indian cinema heritage foundation

We Still Hum the Song of the Little Road…

23 Apr, 2021 | Long Features by Uma Sen
Uma Dasgupta in Pather Panchali (1955).

After Pather Panchali released, seventeen US magazines listed Uma Dasgupta, ‘the thirteen-year-old handsome Durga of the film’, as one of the teenagers of the year. The actor looks back at the making of what is now considered one of the greatest human documents in the history of cinema…

It was 25 or 26 August 1955. The release of Pather Panchali marked a watershed in the world of Indian cinema. Completely different from contemporary films, its language and style bowled audiences over. newspapers and journals, film academics and critics celebrated this change through various programmes and functions. Even fifty years on, it continues to overwhelm viewers. I keep getting the occasional invitation from some quarters, courtesy my role as Durga in the film – sometimes at functions like ‘Remembering Satyajit’ and sometimes in exhibitions on his films, or to deliver a talk on him or on opening a website in his name. All thanks to that one single film.

Let me first come to the selection of the novel. The pre-release advertisement for the film harped on ‘Unusual picturization of an Extraordinary Novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’. It was unusual and extraordinary, no doubt. In the original novel, Apu’s longing for an unknown and unseen faraway land is described in such poetic language that it touches the innermost chord of the reader’s mind.
What is it about Pather Panchali that it continues to pique the interest of one and all – from the ordinary audience to film researchers? For an ordinary person like me, writing an essay in search of an answer to this question is not easy. But it may not be out of place to attempt an analysis based on my personal feelings.

Let me first come to the selection of the novel. The pre-release advertisement for the film harped on ‘Unusual picturization of an Extraordinary Novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’. It was unusual and extraordinary, no doubt. In the original novel, Apu’s longing for an unknown and unseen faraway land is described in such poetic language that it touches the innermost chord of the reader’s mind.

‘…Not only to the ferry ghat – he knew this road went much farther; to the land of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. … That road, the verdant green, the wonderful hill range under the blue canopy surrounded by clouds – these were not in any country described in the Ramayana. Nor were Valmiki and Bhavabhuti their creators. But, in the fertile imagination of a boy in a village alive with the sound of birds chirping at dusk, in some ancient time, they were real, absolutely genuine and well entrenched.’

Reminiscing over Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’, I find that while doing the artwork for Aam Aantir Bhenpu – the abridged version of Pather Panchali published by Signet Press – Ray wanted to work on the scenario for the novel; later it developed into an intense desire to film it. Satyajit Ray captured the very same poetic mindset reflected in the novel through the childhood and adolescence of Apu and Durga, through the many trials and tribulations that a poor family in rural Bengal goes through.
None of the actors in the film, barring Kanu Bandyopadhyay, was a professional. That is probably why the film’s surroundings and its characters come across as so fresh, so natural.
When he couldn’t find anyone interested in financing the film, Satyajit Ray did not give up. He started shooting it in 1952, with Rs 70,000 that he somehow raised. In that first expedition he took along Bijoya Ray, Bansi Chandragupta, Subrata Mitra, Anil Chaudhuri, Ashish Barman, Asit Sen and his Mitchell camera, besides Subir and me.

The location was chosen with great care. The novel had as its background the village Gopalnagar where the author grew up and became a teacher. Initially, Satyajit Ray took some shots there – Apu and Durga running through the kaash flowers to see the train. Due to various problems, however, those 1952 shots could not be incorporated in the final film. Work on the film had to be stopped midway for dearth of money. Work resumed with new vigour in 1954 in the village Boral, not far from Kolkata. It is now a bustling township.

None of the actors in the film, barring Kanu Bandyopadhyay, was a professional. That is probably why the film’s surroundings and its characters come across as so fresh, so natural. Subir (Apu) was so young that he had to be literally cajoled into acting, with inducements and by explaining everything that he needed to do. Yet the innocence of his face, the way it conveys feelings and emotions, through frequent blinking of his eyes, created such an enthralling portrait, thanks to Satyajit Ray’s magic wand.
Apu and Durga. Image courtesy: Rolling Stone India
The location was chosen with great care. The novel had as its background the village Gopalnagar where the author grew up and became a teacher. Initially, Satyajit Ray took some shots there – Apu and Durga running through the kaash flowers to see the train. Due to various problems, however, those 1952 shots could not be incorporated in the final film.
Subir and Chunibala Devi received international awards. The film too. I was in a sort of trance those days, receiving felicitations from many places. Even now, I feel overwhelmed remembering those days. I have read in the newspaper that when those scenes of Nischindipur, Sonadanga’s fields were being screened in New York’s Fifth Avenue, students were given tickets on discount. The reporter also wrote: ‘…seventeen US magazines have listed Uma Dasgupta, the thirteen-year-old handsome Durga of the film, as one of the teenagers of the year.’ I must confess without any doubt that the major credit for the thirteen-year-old Durga becoming one of the topmost teenagers of the year must go to Satyajit Ray.

Thinking of those days makes me nostalgic. Take the scene of Indir Thakrun’s death. Durga and Indir Thakrun share a mutual bond that goes beyond the usual aunt-niece relationship. Both are victims of Sarbajaya’s sharp tongue and unwitting cruelty. Durga first experiences death through that of the most beloved person in her life. Just think of that scene: Apu and Durga playfully running along the jungle track, reciting nursery rhymes. Seeing her aunt sitting alone in the bamboo grove, Durga goes forward. With what precision Manik-da explained how pathetic this death was to Durga. How in a whispering tone Durga calls ‘Pishi, Pishhi, Pishi’, gets no response, shakes her a little and the aunt’s body tumbles. Manik-da instructed me on how to convey an expression of bewilderment at the shock mingled with helplessness. He was happy with my performance. But I just could not do the next scene – Durga silently weeping at Indir Thakrun’s verandah. But genius that he was, Manik-da managed to overcome this shortcoming on the part of the actor by capturing Durga’s tearful eyes in chiaroscuro, creating a mournful ambience…
 

Manik-da worked on my performance sequence by sequence, one at a time. Take, for example, the scene of the theft of Tuni’s garland of beads. A humiliated Sarbajaya is beating Durga mercilessly. Manik-da advised Karuna-di not to think of my getting injured but to go on beating me, pulling me by the hair and throwing me out. Everyone remembers Karuna-di’s extraordinary performance in that scene, as driven by anger and humiliation she loses all sense of proportion. Just think of the scene: I am wilting under the assault. The cacophony causes Apu to blink. (Shanti-babu made a loud noise with the reflector to make Apu blink. Subir was such a little boy! How could he convey that otherwise?)
Manik-da instructed me on how to convey an expression of bewilderment at the shock mingled with helplessness. He was happy with my performance. But I just could not do the next scene – Durga silently weeping at Indir Thakrun’s verandah. But genius that he was, Manik-da managed to overcome this shortcoming on the part of the actor by capturing Durga’s tearful eyes in chiaroscuro, creating a mournful ambience…
The scene of Durga getting drenched in rain. The strains of Desh raga on the sitar in the background. Durga swinging her hair around in the rain and making faces at Apu. Manik-da had taken a few stills of mine with my tongue protruding when I first met him. We had to wait for a long time for the rain. We used to spend long hours chatting under a tent of plastic sheets. In Bibhutibhushan’s words: ‘The sky is overcast with rain-bearing cloud…’ Then, ‘…all around it is only the pitter-patter of falling rain – noise … branches shaking in the breeze … Apu grinding his teeth with cold … Durga pulled him closer and, as a last assort, started chanting … Nebur patey karamcha, he brishti dhore ja…’ While filming this I was supposed to sneeze several times. But during the first few shots I could not get it right. Finally, Bansi-babu helped me with a pinch of snuff.

Durga and Apu following the confectioner (Srinivas), a dog following them, walking by the side of a pond. Their reflection in the water below, a folk tune in the background. They are going towards Ranu’s house. The dog was not following us properly. So Manik-da gave some eatables in my hand to carry, off camera. The dog now kept to the script. 
The scene of Durga getting drenched in rain. The strains of Desh raga on the sitar in the background. Durga swinging her hair around in the rain and making faces at Apu. Manik-da had taken a few stills of mine with my tongue protruding when I first met him. We had to wait for a long time for the rain. We used to spend long hours chatting under a tent of plastic sheets.
… Manik-da had the different sequences clearly etched in his mind. He used to draw the sequences shot by shot, illustrate them and write alongside in his notebook. He used to give us the script but told us, ‘Don’t commit to memory, I may change it.’ …

And who can forget the music by Ravi Shankar? The separate themes he composed were so beautifully fused with the scenes by Satyajit Ray himself. The use of Raga Desh in the scene of Durga and Apu getting wet in the rain, Raga Tori in Durga’s death scene, Raga Patadip on the dilruba when Sarbajaya breaks down while informing Harihar of Durga’s death reveals the director’s knowledge of music and the skill with which he assimilated it in the film.…
Manik-da had the different sequences clearly etched in his mind. He used to draw the sequences shot by shot, illustrate them and write alongside in his notebook. He used to give us the script but told us, ‘Don’t commit to memory, I may change it.
Pather Panchali was in the making for a long time, thanks to funds crunch and many other problems. During that entire period the whole unit worked like a single family. For me, the days of shooting were a relief from monotony. Everyone used to look after us, give us sufficient importance. Satyajit Ray gradually became Manik-da for all. As an adolescent, I did not even realize the importance of the work all of us – Khoka-babu (Dinen Gupta), Ray-babu (Soumendu Ray), Shanti-babu, Bansi-babu, Subrata-babu, Karuna-di, Subir, Anil-babu, Rama or Neela Mishra in Ranu’s role, many others and me – were involved in.

Learning from experience, Manik-da probably realized the problems of working with new faces. So, it is said, in his later films he preferred less of new artists. But then Soumitra, Sharmila and Aparna also made their first films with Manik-da. By virtue of their talent, they went on to rule the minds and hearts of their fans. Manik-da was perhaps their philosopher’s stone. And we – from Pather Panchali – still hum the song of the little road.
Karuna Bannerjee, Uma Dasgupta and Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali. 
 
Manik-da was perhaps their philosopher’s stone. And we – from Pather Panchali – still hum the song of the little road.
The film received twelve international awards in all during the ten-year period from 1956 to 1966. In 1955, it was awarded the President’s Gold and Silver Medals. As the film was produced by the Government of West Bengal and under Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy’s patronage, we were also felicitated and awarded silver medals. Young writers and journalists arranged a huge felicitation programme at the Senate Hall. Several organization congratulated us.

But there were detractors too. I heard Bhanu Bandyopadhyay never said anything good about the film. Nargis Dutt also made some uncharitable remarks about it. Something like better not to showcase such poverty to the world. But that was the reason why Pather Panchali was felicitated as ‘the greatest human document’. Because the English version of the title was ‘Song of the Road’, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy perhaps thought the film could be used in depicting community development projects of the government; and that is why the financial help was forthcoming. There are many such stories about Pather Panchali. Even the other day, in a leading newspaper, below my photograph my name was written not as Uma Dasgupta, not as Runki Banerjee (the one who played the infant Durga), but as Rinku Banerjee. Who knows wherefrom they get such news! Many journalists ask such silly questions, that too on telephone, it appears they have neither read the book nor seen the film.
Even the other day, in a leading newspaper, below my photograph my name was written not as Uma Dasgupta, not as Runki Banerjee (the one who played the infant Durga), but as Rinku Banerjee. Who knows wherefrom they get such news!
I have no regrets. The poet and writer Sunil Gangopadhyay has written in his poem that while watching the film he transforms himself into Apu; his childhood resembled Apu’s. Artist Bikash Bhattacharya held an exhibition titled ‘Durga’. In the publicity booklet, he wrote that he visualized Durga in every girl. Sometimes she is a daughter, sometimes a wife, sometimes a mother – sometimes it is only ‘She’. He knows that the Durgas of the world never lose. Subrata Mitra took me to that exhibition.

This is how people at every level of society relate to the experience of watching Pather Panchali. They do not allow me to forget the experience. Manik-da felt there were some shortcomings in the picturization of Pather Panchali; that he would correct these given a chance. Despite these shortcomings, even today, after years, Pather Panchali is a matter of pride for all Bengalis.

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

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