indian cinema heritage foundation

Editing Pather Panchali

27 Apr, 2021 | Short Features by Dulal Dutta
Pather Panchali (1955)

From a producer who wanted a song in the film to a chief minister who asked why a particular shot was upside down to getting the final cut ready against a seemingly impossible deadline and the agony of a first show in an empty hall, Satyajit Ray’s long-time editor Dulal Dutta reminisces about the trials and tribulations on the film that changed the face of Indian cinema. 

It was raining cats and dogs. Drenched to the skin, I somehow reached Bansi Chandragupta’s house, travelling all the way from Chetla. Bansi-da said, ‘You’re totally drenched. How will you go?’ It was a Sunday morning, 27 July 1952. Bansi-da was taking me to Satyajit Ray. Manik-da was then employed in D.J. Keymer and Sunday was the only off day in the week.

Of course, Bansi-da did not tell me where and to whom he was taking me, nor for what purpose. Anyway, with the fan on full speed, I somehow managed to dry my clothes and went on foot with Bansi-da to Ray’s house nearby at 31A, Lake Avenue. Bansi-da seated me in the outer room and went in. From there I heard a deep voice saying, ‘Has he come? Why did you leave him outside? Bring him in.’
Walking in, I saw a gentleman in pajama-punjabi – slim and tall. Bansi-da had earlier told me, ‘A friend of mine is working on a film, entirely outdoor. Will you work on it? I’ll take you there on Sunday.’ Manik-da said, ‘I am working on a film, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali.’

But I had read Pather Panchali many times. It was in our school course. The novel – rural background, Apu, Durga; could it be adapted into a film?
To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. I had earlier worked on a film with Bansi-da – Bhor Hoye Elo. Satyen Bose was the director. I was the editor and Bansi-da was art director in the film. But I had read Pather Panchali many times. It was in our school course. The novel – rural background, Apu, Durga; could it be adapted into a film? After being silent for a while, I agreed. He clarified that there would be no dubbing in the film. I said okay. He said, ‘I’ll inform you through Bansi once work on the film begins.’

Manik-da and Bansi-da were doing some research work before starting the film. They had shot some part of the film in 16 mm but didn’t like it. Then they shot about 400 feet of the film. It was to be shown in Bengal Film Laboratory. Bansi-da said, ‘Manik will be there by five. You come too. We’ll see a small piece.’ Manik-da came exactly at five with Subrata Mitra. Of course I did not know him them. Subrata Mitra brought out a small print wrapped in black sheet from the lab. We went upstairs and watched the film. I had by then been working in the field for a while, had assisted in many films, but had never witnessed such photography.

Manik-da said, ‘What do you think?’

I replied, ‘This is extraordinary.’

The scene was of a kaash forest, shot with a wall camera. Wall camera was commonly used for newsreels at the time. I said only one thing, ‘You have used the same frame for “out” and “in”. How will I join it?’ He kept silent.
The scene was of a kaash forest, shot with a wall camera. Wall camera was commonly used for newsreels at the time. I said only one thing, ‘You have used the same frame for “out” and “in”. How will I join it?’ He kept silent.
Days passed. The same year, on 20 or 27 October he started shooting, with a 35 mm wall camera. Once the print was developed, we would all watch it. I made some edits too. There was a particular tradition in Indian films before the advent of Manik-da. It was he who introduced a new trend. I found editing his film a little difficult. I had grown accustomed to working in a particular way. This was totally different. Without telling anyone, I took the help of R.D. Mehta. Saw three reels repeatedly over several nights at a stretch. Then I started editing.
 
Satyajit Ray, Sandip Ray and Dulal Dutta. Image courtesy: satyajitray.org
There was a particular tradition in Indian films before the advent of Manik-da. It was he who introduced a new trend. I found editing his film a little difficult. I had grown accustomed to working in a particular way. This was totally different.
The more I saw Manik-da, the more I admired him. I was even bold enough to address him as Manik-da. Given the assured manner in which he shot the film, it never felt like Manik-da was a new director, and this was his first film. I was introduced to other members of the unit. Kanu-babu, Karuna-di, Rumki (the child Durga), Chunibala Devi. Shooting went on. I was living at Chetla. On his way to Boral, where the film was being shot, Manik-da used to pick me up. From the very first day he used to address me as ‘apni’. I was with him right from Pather Panchali to Agantuk. Sandip started working with me right from his young days.
I used to go to his place, have tea. Manku-di would prepare shingara, malpoa, patisapta, which I devoured. I became a member of the family. But never did I succeed in getting him to address me as ‘tumi’.
After some time, the shooting stopped for want of money. Manku-di’s jewellery was pawned. Though Manik-da was drawing a monthly salary of Rs 1,800, which was quite substantial for the time, there were days when they did not even have money for regular household expenses. Editing work used to be done on Saturdays and Sundays. I used to take the tram back home, travelling second class. There were days when even that much fund was not available.

Work on the film stopped. At times I used to go to Manik-da to inquire whether he had managed to get a financier. I knew some distributors. I told them too. They wanted to hear the story. Manik-da did not even have the entire script written down – only pages of a visual script. There was a distributor called Prankeshto Datta. I knew him well. I told him. He showed deep interest after listening to the script from Bansi-da. Manik-da was not present. Prankeshto-babu agreed to finance the film. But then there was no more news from him. I felt a little embarrassed before Manik-da.
After some time, the shooting stopped for want of money. Manku-di’s jewellery was pawned. Though Manik-da was drawing a monthly salary of Rs 1,800, which was quite substantial for the time, there were days when they did not even have money for regular household expenses. Editing work used to be done on Saturdays and Sundays. I used to take the tram back home, travelling second class. There were days when even that much fund was not available.
Then came Narayan Sadhukhan. By this time we had shot about 2,000 to 3,000 feet. I showed it to him. He said, ‘There is no song! There should be a song by Durga.’ Manik-da’s reply: ‘Are you crazy? Have you read Bibhutibhushan?’ Sadhukhan went away. By this time there were large banners of Pather Panchali all over the city. But work on the film had stopped. Then Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy was approached. A screening was arranged at Bina cinema hall one morning and whatever had been shot by then was shown to Dr Roy. He saw the scene where Apu and Durga, with the dog behind, follow the sweetmeat vendor – their shadows reflected in water – and said, ‘What’s this? Why is the picture upside down?’ Manik-da smiled and introduced me. Dr Roy said, ‘You, young man, keep the picture erect.’
 
Dulal Dutta
Then Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy was approached. A screening was arranged at Bina cinema hall one morning and whatever had been shot by then was shown to Dr Roy. He saw the scene where Apu and Durga, with the dog behind, follow the sweetmeat vendor – their shadows reflected in water – and said, ‘What’s this? Why is the picture upside down?’ Manik-da smiled and introduced me. Dr Roy said, ‘You, young man, keep the picture erect.’
Anyway, funds were sanctioned under the scheme of community development by the Government of West Bengal. One fine morning Manik-da called me and said, ‘The film will be shown in New York. Must send it by 30 July. Get it ready.’ John Huston had happened to see the movie in a private show. It was his drive and faith in the film that took Pather Panchali abroad.

But at the time, I was unnerved by the deadline. I replied, ‘How is it possible, Manik-da? Only fourteen days are left. Some rush cutting is also pending, then the editing.’ Manik-da said, ‘If we can do it, it will be good for us and for Indian cinema too.’ What could I do? Just said, ‘Let me try.’ Next morning I found Manik-da in the lab. I started working, mentally preparing myself to do so round the clock. The assistants worked overnight, with or without food, and did the sorting. Anil-babu used to come with meat and rotis – not enough food for us. Manik-da also often stayed awake all night with us.

We somehow managed to reach the airport in an official jeep, at the last moment, and loaded the cans in a plane bound for New York. Job done, Manik-da went back home in a drowsy stupor. I also walked down to mine.
The operator with the countenance of a sahib, even wearing a tie, commented: ‘Is this a film? I have never projected such a film before.’ My legs, my entire body, started shivering. In keeping with the technology available at the time, I had done the patchwork on the bad part with cement – but I had not been able to do it properly, it was getting bent. We somehow managed to fix it, this time cutting out four frames.
Pather Panchali was first shown abroad. Then it released at Basusree. We had a trial show. This is called house trial.
As luck would have it, a faulty segment was detected. The scene was of a labour room; Harihar loitering outside, hookah in hand. The very same night I did a patch print for that part, about 50 feet, and joined it.
Manik-da, Bansi-da, Subrata Mitra and I were seeing the film. Behind us were a few boys known to the owner of the hall. Initially, they sniggered and kept commenting on the film. On Manik-da’s advice we kept quite. At the end of the show the same boys came to Manik-da, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs, and said, ‘We have never seen a film like this before.’ But my woes were not yet over. The operator with the countenance of a sahib, even wearing a tie, commented: ‘Is this a film? I have never projected such a film before.’ My legs, my entire body, started shivering. In keeping with the technology available at the time, I had done the patchwork on the bad part with cement – but I had not been able to do it properly, it was getting bent. We somehow managed to fix it, this time cutting out four frames.

At the first public show the next day, the entire hall was empty. Manik-da kept chewing at his handkerchief – his way of expressing tension. However, the film caught on through word of mouth. Gradually, audiences started to throng the theatre. After a week, Pankaj Datta praised the film sky-high in Anandabazar Patrika. Then came news from New York, again in Anandabazar Patrika; Pather Panchali was receiving unabashed praise there. Pankaj Datta broke down on receipt of the news from Sagarmay Ghosh. Manik-da received the news directly from the Anandabazar Patrika. The rest is history; all our labour, all our anxiety over. A new chapter began in the world of Indian cinema.

Translation by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. 
Originally published in Satyajit Ray-er Pather Panchali, edited by Arun Sen, published by Pratikshan. 
 


 

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