To me, Pather Panchali means pure cinema. One which is not about telling a story or hearing the dialogues. Nothing much happens in Nishchindipur. It is all about visuals held together by silences and sounds to create feelings abidingly haunting. Intimate emotions are made so tangible that you can virtually pick them up from the screen and hold them in your hands. Whether it is the smile of a kid staring at the pompous village shopkeeper-teacher or the tragedy of a mother who has lost her young daughter—emotions are articulated without words and are all the more searing for that. You don’t need subtitles to sympathise with these people, you live along their feelings. And somewhere the resilience and dignity of Sarbojaya and the playfulness of Durga become your ideals.
Nishchindipur is like a playground. The fun and games of Durga and Apu, the caring and sharing of the siblings—the candyman, the kittens, the rain dance—and then the loss of a sister and the inability of Apu to comprehend its enormity as he brushes his teeth without Durga by his side. Pather Panchali is about childhood but made through the filtered vision of an adult looking back which makes it that much more nuanced and philosophical.
Watching a favourite film again and again is about discovering new ways of seeing, about digging fresh meanings and significance in the familiar. It’s also about sheer nostalgia as each viewing becomes a signpost in your own personal history, as much about your thoughts and feelings as those inherent in the film. My original feeling was one of scorn. I snubbed it when I caught up with it years ago on television, when DD used to show priceless retrospectives of Guru Dutt, Ray and Bimal Roy. Watching films was made mandatory by parents who were scared at the prospect of their kid growing up with Mumtaz as a role model and Shashi Kapoor as the hearthrob. Till then, one had lived on a healthy diet of Hindi films and came to regard cinema as an escape. Pather Panchali then became too real for comfort. You could sense the slow rhythm and subtle emotions of Ray but couldn’t bother to understand them. You were bogged down by the poverty and the relentlessly tragic feel. Your parents told you how Nishchindipur was just like your own village near Almora where your uncle used to assidously collect the free money order forms from the local post office to use them as writing paper instead of spending money on costly notebooks. Deprivation has the same face, anywhere. Only you chose not to see it.
It was while doing a film appreciation course at the ftii, Pune, that I finally "studied" Pather Panchali, "the film that changed the history of Indian cinema". You were made to see in it the mix of Nehruvian socialism and the reformism of the Brahmo Samaj tempered with a Western narrative and elements of Italian neo-realism. Nischindipur became a symbol of a feudal society with capitalism beginning to knock at the door: humming telegraph poles and smoke-bellowing trains.
Then I saw the film yet again at British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre. To a full house. It became a source of pride. Despite the Bollywood invasion in the UK, the "whites" still identified Indian cinema with The Song of the Road. It also complicated their understanding of India. They asked in wonder: "But you speak English, you don’t wear sari...." And you found it difficult to explain that Nishchindipur still exists in India and yet it doesn’t. The scene of Indir Thakrun eating riceballs, of Sarbojaya dragging Durga by her hair made me uncomfortable in retrospect.Maybe it was too naked.
In my consciousness, the link between Pather Panchali and Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso is strong. There’s this enchanting scene in Paradiso: the young hero Toto is fascinated as Alfredo, his projectionist friend, inclines the projector and lets the moving image travel out of the theatre to the wall of the town square. Years ago I too must have been as ecstatic watching the film for the first time at a neighbourhood Durga Puja. Nothing about the film registered then. It was not about camera, sound or editing. It was about movie magic hidden in filmstrips, in the relic of a projector and in those flickering b/w images.