By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on January 21, 2016
Both Satyajit Ray and his milestone classic Pather Panchali have been analyzed, discussed and deconstructed many times and by many. And yet, every time we watch it, we learn something new, find a new detail. A film, like any piece of art, reveals itself to us in many ways and sometimes what we may have missed, is made apparent to us through by eyes more trained than ours.
Something similar happened to me during the Vijay Tendulkar Memorial Lecture at the Pune International Film Festival, when Girish Kasarvalli fondly talked about Ray’s montage of hope and optimism in Pather Panchali. It’s a sequence in the first half of the film, where Ray reveals the strongly rooted optimism in each of the characters in the film. This small sequence of under 2 minutes reveals so much about the characters & their aspirations that it is a masterclass in filmmaking.
Watch the scene below from around 40:00 to 42:00.
Starting with the old grandma, trying to thread a needle in the meager light of the lamp. Failing time and again, she keeps trying persistently, hoping that she would be able to patch her withered shawl successfully sometime soon. Then we see the adolescent Durga asking her mother to plait her hair into four strands, like her friend Ranu does. For a teenage girl, her only wish and hope is to look as pretty as she can and Ray weaves that skillfully and subtly into this seemingly regular conversation between the mother and the daughter.
Then we see Apu, sitting next to his father, who sits there, presiding over Apu's studies. His father asks him to spell the word ‘wealth’ on his slate. For a poor man whose only aspiration is to be able to provide for his family, the word 'wealth' means 'hope', hope of some day being rich and wealthy.
Apu isn't concerned with anything as worldly & material as the others. He is enthralled by the distant sound of a train on the rails. To a child like him, the train is the biggest attraction and we are easily able to see his eyes light up as he listens to the sound getting louder. He turns to Durga & asks her whether they can go and see the train. The train is a harbinger of the future, of modernity impinging upon their rural existence, of Apu's fascination with the larger world beyond his village.
The lyrical style of Ray is full of poise and he trusts his audience to find out the meaning behind his subtle cues conveyed through symbolism. Another startling feeling you get after watching this simple sequence is the warm feeling of looking at a family sitting together, looking at the future with hope & optimism. They're destitute to a level where applying oil to hair is a luxury, yet our heart somehow doesn't focus on that. We see this small, warm family, who despite everything, love each other dearly and hope for a better future together. It could be any family, from any region of the world, any class or community. There is a universality to their feelings that Ray captures beautifully & subtly.
So let us keep watching Pather Panchali, maybe we'll have another epiphany, seeing something that has always been there, yet somehow escaped our eyes. I guess that's the beauty of our classics, be it cinema or literature. We can keep going back to them, and drink from the fountain of wisdom, knowledge & insights.