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Song of its time

‘Pather Panchali’,which turns 57 on August 26, marked the beginning of a new era in India’s film history

Written by V.K. Cherian |
August 25, 2012 3:54:27 am

The British Film Institute (BFI) and its legendary film journal Sight and Sound recently made its panel of 846 critics,programmers,academics and distributors vote again for the best film ever. This year’s voting saw the end of the 50-year reign of Orson Wells’s Citizen Kane. The panel chose Alfred Hitchcock’s

Vertigo as the best film ever. But there is one film that still remains in the world’s top 50 — Satyajit Ray’s timeless classic,Pather Panchali (1955).

As Ray’s contemporary,Mrinal Sen,wrote in 1980,for the silver jubilee of Pather Panchali’s release,“A certain Friday in 1956 came as surprise,the biggest of all big surprises — a coup d’etat,so to speak,conceived and staged almost conspiratorially. Yet Pather Panchali was not an accident,it was overdue”. Maybe Sen was also voicing the thoughts of other contemporary Indians about the advent of the Pather Panchali era in Indian films.

The film occupies a unique place in the country’s history and speaks of the search for an Indian idiom in films. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had already done some serious thinking about various cultural media,including films,as part of the newborn republic’s fresh initiatives in various fields. The government had constituted an expert committee on films with S.K. Patil as chairman,ably assisted by the likes of

V. Shantaram and B.N. Sircar. Under British rule,the Rangachariar committee deliberated only on censorship. The committee under Patil explored the development of the film industry as a whole.

In its recommendation in 1951,the Patil committee said,“In our view remedy lies neither in laissez faire,nor in regimentation,but curing all the various elements of their defects and deficiencies and ensuring that they combine and cooperate in a joint endeavour to make this valuable medium a useful and healthy instrument of both entertainment and education,as well as a means of upliftment and progress,rather than degeneration and decay.”

The government started the Indian International Film Festivals in 1952. “I hope that films which are just sensational or melodramatic or such as make capital out of crime will not be encouraged. If our film industry keeps this ideal before it,it will encourage good taste and help pave its own way,in the building of new India,” Nehru said in his message to the festival,held in Bombay from January 14 to February 1,1952. The festival travelled to Madras,New Delhi and Calcutta during the same year,introducing audiences to films made outside English-speaking countries.

Nehru asked India’s high commissioner in London,V.K. Krishna Menon,to find an expert of British origin to evangelise on the educational quality of films. Menon in turn asked his social secretary Pamela Cullen to search for the right candidate. As Ray was busy shooting Pather Panchali,Cullen looked for Marie Seton,who had just come back from the erstwhile Soviet Union after a couple of years of association with the legendary Soviet filmmaker,Sergei Eisentein. Seton had already worked with Krishna Menon’s India League in London as a British left activist,and had even “barged” into Mahatma Gandhi’s room for a meeting. Seton and her friends from the BFI later had a major role in promoting Pather Panchali in the Western world,not that Ray was new to the London film scene by then.

By the early 1950s,Jean S. Bhowanagary,a French Indian,was at the Indian Information Ministry,planning the international films festivals and laying the foundations of film institutions,which have contributed to a sea-change in the approach towards cinema in India. India became the first Asian country to have its own international film festival.

In short,India was preparing itself for a film like Pather Panchali to appear on its cultural horizon. I am told that the first showing of the Ray film in New York,organised by the Indian embassy,came after a sitar recital,signalling that the film was also a true cultural product. Pather Panchali gave a new face to Indian cinema; sparking interest in a whole new genre of meaningful films. The film society movement got a jumpstart in many places with the screening of Pather Panchali,which was making waves internationally.

Let me quote filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishan,who dedicated an entire chapter to Pather Panchali in his book,The World of Cinema: “No one ever thought there will be a narrative on the folklore of life,and a celebration of the life itself,this way on the celluloid and that is why the Pather Panchali (song of the road) will be remembered as the harbinger of change in Indian cinema.” Undoubtedly,Pather Panchali is not just the song of the road,but a song of the times.

The writer is chronicling the rise and fall of the film-society movement in India for his new book

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