When the average Hollywood magnate decides to make a picture, he rounds up a million dollars or so, mounts his curved-screen camera, and hires a host of stars. Several years later, the technicolor epic will, he hopes, draw enough people away from their 21 inch screens to pay the tremendous production costs. To put it mildly, motion pictures are big business, from Producer on down to Assistant Continuity Man.
It is unusual, then, that seven years ago a young commercial artist in Calcutta pawned his wife's jewels to rent a creaking, out-of-date movie camera. With a few of his actor-friends, Satyajit Ray left Calcutta one Sunday for an isolated village to the north. In that village, without building a single set or even clearing the yard, where much of the action takes place, he began filming Pather Panchali ("Song of the Road"). It was the first time he had ever operated a camera.
As expenses began to pile up after a year of shooting, Satyajit Ray persuaded the West Bengali government to sponsor his project, as a sort of regional advertising. A year and a half later, on a budget that never reached $ 40,000, Pather Panchali was ready to show. In international film festivals from Cannes to San Francisco, it has since won five grand prizes.
Perhaps the West Bengali government was surprised--even disappointed--when they first viewed the movie. They saw not a fast-moving, glossy travelogue, but a naturalistic essay, viewing life as a lament of the path. Pather Panchali focuses on a rural Brahman family whose house is falling down. The gate is off its hinges, the yard full of rubbish, and the shutters loose.
Father is an intellectual, not a do-it-yourself handyman, and the gate stays off its hinges. "Bursting with ideas for plays and poems," he works as a rent collector as his pile of unpublished manuscripts grows higher and higher. When Mother complains that the children are undernourished. Father--decent man that he is--drops his pen, rolls up his scrolls, and heads for Calcutta to earn some rice-money.
Left to hold the battered fort, Mother worries--worries that her husband will be gypped in the big city, that daughter Durga is stealing necklaces from the neighbors, that son Apu is getting neither enough to eat nor enough to read. Rounding out the family is Old Auntie, who must be at least an octogenarian.
When Pather Panchali leans towards the neo-realist, its most striking scenes show Auntie's hollow, shrewd, dying face; it pictures her eating wet meal with long, bony fingers, wiping dirt off her crackled skin, hobbling pitifully around the yard. At intervals she has snarling verbal bouts with Mother, who, though warm-hearted, is not the ideal of the Ladie's Home Journal. In fact, Mother often wishes Old Auntie would drop dead.
Satyajit Ray also turns his rented camera on pastoral symbolism, but it seems unconscious symbolism--a tribute to his art. Water flies darting on a pond, water lilies lifting wildly in a sudden gale, warm monsoon rain spattering on the attractive face of young Durga--these are scenes of compelling subtlety and beauty.
There are humorous moments, too, but unlike Hollywood's contrived chuckles, they grow out of life-as-it-is. Little Apu watches his school-master peddle rice while drilling the quiet students; he is fascinated by a cacophonous brass band that marches through the village; he sits goggle-eyed when a travelling troupe provides "culture" at the local theatre.
It would be impossible to capture Pather Panchali in a glib formula. Five human beings, from young Apu to Old Auntie, each sings his or her own eloquent "lament of the path." But the film is never depressing, for however great the sorrows, they face the path resolutely.
Starting with a modest budget, little equipment, and no experience, Satyajit Ray has proceduced an imaginative and technically impressive film. Encouraged by the success of Pather Panchali, he is expanding his theme into a trilogy. If the others are as good, the project will become a classic.