From Fiction to Film
Based on a series of articles published in India Post
By Dilip Basu
Pather Panchali came to be regarded as one of the finest films ever made. Arguably, it is Satyajit Ray's greatest if not the best. Based on Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay's epic novel, it tells the story of a Bengali Brahmin family living in a remote little village around 1920. Harihar, the father, is a priest who is also a playwright. He is often away on assignment. Sarvajaya, the mother, bears the main brunt of raising a mischievous daughter — Durga — and caring for an elderly aunt Indir whose independent spirit sometimes irritates her. Apu is born. With the arrival of a son, the family's daily life is enriched by scenes of happiness and play — the candy man, the theater during the autumn Puja festival, the wedding; it is also punctuated by scenes of bitter unhappiness — the accusation of theft, Harihar's long absence from home, and Durga's illness. Toward the end, disaster hits the poor family: Durga dies as turbulent monsoon storms rip her room apart. Harihar returns and decides to leave his ancestral home and village in search of a new life in Benares.
Except for the scene depicting Durga's death, there is no real dramatic element in the film. One can perhaps say the film narrative lacks a "plot" in the conventional sense of the term. Yet, in Satyajit Ray's deft directorial handling, Pather Panchali becomes a memorable motion picture of all time.
Ray had received the cue to compensating for the slenderness of the plot with rich social and cultural observation from De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. De Sica had also showed how to work with non-professionals and low budgets, as well as how to shoot on location without the trappings of whopping studio set-ups. From Jean Renoir, Ray had learned economy of expression — the art of using appropriate details to heighten the elements of mise-en-scene instead of packing every scene with feckless and superfluous frills.
The conflict of drama, the plot of the fiction, light and shade in painting — all of these have a place in cinema. But image and sound, expressed in audio-visual terms, have a different language altogether. As an art form, Ray recognized, cinema is unique: image in motion pictures is not just a picture, it is an eloquent picture. It does not begin or end with just being a picture as it does in painting. It has sound which complements the image. One has to keep one's eyes as well as ears open and alert to follow the language of cinema. If there is no sound in a scene, the absence itself is meaningful. Silence, as one sees time and again in Ray's films, can be equally eloquent in conveying a message.
Ray endeavored to educate his audiences about the distinctions between fiction and film. He was criticized for modifying and changing well-known Bengali classics in his motion picture versions. His occasional excursions into writing about how to "see" a film were a response to such criticism where he repeatedly emphasized that the language of film has to substantially diverge from the language of fiction. Here, for example, he picks one of the last scenes from Pather Panchali, the fiction, to make his point.
In Bandyopadhyay's narrative, the scene reads somewhat like this: From the railroad station, Harihar walked fast to his house. He noticed the bamboo clumps had fallen across the wall. "Oh, just look at this! What a nuisance!" he exclaimed as he walked into the courtyard. As was his habit, he called for Durga and Apu. Sarvajaya came out of the room. Harihar asked, "Where are the children?" Sarvajaya simply said "Come in." Harihar noticed his wife was unusually quiet. He asked again: "Where are Apu and Durga? Are they both out?" Sarvajaya couldn't restrain herself any longer. She burst out crying: "Durga! Where will you find her? She has gone and left us! Oh, where have you been all this time?"
Satyajit Ray translated this into the language of cinema — in image, sound and music. He used fourteen shots to narrativize it on film. All the shots were taken on a cloudy day. With background music on, we see Apu in a long shot: a dark shawl is wrapped around him, he walks along a dirt road with an empty kerosene bottle in his hand. A close-up shot shows rice being boiled in a pot on the stove; the boiling water nearly spills over as the lid on the pot rises and falls. A tilt-up shot shows Sarvajaya, squatting on the floor, chin on her right palm. She wears a vacant unblinking look. A medium shot takes us to Sarvajaya's courtyard where we see Bini, a neighbor's twelve-year-old. She carries a basket of vegetables, approaches the porch and says, "Auntie!" Sarvajaya remains off-screen and the background music continues. Another medium shot shows Bini on the right foreground, her back to the camera, Sarvajaya on the left with her back toward Bini. Sarvajaya wears the same vacant look as in the tilt-up shot, does not respond to Bini's call or notice the basket being placed on the floor. This is followed by a close shot. Bini leaves, her eyes focused on Sarvajaya as the background music fades.
Dissolve. We see a bamboo grove behind Harihar's house. A long top shot shows Harihar at a distance and we hear him say "Apu." A close-up shows Sarvajaya reacting to Hari's voice; her palm on the chin moves slightly, the bangle slides down a little. On a medium shot, the audience sees Hari on the side of his house. He looks at the fallen Mango tree branch that had hit part of the wall. He exclaims, "couldn't wait a few days, eh?" He steps forward as the camera pans simultaneously. He stares at his crumbling house, moves toward the gate and goes out of the frame; the camera stays on the broken down cowshed showing the cow chewing cud. Off-screen, one hears Hari opening the door, then he is seen arriving in front of the porch. He looks anxious, and calls out for Apu and Durga. Sarvajaya enters the shot from the right, walks past Hari, and invites him in as he says, "There you are!"
Another medium shot shows Hari wiping the sweat off his face with his dhoti-end. He puts down his bags and bundles, greets Sarvajaya who brings him a pitcher of water, a pair of wooden sandals, a low stool and a towel — one at a time. She doesn't respond to Hari's query about the children's whereabouts, and begins to move toward the steps. Hari stops her, opens the bundles: "See what I have brought!" A medium close shot continues to show Hari and Sarvajaya together — she faces the camera while standing in the foreground. Hari opens the bundles while explaining the reasons for the inordinate delay in returning home; he describes in detail the things he has brought for the household. He holds out a cotton sari toward Sarvajaya.
The close-up shot displays the cotton sari for Durga. Sarvajaya clasps the sari with her palms as the camera tilts, showing bursts of tears on her quickly contorting face. She bites the sari with her teeth and goes down and out of the shot. We don't hear her cry. Instead, we hear the high wistful strains of the Tar Shehnai. A medium shot shows Sarvajaya weeping; Hari leans toward her anxiously as the Tar Shehnai continues. A close shot follows the couple: Sarvajaya collapses on the floor; Hari touches her shoulders, looking terribly shaken, asking, as it were, "What happened?" without using words. Sarvajaya moves her head and conveys the tragic news: Durga is no more. The camera tracks toward Hari's face. Hari now knows. Dumbstruck, he tries to get up, slumps on the floor, doubles up and is overcome with sobs. The camera tracks back to its former position. Hari wails his heart out: "Durga! Durga Ma!" A medium shot takes viewers to the stillness of the pond by Harihar's house. Apu stands with the kerosene bottle in hand. Off-screen, we hear Hari wailing out "Durga Ma" one more time. Apu stands still. The camera tracks fast forward toward Apu's face. Fade out. Tar Shehnai music ends.
Ray has offered a detailed explanation of this five-minute sequence, regarded as a major cinematic intervention.
All the scenes were shot on cloudy days to indicate the plaintive mood. The long shot of the open field highlights Apu's aloneness: only a year ago, Durga had escorted him down the dirt road of the open field to his first day in school. This is used as a sort of mnemonicon — a memory device to remind the viewers of Durga's painful absence in Apu's presence. The close-up shot captures Sarvajaya's sadness. The steaming pot, with the rise and fall of the lid, is used to visually convey the depth of Sarvajaya's grief and pent-up feelings. Bini is brought in at this stage for two reasons: first, to show that the neighbors cared; second, in the medium long shot we see Sarvajaya remaining unresponsive to Bini; this is done to highlight again the depth of her sorrow. From the look in Bini's eyes and from the way she backs out, we get the impression that she is not only surprised but perhaps also somewhat shocked. The dissolve that follows serves the purpose of preparing the viewers for Hari's arrival. At this point, the viewers are probably quite tense. Ray saw this as the occasion to build up the drama. The information on Harihar's return is provided, but the moment he gets the news of Durga's death is delayed.
The long shot showing Harihar approach his house was taken from a sixteen-foot high bamboo platform. The background music stops. The silence seems ominous. "It is as if Nature itself is holding its breath in anticipation of the tragic moment," as Ray has put it. The silence is broken as Harihar cries out the names of his children affectionately. Sarvajaya is alerted. But she cannot be shown to respond instantaneously — the dam holding back her tears is not to be easily broken. Hence the pause and the close-up. The palm pressed against her cheek has kept the white bangle in place. A slight movement of the hand dislodges the bangle and allows it to slide down an inch or so. Sarvajaya was shown when Bini had called as sitting still. The slight movement of the bangle indicates that Harihar's voice has jolted her stillness. We see Hari. He complains about the shambles that his house has become; he thinks the damage to the wall is an ultimate calamity. This intensifies the irony of the moment of his arrival. In order to delay the onset of the dramatic moment, the shot was extended to about a minute and a half. There is no action. One sees only the cow's rumination. It is the calm before the storm. Harihar moves from the medium shot into the long shot. The viewer becomes impatient with Harihar's attempts at starting a conversation, and Sarvajaya's procrastinations — step-by-step actions of pouring, getting the stool, bringing the towel, etc. When will Harihar get the terrible news? In the next shot, he opens his bundles; we see Sarvajaya's face from the front, although it is not a close-up. Durga's sari is not the first item Hari displays. Two other gifts are shown, delaying the dramatic moment further. The sari is brought up in a close-up. No sound except for the background music is used as an unsuspecting Harihar hands over the sari to Sarvajaya.
Initially, Ray had filmed a bitter wailing outburst following the description in the novel. As he reviewed the shot, everything seemed perfect except for the wailing. He just did not like the way it had hit his ears. However, when he saw the same shot sans the sound, he liked it. He thought of a specific musical effect for this crucial scene to be played on the Tar Shehnai, a high-pitched controlled instrument. He proposed the idea to Ravi Shankar, who scored Pather Panchali's beautiful music. Shankar selected the Raga Pat-Deep for the lament on Tar Shehnai. It was played by D.M. Tagore, one of its best-known exponents.
In constructing this climactic tragic moment of the film, Ray demonstrates in striking depth his understanding of what it means to translate a literary narrative into the language of cinema.