What can one write about a film about which so much has already been written? Dare one even attempt a review?
But since I did watch Pather Panchali (‘Song of the Little Road’) recently, and since it is such an iconic film, a review is in order.
Satyajit Ray’s debut film has been hailed as one of the hundred greatest films ever made, but its making was fraught with difficulty for Ray. Funds were hard to come by, since investors were unwilling to put their money into a film that had no major stars, no songs (though Ravi Shankar did compose the background music for Pather Panchali, a score which forms an important part of the film), and was so bleakly real. Pather Panchali eventually ended up being funded by the government of West Bengal, and took three years to make.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali begins in a small, sweet way which nevertheless manages to establish the main theme of the story: the poverty of Hori (Kanu Bannerjee) and his little family. Hori is a priest, a learned man, but he is constantly trying to make ends meet. He is not at home in this scene, where his wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) is doing her chores. Hori’s cousin, the elderly widow Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi, an octogenarian veteran actress whom Ray coaxed out of retirement to do this, her last role) also stays with the family.
This film has been on my watchlist for a long time—many people, over the years, have recommended it to me as a good Bengali comedy—so when, on my ‘double roles’ post someone mentioned it, I decided it was high time I watched Lukochuri (‘Stealth’). I was a little sceptical; Kishore Kumar tends to go over the top when doing comedy, to the extent that I find him positively irritating in films like Half Ticket, Jhumroo, Naughty Boy, etc. But a Bengali film, I thought, might have a more sophisticated sense of humour? One could only hope.
The story starts in Jabalpur, where Kumar Chaudhury ‘Buddhoo’ (Kishore Kumar) is getting ready to leave for Bombay. Buddhoo works for a company which has transferred him to Bombay, and Buddhoo is bidding farewell to his father (Moni Chatterjee) and his Pishima (?), his father’s sister, who lives with them.
When I reviewed An Inspector Calls a couple of weeks back, blog reader AS, in a comment, mentioned that a Bengali version of the film (or rather of the play by JB Priestly, on which it was based) was also made, starring Uttam Kumar: Thana Theke Aschi. This was a film that had been recommended to me earlier as well, so I had it bookmarked; but I hadn’t known it was a version of An Inspector Calls.
Now, fresh from my viewing of (and gushing over) An Inspector Calls, I decided I had to watch Thana Theke Aschi while the story was still fresh in my mind.
The story begins with a brief glimpse of a faceless woman, lying dead on the floor of a dingy little hut, an empty bottle of carbolic acid near her hand. The corpse is found by another woman, who starts to scream.
The scene then shifts to the home of the wealthy Chandramadhav Sen (Kamal Mitra), where an engagement party is in full swing. Mr Sen’s daughter Sheila (Anjana Bhowmick) has just gotten betrothed to Amiya (?), the son of one of Mr Sen’s business associates. It’s a grand party, and once it’s over, Amiya stays on, chatting with the Sens.
I admire Satyajit Ray immensely. Not only for his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to interpret that in a meaningful, restrained and memorable way, but also for so much more: his intelligence, his eye for detail, his artistic ability. And, up there with all the rest of these qualities, his versatility. Several people have called him a ‘Renaissance Man’, and I agree completely: this man was a fine director, as well as a great writer, artist, costume designer, font designer- and so much else.
And he was versatile even in the world of cinema itself. For those who equate Ray only with ‘art’ films, works like Chiriakhana, Shonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne may come as a surprise: but to me, at least, they constitute a happy surprise. Different from Jalsaghar or Charulata (or so many other films of Ray’s) but in their own way, manifestations of Ray’s genius. Comedy, whodunnit, adventure: Ray could do it all, and do it well.
Or romantic comedy. While Ray did not direct Baksa Badal (his assistant Nityanand Datta did), he wrote the screenplay for this delightfully romantic comedy about two people whose identical suitcases get switched, and what that switch leads to. (Ray also composed the music for Baksa Badal).
Note: The original story of Baksa Badal was a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. You can read an English translation of it here.
Today is the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray: he was born on May 2, 1921, in Calcutta.
I am not going to expend words and energy in writing even a short biography of Ray: is there any need, after all? Because Ray is too well-known, too well-respected, for him to need any introduction. If there’s one Indian film-maker who’s acclaimed even abroad, it’s Ray. And when you think of how he didn’t merely direct great films, but wrote them, composed music for them, designed costumes for them—and wrote novels and short stories, designed typefaces, created art: you realize just how multi-faceted a genius was Satyajit Ray.
In one important scene in Aranyer Din Raatri, a successful business executive named Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee) tells Aparna, a poised young woman he’s met in the jungles of Palamau, that life in the city is all about rules. If you have to work, you have to abide by the rules.
Rules, the implication is, suffocate. And every now and then, to survive and to give yourself a break from those oppressive rules, you rebel. You go away, you flee. You find yourself again, you refresh yourself, regain your energy and then come back to start conforming all over again.
This seems to be the premise with which this film, one of Satyajit Ray’s best-known works, begins. Ashim, along with three other friends, is driving down from Kolkata to Palamau for a holiday. The men are a mixed bag. Sanjay (Shubhendu Chatterjee) works in the jute industry and, as they’re driving along, is sitting in the back of the car and reading a book about Palamau from which he reads out excerpts now and then.
The first Soumitra Chatterjee film I saw was Charulata (1964). I had known of Soumitra Chatterjee before, had known even of his stature in Bengali cinema; but this film was my introduction to him. And what an introduction it proved to be.
Even now, several years down the line, I cannot claim to have done justice to Soumitra Chatterjee’s filmography, not even to his most famous phase of the fourteen films he did with Satyajit Ray. I have seen some films, of course, including Aranyer Din Ratri, Samapti (the third part of the Teen Kanya trilogy of short films), Kapurush and Sonar Kella from among Ray’s works, and a few by other directors, such as Barnali (which I watched a few weeks back, when Chatterjee passed away). My relative lack of familiarity with Chatterjee’s work made me a little nervous about reading his biography: I wondered if I would be able to understand all the nuances, whether it would not be too much for a Chatterjee-ignoramus like me.
When I read the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing away, my first thought was: I need to write a tribute, talk about how much I liked this actor. Then, reality crept in. It’s not as if I’ve seen too many films that starred Soumitra Chatterjee. Charulata, Kapurush, Jhinder Bondi, Aranyer Din Raatri, Sonar Kella, one of the three episodes of Teen Kanya… and that was it. I didn’t recall having seen any of his other films.
Which might sound odd; how could one like an actor so much based on only such a handful of films? But I suppose when you’re looking at quality rather than quantity, it can work. And Soumitra Chatterjee, even in the few films of his that I’ve seen, proved himself a memorable actor. Not just handsome, not just superficially charismatic, but also so very talented. His ‘coward’ of Kapurush is so very real, so flawed and believable a protagonist; his Mayurvahan in Jhinder Bondi is a deliciously evil portrayal of the flamboyant, boyishly attractive yet very wicked Rupert of Hentzau. It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata, and he is Feluda. Sharp, intelligent, well-read (and intelligent and well-read are apt descriptions of the man in real life too, from what I gather).
But a full-fledged tribute, a run-down of all his best films: no, that was not something I thought I would be capable of. Instead, I decided to commemorate the life and career of Soumitra Chatterjee by watching one film I’d only heard of in passing, never really got down to seeing.
Bengali cinema is one of the few regional language cinema industries for which it’s relatively easy to find subtitled copies. Even when the film in question is an old one.
Over the years, several Bengali readers have recommended Shaarey Chuattar to me. I had been under the impression that I should watch this film for the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen pairing (it was the their first film together, the first of many films in which they were co-stars). But, now that I’ve seen it, I can safely say that this is a film you should watch not for these two, but for the film itself. True, Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar provide some eye candy and are a likable romantic couple, but the romance in Shaarey Chuattar is not the main thing.
Here is the answer to the question I set a couple of days back. What do Aapke kamre mein koi rehta hai, Yeh jawaani hai deewaani, Pyaar deewaana hota hai and Yeh kya hua have in common, I had asked (besides the obvious: that Kishore had sung all four, and RD Burman had composed all four). Some people got the answer correct, and some came close to guessing. Yes, these songs were all copied by Burman from tunes he had composed for one film. That was a Bengali film named Rajkumari, released in 1970.
Rajkumari, starring Tanuja as the eponymous princess, is a film I came across thanks to friend and erstwhile fellow blogger, Harvey. Some weeks back, Harvey shared a link to one of the songs of Rajkumari (more about these songs, later). I liked it so much that I made up my mind I had to see it. And it turned out to be quite entertaining.