This is an academic paper on the historical significance and scene analysis of Satyajit Ray’s first feature in his widely influential “Apu Trilogy.” Major spoilers ahead.
Before the emergence of cinema in India, the Parsee Theatre System established in the 1830s in Bombay (now, Mumbai), practiced the song-dance-action routine now emblematic of Indian commercial cinema. (Rajadhyaksha 398) While the earliest films in Indian cinema, like Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913) did not strictly adhere to this archetypical form of entertainment now associated with Indian cinema, they tried to incorporate elements of this kind of commercial entertainment in their narratives. These earlier silent films aimed to serve a political purpose of promoting the “swadeshi movement against the discriminatory cotton tariffs imposed by the British government.” (Rajadhyaksha 402) With the advent of sound in film, however, India reverted to its theatrical roots. The first sound film of Indian cinema, Ardershir Irani’s melodramatic love story Alam Ara (1931), signaled the emergence of the melodramatic musical as the film genre that defined the nation’s distinctive contribution to world cinema. Irani’s films, and particularly, its songs’ enormous domestic success, moreover, represented the high demand for this form of commercial entertainment in India during the pre-Independence era. As the fight for Independence against the British intensified, the nation saw the inception of the production houses like Bombay Talkies and Filmistan Studios that gave opportunities to directors like Raj Kapoor to make high-quality escapist melodramatic musicals like Shree 420 (1955). By the early 1950s, these big-budget-studio produced films with big stars and extravagant musical numbers not only became a way for people in India to allow themselves to escape from the traumas of post-Independence struggle but also, they were the only films that studios were ready to make because of their guaranteed success in domestic markets.
While these commercial films were thriving domestically, they never caught significant attention from international markets because of the films’ emphasis on songs sometimes as an independent isolated musical entity as opposed to their role in the narrative structure of the film. (Cooper 50) The release of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in 1955, however, changed the lukewarm reception that Western audiences had towards Indian cinema to almost unanimous praise. Ray’s decision to fuse realism and melodrama to capture the unpredictable lives of the socioeconomically disadvantaged Roy family in his film gave the Bengali filmmaker immediate recognition on the international stage as an influential filmmaker. Through this mélange of stylistic traits from Italian Neo-Realist cinema and traditional Indian commercial cinema, Ray’s Pather Panchali not only gained the Bengali director the status as an auteur of humanist cinema, but also became one of the founding films of the Parallel Cinema movement in India that served as a response to the mainstream commercial filmmaking in India.
Ray’s decision to adapt Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s realistic novel Pather Panchali (1928) as his first film represents an unsurprising choice for the director given his liking of Western cinema. Born in 1921 to a family of intellectuals in West Bengal, Ray’s sensibility of films was always more informed by Western culture rather than by Indian culture. The presence of the British Raj in India allowed for greater imports of foreign films in India, and Ray’s educational and financial background indicates that he was allowed access to many of these resources. The Bengali filmmaker’s exposure to Western classical music and Hollywood motion pictures, in particular, informed his tastes as different from the majority of the working-class population in India. Ray even set up the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 to showcase films from not only Hollywood filmmakers like Frank Capra, but also from international film directors like Jean Renoir. The French filmmaker’s The River (1951) had a big influence on Ray, and the Bengali filmmaker extensively discussed with Renoir his use of the Poetic Realism aesthetic. Even more so than Renoir’s film, Ray recognized Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a film that had a major influence on his work. (Majumdar 565) One of the most popular films of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, De Sica’s film epitomized the role of the natural in Neo-Realist cinema. Shot on location, with mainly first-time actors, and minimal artifice and plot, Bicycle Thieves, in retrospect feels like a blueprint for Ray’s approach to adapting Pather Panchali.
Ray’s fondness for these international film movements suggests his discontent towards the state of commercial cinema in India that favors melodrama, and exaggeration to the eloquent naturalism of Italian Neo-Realist cinema. Ray openly questioned the credibility of Indian cinema in 1948 in his essay, “What is Wrong with Indian Cinema?” (Majumdar 563) Ray saw the Indian filmmakers’ irrelevant imitations of Hollywood films as the main roadblock for Indian cinema. He believed that Indian cinema lacked a true identity and that majority of the films made sought the empty visual flair of the average Hollywood film that was naturally at odds with the Indian identity. Therefore, the only way forward for Indian cinema, he believed, was to eschew the imitation of excess and move towards simplicity and authenticity. Ray’s condemnation of melodrama in Indian commercial films, and his belief in authenticity, however, conflict with each other in the context of his first film. In Pather Panchali, Ray has to use melodrama in many scenes (discussed later in the essay) to express both the aspirations and tragedy of his characters authentically. This form of melodrama, with its emphasis on dramatic music, but not the song-and-dance sequence, closely resembles an important aspect of the aesthetic of many of the commercial Indian cinema films of that time. Therefore, while Ray’s consistent focus on cinema as a medium to express “life itself” (Ray 120) does demonstrate his admiration and need for the Italian Neo-Realist cinema aesthetic in showing simplicity, his indirect disapproval of the melodrama in commercial Indian cinema aesthetic seems to contradict the very method he goes on to use in his first film to achieve authenticity.
This disdain for the model of Indian commercial filmmaking meant that the production for Pather Panchali was incredibly troublesome, which added to the film’s resemblance to the other films in the Italian Neo-Realist cinema movement. Without the presence of a recognized star actor or extravagant visual aesthetics, Pather Panchali, much to the expectations of Ray, did not attract any producers when he started filming in 1952. This lack of financing meant that Ray had to shoot his film very much in the vain of an Italian Neo-Realist film. The production of the film began with no script and ran over three years with amateur actors, and filming on location continuously disrupted because of the lack of support given to the film by any producer. Ray often ran out of funds and worked as a graphic designer himself to get finances to complete the film. Eventually, he ended up receiving a loan from the Home Publicity Department of the West Bengal government, who misunderstood the film as a documentary for rural uplift because of its stylistic differences with traditional Indian films, and ended up providing it funding for that very reason. (The Telegraph) With the help of this loan, Ray finally completed his film and showcased his film at an exhibition in 1955 at New York’s Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA). This prolonged production period of the film filled with challenges represented the difficulty of making an independent film in India, and added enormously to the film’s legacy, as the first film produced outside the studio system on a shoestring budget in India.
While Pather Panchali’s troubled production history and Ray’s reverence towards world cinema indicate that the Bengali filmmaker set out to make a film which was the antithesis of everything that Indian commercial cinema represented, the actual film shows a much subtler mix of both the Italian Neo-Realist aesthetics and the commercial Indian cinema’s melodramatic aesthetics. The film uses the Italian Neo-Realist aesthetic most prominently, unfolding the story of the film episodically and focusing on the banality of the lives of the Roy family in the village of Nischindipur. Through its use of deep of focus and naturalistic dialogue, the film demonstrates the monotonous and poverty-ridden life of the Roy family, alternating amongst the lives of the three central characters in the film – the mother, Sarbojaya Roy (Karuna Bannerjee), the daughter, Durga (Uma Dasgupta) and the son, Apu (Subir Banerjee). This mostly plotless structure of the film devoid of exaggerated drama, however, features some sequences in which Ray expresses both of his child characters’ inner desires. Due to the fantastical nature of these children’s hopes, Ray uses the musical melodrama aesthetic, albeit in an understated way in comparison to the Indian commercial cinema, to convey the innocent desires of these children. In the arrival of monsoon season scene, for instance, Ray uses this juxtaposition of styles of filmmaking to capture the unpredictability that the season brings for the children in the Roy family. Through his consistent use of realistic mise-en-scène and deep focus cinematography, but changing styles of sound, Ray demonstrates both the grounded fantasies and harsh realities that the rain brings for the poverty-stricken members of the Roy family.
The film combines the techniques of restrained acting, real-life setting, and deep focus cinematography with dramatic non-diegetic music to express the fantasies that the rain brings for both the children of the Roy family. To make the arrival of the monsoon season as lyrical as possible, Ray begins the scene with a medium shot of rain droplets falling on a river source, which is not even in proximity to the film’s protagonists. In this shot, the film overpowers the diegetic sound of the rain droplets falling into the water with Pandit Ravi Shankar’s bamboo flute and tabla music. The inclusion of this shot with the rhythmic non-diegetic music establishes the beginning of the fantasy section of the film for the two children. The film then cuts to the silent interaction between Apu and Durga. Using mainly medium and wide shots, Ray films the wordless conversation between the two characters in deep focus to emphasize the importance of the third character present in the scene – the heavily soaked rural village of Nischindipur. The medium and wide shots, particularly highlight the wilderness of the village, making the viewer realize that the characters are living in a believable environment engulfed by nature. Both first-time child actors Uma Dasgupta, and Subir Banerjee reinforce this lack of artifice in the film through their subtle acting that requires them to express emotions almost entirely through their facial expressions. The close-up shot of Durga caressing her face in the rain, for instance, is played in such an understated way by Dasgupta that the viewer has to notice the subtle gestures of her hand to interpret what the falling of the rain droplets on her face mean to her.
In contrast to constructing a realistic mise-en-scène, Ray sound bridges Shankar’s music from the establishing scene of the arrival of monsoon to this wordless conversation between the two children of the Roy family and the rain to create a unique effect. The rhythmic beats of the tabla along with the meditative melody of the flute (later replaced in the scene with Shankar’s playful sitar music) amplify the actions of the mise-en-scène. This playful sitar music makes even the wide shot of Durga twirling in the rain appear like she is dancing to the tune of this music. The presence of the diegetic sound of the rain signals the viewer about the existence of the real environment, but the higher emphasis on the non-diegetic music creates a flight of fantasy for the children of the Roy family, making their interaction with each other and the environment almost feel like a musical. This dream-like moment created by the use of non-diegetic music further underlines the innocent escapism that the socioeconomically disadvantaged children seek to get away from the mundanity of their lives.
The film nullifies this tension between the dramatic non-diegetic music and the diegetic sound of rain right in the next scene to create a sudden sense of return to the harsh reality for the children. Ray employs more close-ups, high angle shots, and dialogue to both provide an exposition of Durga’s health condition and to emphasize the raw emotion that both the children feel. The high angle shot looking down on Durga lying sick on the bed with the village’s local doctor checking her medical condition serves as a significant juxtaposition to the medium shot of her dancing in the rain in the previous scene. This shot, along with the lack of non-diegetic music stresses on her miserable situation, caused by the cold she caught during the rain. The film continues to remind the viewer of Durga’s medical condition when the doctor converses with the adults about her health. Ray films this conversation between all the adults in an incredibly realistic, almost banal form to display the seriousness of Durga’s situation to her mother, and the other people in the village. The discussion of the medicines supersedes the rhythm of tabla and the sitar to suggest the return to reality for both the children. Ray, however, ends this scene not on the discussion of the adults, but on another tender moment between Durga and Apu when they reminisce their memories of watching a train for the first time and promise to go back to see it once Durga gets well.
The filmmaker films this conversation using similar techniques he used in capturing the wordless sequence between the kids, however, he significantly places higher importance on dialogue over non-diegetic sound in this scene to make the conversation between the children feel melancholic. The film utilizes deep focus cinematography to highlight the film’s realistic mise-en-scène, showing the viewer the poor living conditions of the Roy family from a high angle medium shot of the children cramped up in the small bedroom. He also uses this crammed up spacing and close-ups of the children to generate empathy in the viewer for Apu and Durga who want to leave this harsh world and return to the magical land filled with the sound music. The strings from music composer Shankar’s sitar do make their presence felt subtly in the background during the children’s final conversation. However, the film’s emphasis on Ray’s naturalistic aesthetic reinforces the sad reality that the children have left their fantasy world, and the only way they can remember their magical moments is through the little conversations they share with each other.
This scene aptly represents both the film’s use of two completely different aesthetics and the filmmaker’s attitude towards those two approaches to filmmaking. The influence of the Italian Neo-Realist cinema dominates not only this scene but also the film, with most sequences unfolding in an understated and naturalistic manner. However, the melodramatic musical aesthetic of Indian commercial cinema lurks like a shadow in between these understated scenes, making its presence felt whenever any dramatic moment takes place in the film. The episodic nature of the Italian Neo-Realist cinema, moreover, lends the melodramatic musical moments in the film a more significant resemblance with the song-dance routine of commercial Indian cinema, as these moments do not adhere to any particular narrative structure in the film. It is this unpredictable tension between these styles that gives Pather Panchali both its simplicity and authenticity.
The Parallel Cinema movement similarly has films and filmmakers that follow this pattern of filmmaking in which realism dominates the commercial song-dance cinema. However, the presence of this distinctly Indian musical melodramatic aesthetic never seems to evade these films entirely. Along with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Ray’s Pather Panchali started this movement which grew substantially from the 1960s to the 1980s before its decline in the 1990s. The cinema movement exclusively worked in contrast to the Indian commercial cinema model, with funding made available to many of these filmmakers in the Parallel Cinema movement from the 1960s by the Indian government as opposed to a studio. These films and filmmakers were of the same mindset as Ray himself, adapting great Indian literary works onto film, and emphasizing the importance of naturalism over melodrama. Ray continued to follow his model of filmmaking too, directing and producing several films including the two other installments of the Apu Trilogy – Aparajito (1958) and Apur Sansar (1959). Like Pather Panchali, the Italian Neo-Realist cinema aesthetic informed the majority of his later films and was widely applauded by audiences internationally. But, the unnoticed elements of the melodramatic musical also remained present in almost all his other films, which is what made his films (and the majority of those made as part of the Parallel Cinema movement) authentically Indian.
- Cooper, Darius. “The Hindi Film Song and Guru Dutt.” East-West Film Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, edited by Wimal Dissanayake, East-West Center, 1988, 49-65.
- Majumdar, Neepa. “Pather Panchali (1955): From Neorealism to Melodrama.” Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, Second Edition, edited by Jeffrey Geiger, and R. L. Rutsky, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 556-572.
- Rajadyaksha, Ashish. “Indian Cinema: Origins to Independence.” The Oxford History of World Cinema, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Oxford University Press, 1997, 398-409.
- Ray, Satyajit. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH INDIAN FILMS? (India, 1948).” Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, edited by Scott MacKenzie, University of California Press, 2014, 117–120.
- “Filmi Funda – Pather Panchali (1955).” The Telegraph, 20 April 2005, web.archive.org/web/20131203012826/www.telegraphindia.com/1050420/asp/calcutta/story_4634530.asp