Tuesday, June 7, 2016

                               Song of the times - Pather Panchali
BY V K Cherian

 “Pather Panchali introduced Indian cinema to the West as cataclysmically as Kurosawa’s Rashomon had done for Japanese films. A human document of timeless simplicity and exquisite beauty.”
Ephraim Katz, The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1998

The British Film Institute and its legendary film journal “Sight and Sound” recently made its panel of 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors vote again for the best film ever.   This year’s voting saw the end of 50-year reign ofCitizen Kane of Orson Wells as the best film ever. The panel chose a new film,Vertigo of Alfred Hitchcock, as the best film ever.
But for us Indians there is one film which still remains at the pinnacle top 50, Satyajit Ray’s timeless classic “Pather Panchali”. The 1955 film still adores the celebrated annals of world’s top 50 films ever produced, with its human document touching the hearts of millions of people across the continents over generations.

Reams of analysis have been written about the film. Critics have looked at the film from all angles and adjudged it as one of the best, from India. But as Ray’s contemporary, Mrinal Sen wrote in 1980 at the silver jubilee of “Pather Panchali’s” release, “…A certain Friday in 1956, came as surprise, the biggest of all big surprises - a coup d’etat, so to speak, conceived and staged almost conspiratorially.  Yet Pather Panchali was not an accident, it was overdue” Mrinal da wrote in the official brochure of the Calcutta film society.
May be Mrinal Sen was also accidentally voicing the words of fellow contemporary Indians about the advent of “Pather Panchali” era in Indian films.
The reason is very much there in country’s history and its quest for an Indian idiom in films.  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had already made up his mind to indulge in some serious thoughts about various cultural media, including films, as part of the new born republic’s fresh initiatives in various fields. The government had constituted an expert committee on films with Mr S K Patil as the Chairman, ably assisted by the likes of V Shantaram and B N Sircar.  As against the earlier Rangachaiar committee, during the British Raj, which deliberated only on the film censorship, the committee under Mr Patil had the mandate of exploring the development of the film industry as a whole. 
In its recommendation the Patil committee said, “ In our view remedy lies neither in Laissez faire, nor in regimentation, but curing all the various elements of their defects and deficiencies and ensuring that they combine and cooperate in a joint  endeavor  to make this valuable medium a useful and healthy instrument of both entertainment  and education, as well as a means of upliftment and progress, rather than degeneration and decay”. The year was 1951 and Indian film industry owes it all to Mr Patil’s wise recommendations for its further development in the new republic.
The government began its journey with Indian International   Film Festivals, in the beginning of the following year.   “I hope that films which are just sensational or melodramatic or such as make capital out of crime will not be encouraged.  If our film industry keeps this ideal before it, it will encourage good taste and help pave its own way, in the building of new India”, Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru said in his message to the India’s first International film festival held in Bombay from 14thJanuary to 1st February in 1952. The festival travelled to Madras, New Delhi and Calcutta during the same year opening up a new window to the world of film making, other than that of English speaking countries to Indian audience.
Nehru who was also the President of the Sahitya Academy in those days took his cultural role very seriously. He cabled India’s High Commissioner and his friend V K Krishna Menon in London to find an expert of British origin to evangelize on educational quality of films.  Menon, in turn asked his social secretary Ms Pamela Cullen to search for the right candidate for Nehru’s assignment.
As Satyajit Ray, having flagged off Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with his friends, was busy shooting  “Pather Panchali”, Ms Cullen , searched for Marie Seton, who had just come back from the erstwhile Soviet Union after a  couple of  year of association with the  legendary Soviet film maker Sergie Eisentine.  Marie had already worked with India League of Krishna Menon in London, as a British left activist and had even “barged” into Mahatma Gandhi’s room for a meeting. She was excited to go to India and be a part of the young nation’s building of a new film culture. “ I first met Marie Seton in 1955 when the Indian Ministry of Education, in association  with the British Film Institute, commissioned her to lecture on film appreciation at many of India’s flourishing film societies”; years later Pamela Cullen wrote in her preface in Marie’s book “Potrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray”. Marie Seton and her friends from the British Film Institute later had a major role in promoting “Pather Panchali” in the western world, not that Ray was a green horn to the London film scenario at that point of time.
Even before Marie had arrived in India to become lifelong family friends of the Nehru’s (father and daughter), Prime Minister Nehru had earnestly taken up the effort to give Indian cinema the right direction it need.  Having defined his idea of culture, the scholar Statesman went on to propose a Chalachitra academy to promote his ideas.  Nehru defined his idea of cultured mind as follows in his April 9th 1950, speech at the Inauguration of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi, “Culture, if any value, must have a certain depth. It must also have a certain dynamic character. After all, culture depends on a vast number of factors. If we leave out what might be called the basic mould that was given  to it in the early stages of nation’s or people’s growth, it is affected by geography, by climate and by all kinds  of other factors.”
After having defined culture through newly built academies for arts, Nehru himself presided over the Sahitya Academy as its President.  He also urged Sangeet Natak Academy to organize a seminar for   making the foundations of a ChalachitraAcademy so that it could promote good films with a definite Indian cultural stamp. The academy is still a pipe dream for the film fraternity, but Nehru made his intentions clear even before a film like “Pather Panchali” had hit the Indian film scene surprising every one. “It is melodrama that interests large numbers of people, whether in India, England or America or elsewhere. Public taste, to some extent, moulds what is presented to it. At the same time, what is presented should mould public taste”.  Nehru told the   film Seminar, as early as on Feb 27th, 1955 at the Sangeet Natak Academy in New Delhi.
By early 50s, a French Indian was at the Indian Information Ministry, deputed as an advisor, planning the Indian international films festivals and laying the foundations of institutions for Indian films, as the government had identified the world’s third largest film making centre as a top priority. As Ray was running around to shoot and complete “Pather Panchali”, the French Indian, Mr Jean S Bhownagary had put  India as the first Asian country to have its  own International Film festival. “There are certain ideals we have accepted on paper…and these have to be kept alive in the old and brought anew to the young. ….There can be no concept  of planning  without  the concept of participation”, wrote Bhownagary, who has been credited with the actual implementation of  SK Patil committee report on promotion of films and film based institutions like  Film and Television Institute of India,  Film Finance Corporation and  International  Film festivals, which  have contributed to a sea change in the approach towards cinema in India.

In short India was preparing itself for a film like “Pather Panchali” to appear on its cultural horizon and to have its own idiom in films.  I am told the first show of   the Ray film in New York organized by the Indian embassy was after a Sitar recital, sending out the message that the film is also a true cultural product.  Indeed, when we celebrate the 57th anniversary of “Pather Panchali”s public screening, we realize it was not just a song of the road, as the title declared, but was indeed a song of the times.  The film gave a new face to Indian cinema; the film goers viewing habits sparked a tremendous interest in not just “Pather Panchali”, but in a whole new genre of meaningful films.  The entire film society movement got a jump start in many places with the screening of “Pather Panchali” which was making waves internationally.  The film and the director of the film were identified with meaningful cinema movement of India and is appreciated for the same even today. No wonder Satyajit Ray continued as the lifelong President of Federation of Film Societies of India.
 “Where there is such a response to discussion of cinema and an interest in films which are not in accord with the conventional  entertainment film , it is reasonable to suppose that there is growing  public of a higher and more cultural character. The success of the Bengali film, Pather Panchali, is also indicative of this trend” wrote Marie Seton in her first pamphlet, - The film as an educational force in India, brought out by Ministry of Education in 1956. Initially Mari Seton’s brief was to introduce films as a medium for educating the public and hence she had worked with Ministry of Education bringing out several booklets on films and film appreciation.
Let me quote film maker Adoor Gopalakrishan who dedicated an entire chapter on “Pather Panchali” in his first collection of articles on films which appeared as a book  named World of Cinema,  in Malayalam, as far back as in 1983.“No one ever thought , there will be a narrative  on the folklore of  life and a celebration  of the life itself,  this way on the celluloid and  that is why the “Pather Panchali ”(song of the road)  will be remembered  as the harbinger of change in Indian cinema”.
Undoubtedly, “Pather Panchali” is not just the song of the road, but a song and toast of the times.

Satyajit Ray gave cinema and Indian cultural idiom...and a place in the world of cinema...which even Hollywood recognized and honoured him...He will remembered for his contribution in the history of world cinema...not just Indian cinema..(Born on 2 May 1921- and died on 23 April1992.(2oth death anniversary today)) He will be counted among those Nehruvian people who "discovered" India for all of us in their own fields....Amar rehe Manik da apa ka nam....( The photo is young Ray before he formed the first still surviving film society of India-the Calcutta film society in 1947)

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