Once Upon a Road

Long lost pages from Satyajit Ray’s sketchbook for his iconic film, Pather Panchali, highlight the auteur’s rare, elaborate process.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Updated: May 22, 2016 12:00:13 am
Between the lines: Ray’s sketch of the train sequence. Between the lines: Ray’s sketch of the train sequence.

For many, there is one particular scene in Pather Panchali (1955), stark in black and white, that strikes a powerful chord. Durga leads Apu out of their ramshackled house to the lush field of kaash flowers. They halt for a while, marvelling at the sight of the towering power line, a structure alien to their rural surroundings. The soundscape is a vacuum but for the haunting cadence of the heaving winds, against which the grass sways gently. The two jump to their feet when they hear a strange chugging sound, and the world looks at a train through their eyes, the dark serpentine force cutting its way through the field, black smoke billowing out and fading into the sky.

This iconic scene is one of the many that put the film, along with its creator, then first-time director Satyajit Ray, on the map of world cinema. Much before he translated Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel on to the screen, the auteur underwent an intensive process of adapting the text. There was no formal script, for it was all in his head, he would later write in a piece for The Statesman. Instead, he made 58-page panels in his sketchbook in ink and pen. With fluid strokes and a quality of precision for every character and scene, Ray would never be this elaborate in his process as he was with his first film. Sixty years since the film’s release, the sketches have surfaced in their entirety for the first time. The Pather Panchali Sketchbook (Harper Collins, Rs 1,699), a compilation of those pages, among others, looks back at the film through Ray’s panels before global recognition would make him a more confident filmmaker.

“He made sketches especially for Pather Panchali,” says Sandip, his son, also a member secretary of the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. “Later on, he would do storyboards but they were also not as elaborate as Pather Panchali. Those sketches happened because he wasn’t known back then. He had to convince the producers by showing them the sketchbook. It was quite elaborate, with the framing and the lighting. The producers were not convinced at all despite this and that’s when the West Bengal government’s support helped him.”

Ray had originally donated the sketchbook to the Cinematheque Francais archives in Paris. Years later, when the family contacted them to procure it, they were informed that the copy is lost. “We were shocked and I couldn’t convey the message to my father because he was so ill at the time. But they sent us the scanned pages, which were in a good condition,” says Sandip, adding that he has yet to know what became of the original. Apart from the sketches, Ray was further involved in the promotion of the film, designing posters, booklets and advertisements, which are included in the book, along with letters of invitations for special shows, a series of draft scripts, photographs, stamps and illustrations that Ray made for the original book by Bandyopadhyay. Edited by Sandip, the book also comprises notes and essays by actor Dhritiman Chaterji, Ray’s wife Bijoya, cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and art director and production designer Bansi Chandragupta, among others.

A photograph of actors Subir Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta in the middle of the shoot. A photograph of actors Subir Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta in the middle of the shoot.

The sketchbook is a study in itself, a vivid depiction of the world Apu and Durga inhabited, one that would be transported from paper to motion picture. The train sequence, for instance, comes alive in outlines in pen sketches, dramatic, swift, thick strokes of ink. A panel shows the siblings running against the wind towards the approaching train. In another, Durga runs out in the rain, the black, thundering clouds in black ink looming over her. In scenes inside the house, his strokes are more nuanced, minimal as he played with light and shadow.

Ray’s innate sense of precision reflected in his films, too. “His method was impeccable. He was very economical in approach. There was no such thing as going over budget. That’s what I learnt from him. You have to be ruthless with your work,” says Sandip, who worked alongside his father as a still photographer on the sets and began assisting him in the mid-’70s. This dedication to detail is further visible in the sparseness of words or dialogues in the sketches, and the film too. He constantly progresses from one scene to another with either a “Dissolve to” or a “Fade out”. “His aversion to the dialogue-heavy, overly ‘literary’ Bengali cinema of the time is well-known. Was outlining a film in pictures rather than in words a way of reminding himself that cinema stays true to a work of literature not by translating it, but by transforming it?” notes Chaterji, who began his acting career as the protagonist of Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), in the foreword of the book.

Apart from Ray, the film had many other firsts too. Most of the crew, for instance, were new; and Subir Banerjee was cast as Apu without a screen test. Even the music was lent by Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was yet to achieve international fame. It was, perhaps, this inexperience that lent the film an edge, unseen in entertainment-riddled Indian cinema until then. “In fact, he wasn’t very satisfied with the first half, but he approved of the second half. He didn’t have the time to come back to the film later. Then again, one must never tamper with the classics,” says Sandip.

Ray, who passed away in 1992, had an overwhelmingly poetic and complex approach to filmmaking, yet it was shrewdly cinematic. His sketches reveal an artist who viewed filmmaking as an intensely personal experience . “It is astonishing to see how clear he was about what he wanted, despite being a first-time director,” notes veteran actor Sharmila Tagore in the book, “The sketchbook is a veritable manual for the aspiring filmmaker, particularly for those who wish to express themselves through images while liberating scenes from excessive dialogues.”

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