In the first of a series in which academics and filmmakers discuss their favourite film, Anita Desai savours the powerfully visceral impact of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. I have never met anyone who has seen Satyajit Ray's 1955 masterpiece, Pather Panchali, and who did not remember - vividly - the occasion, as well as whole scenes from the film.
Some will pick the moment when Durga lifts up the eyelid of her sleeping brother Apu and his eye gleams at us out of his sleep, dark and illuminating; others the moment of Durga's death when the mother opens her mouth to vent her anguish but instead we hear Ravi Shankar's high-pitched music give voice to it; or the storm ruffling the still surface of a village pond, stippling it with raindrops. Whatever it is, a particular expression crosses the face of the one who remembers, as if the memory were a deep, almost visceral delight.
My own memory of it is intimately bound to my Bengali father's memory of his village home in East Bengal, a place I had not then - and still have not - visited. He was a withdrawn and taciturn man who found it difficult to communicate with his children, and we had little to go on in reconstructing his childhood: just the torrential monsoon rains that turned the village into a vast lake, the boats they would ply to get about, the Victorian poetry they memorised in school, the foods they ate, mostly fish and coconut in mustard oil or banana leaves . . .
The latter my mother would try to recreate for him, and occasionally he would hear a tune, a snatch of music, that he recognised and related to his childhood. But never as on that day that we went to see a matinee show of Pather Panchali in an Old Delhi cinema. He came out with his eyes wet and chokingly tried to tell us that this, this was how it had been. I understood now, and later read the Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji novel on which the film was based and there found again a whole, lost world recreated with such perfection that one could taste the sour berries found in the forest, feel the dry earth under one's bare feet.
Ray was one of the most literary of filmmakers we have had - his sensitivity to literature and faithfulness to a text is of course particularly endearing to a writer. I cannot think of an instance when he has taken a piece of fiction, say, a novel or a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, and not recreated its every quality in a different medium, a visual, mobile one. I have never come away from any of his film adaptations with that too-common disappointment in finding what one had imagined had been destroyed by the imposition of the director's vision.
To be faithful to the text must have been particularly difficult in the case of the novel Pather Panchali, so much of which is descriptive detail about the plants, fruit, fish, birds, air and winds of a Bengali village and in which human emotion and experience are given no priority over the moods and transmutations of nature. Yet Ray achieved an unsurpassed symbiosis, in his film, of the written and visual text.
To bring it about he had to be, and was, a master of many crafts: a designer of sets, a casting director, a location designer, even a musician - he would either compose the score himself or else draw out of a composer exactly the music required for the film. His sets have always been so meticulously designed that it is impossible to find a mistake, a wrong note, though most of Pather Panchali was of course filmed on location.
In its cast he had actors and actresses who had never given such performances before, and never would again: the child Apu, trembling with excitement while watching a rustic drama at a village festival; the girl Durga running wildly through a field of pampas grass to see a train go by and stopping to press her ear to a telegraph pole and hear its mysterious hum; the old, unwanted aunt trying to appease the family and win its pity by putting on a smile of such radiant pathos that it breaks one's heart in two.
Ray was to explain his serendipitous "finds" - of cast, location, etc - in a characteristically matter-of-fact tone, dealing mainly with the practicalities. Pather Panchali was important to him because it was the first film he made - and it opened the way to others. To the end of his life he was too preoccupied with his current project to look back; it is left for us to savour that pleasure.
Anita Desai is a novelist and professor of writing, MIT.
Next in the series: Ian Christie on A Matter of Life and Death.