Just on the outskirts of the old city limits of the megapolis of Kolkata stands the semi-urban hamlet of Boral, where a young art director with the advertisement agency D J Keymer shot his classic debut film ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Road), some 70 years ago, to metamorphose into the celebrated movie maestro Satyajit Ray.
Ray or Manick da as his close associates called him, whose 102nd birthday is being celebrated Tuesday with aplomb across the globe, chose the village as it ”was only four miles from the city limits and this meant that we could make daily trips” as also because with his shoe-string budget to shoot the movie, he could hardly afford on-location shoots in faraway rural idles.
”He used to come to this field between our house and the ancient twin Shiva temple and stand for hours under a tree staring and chewing a handkerchief.
”My father asked him what was he really doing. Ray told him that this was his way of composing shots in his head,” said Tushar Kanti Ghosh, 80, a scion of the Zamindar family which used to own most of the land in this village turned part of the city at one time, adding with a wrinkled grin: ”He told dad he wasted around a dozen handkerchiefs a day thinking about shots!” Ghosh met Ray at age eight, and played a small part as a student at the village school in ‘Pather Panchali’, shot over from 1952 to 1955.
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”He (Ray) asked my father if he could borrow some young boys for the movie … I had two small parts in the film and naturally at that age I was thrilled,” chuckled the octogenarian, who along with other fellow villagers never realised that their non-descript village would be thrust into international fame once the movie was released and showcased at Cannes as India’s official entry.
Opposite the pond where Ray had shot some of his scenes for ‘Pather Panchali’ lives Abhishek Paul, 31, a young artist who said he heard stories of the film’s shooting from his grandmother.
”The entire village was agog with excitement through the period the movie was shot… today we feel a kind of pride that he chose our ‘para’ (locality),” said Paul.
A small bust of Satyajit Ray stands at the turn of the road from the house he had rented for the shooting. Locals have garlanded it and put up festoons to celebrate the renowned filmmaker’s birth anniversary on Tuesday.
Satyajit Ray cast mostly amateur actors in his movie for which he raised money by pawning his wife’s jewellery and taking a subsidy sanctioned by the then chief minister of West Bengal Late Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, a fellow Brahmo Samaji. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, too, chipped in with some support after noted American film director John Huston saw some of Ray’s unfinished raw reels and declared it as the work of a ”great filmmaker”.
”His first movie marked him out as being born into a different league … ‘Pather Panchali’ was a far more realistic and yet stunningly beautiful presentation of rural India’s life than we had ever seen before … it touched the heart, not just the other senses,” said Shoma A Chatterji, veteran film critic and author of books on Satyajit Ray.
No script was ever written for the movie as Ray believed the novel by noted Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay was far too lucidly written to require a script.
Instead, ”Satyajit Ray drew a storyboard for the entire movie – picturising every scene that he shot with the dialogues scribbled on the margins in a strong, neat hand … this was typically Ray, a very meticulous director who planned every single shot long before executing it,” explained Chatterji.
The music for the movie was composed by the famous sitarist Ravi Shankar and was considered an epochal score by the film fraternity, but Chatterji said the two geniuses had their intellectual differences and ”in later films, Ray started composing his own music”.
After initial hesitation, the movie which depicts a family’s struggle to live in their rural ancestral village as the hero – a child named Apu – grows up, did surprisingly well with both the critics and in the box office.
Times of India in a piece in 1956 said: ”It is banal to compare it with any other Indian picture… Pather Panchali is pure cinema. There is no trace of theatre in it.” In Cannes, his debut film was nominated for the Palme d’Or for the best film and won the Prix du document humain (best human document).
Part of Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’, the film remains one of the most influential movies the world has seen. Twenty years after it was released, another film maestro Akira Kurosawa said the movie continues ”to stir up deep passions”.
However, the village itself no longer stirs any great artistic passions. The forest patches and farmland have been gobbled up by an ever-hungry city as the megapolis’s realtors built middle-class ‘dream’ high-rises.
The fields of ‘kash’ flowers or kans grass which at one time ran parallel to the single line railway track where `Pather Panchali’s’ main characters – Apu and Durga – ran around, have been replaced by more railway tracks and ugly warehouses, while the plaintive whistle of the steam engine has given way to brash honking by diesel locomotives.
”But some things still remain the same… everyone still loves a good story and someday another Ray will discover another Boral to produce yet another compelling movie,” said Ghosh.