  7. I remember one anglo-indian gent succintly summing what he didn't like about PP
    "All dirty-dirty people in torn-torn clothes"
    DD

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  8. BTW Jai
    you have one piece sexy link to action cam happening courtesy Ashlee from Philly.
    Arf! Arf!
    DD

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  9. umm..just got the DVD of V De Sica's 'The Bicyle Thief'. Now I have to watch Ray all over again.

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  10. Jabberwocky, watching Ray with the cell phone on? Bongs will scream sacriledge. Will let loose a 100 rabid dogs on you. Already, you are on the wrong side of the Hooghly, having started the Rai/Ray/Rayee debate.
    PS: The child Apu had "actually" been put to sleep in one scene to elicit that startled expression when woken up.

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  11. Have you seen Chirikhana? Can't get it anywhere.

    J.A.P.

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  12. JAP, I share your wistful longing. Chiriakhana is one of those lost films. Have not seen it and can't find any CD/DVD version also. Would have loved to see Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh.

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  13. dont know whether anyone these days says that Panther Panchali is Ray's best. it certainly made Ray, Ray ... gave him that international recognition that he wasn;t getting at that time in India ...

    should see "shimabaddho" if u can, and if u haven't ... it's a different Ray ..

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  14. Ah! Pather Panchali made him the master. A pedestal that no one has been actually been able to mount yet I think.

    My favourite scene in the movie is when the first raindrops fall...Love the drops falling on the leaves...

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  15. Kurosawa himself expressed admiration for Pather Panchali when it was up against Rashomon in the Venice Film Festival.
    People never mention Days and Nights in the Forest as one of Ray's best films? I thinks is an underrated film.
    Plus its got Sharmila Tagore.

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  16. :)) oh yes, that scene where the raindrops start falling... and everything else, really. i'm also amazed by the adaptation. i've read the book - in an excellent translation - and i have to say that each one is totally a work of art, the book and the film.

    my husband and lots of other ray devotees i know think charulata is better, or seemabaddha, or kanchenjunga...but for me pather panchali will always come first..

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  17. Bonatellis: have seen seemabaddha, loved it. will probably mention it in my "continuation post", since it was screened at the fest.

    Anangbhai: Pather Panchali wasn't up against Rashomon in any festival - one film was made in 1955, the other in 1950. (Rashomon did win the Golden Lion in 1951 though. Aparajito won in 1957.)

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  18. Then someone better tell kurosawa's biographer cause that's where i remember reading that Kurosawa expressed admiration for other films in the competition including Pather Panchali.
    Maybe it was another film of his that was up for the golden lion.

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  19. He did come out with Throne of Blood in 1957.

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  20. Looking for the movie chiriakhana too. Will let you guys know if I find it.

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