In this series, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay talks about relatively lesser known and yet brilliant films by influential directors which were somehow overshadowed by some of their more popular films.
Humour, as we all know, is a difficult emotion to evoke. It is not an easy job to make someone laugh. Among other things, the one tricky bit about humour is that it works best in the context of its own milieu. Satyajit Ray's Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone) (1958) is an apt example of this. Lauded more in Bengal than anywhere outside, and failing almost outright with foreign audiences, the film never got its due, which is why, it hardly features in any discussion on the cinema of Satyajit Ray. But once you watch it, you will realize that it is one of the finest films that Ray had made in his career spanning four decades.
Parash Pathar was Ray's third film. In 1958, after making two 'serious' films, namely Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956), both of which were critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful, Ray wanted to make something light hearted, something with which he could connect with the average cinegoer in Bengal. There were two choices which appealed to his sensibilities – either make a film with song and dance, or turn to humour. With this end in mind, Ray set out to make Jalsaghar (1958), which was to have elaborate song and dance sequences in it. Work began with veteran actor Chhabi Biswas in the lead. But just about then, Biswas got an invitation from Berlin, where his iconic film – Tapan Sinha's Kabuliwala (1957) – was being screened. Biswas had never travelled outside the country, and he expressed his desire to attend the event. He also spoke to Ray about spending some time in the continent after the screening. A gentleman by all measures and standards, Ray could not say 'no' to him. But not one to sit idle and fritter away valuable time, Ray began working on another film – one which he had adapted from a comic short story written by veteran Bengali author Rajshekhar Bose, also known by his pen-name Parashuram. That film was Parash Pathar.
An underpaid middle-aged Bengali bank clerk named Paresh Dutta is caught in the rain while returning from office one evening, and he takes shelter in a park, where he stumbles upon a small shiny pebble. He picks it up and brings it home without giving much thought to it — but it soon turns out that the pebble is nothing but the mythical Philosopher's Stone, which can magically turn any base metal that comes into contact with it into pure gold. Paresh Dutta's fortune takes a sudden and drastic turn for the better and he becomes a rich and powerful man. But he soon realises that not only is keeping wealth far more difficult than earning it, but also that all the gold in the world can't buy some of the most basic things in life.
Essentially a comedy at heart, the film is perhaps the only one in Ray's filmography which is rather Chaplinesque in nature — in that it presents its humour always with an underlying layer of pathos. There is a distinct comic element present throughout the film – Paresh Dutta's nervous visit to a bullion merchant, for example, to check if the first lot of gold he has accidentally created is, indeed, what he thinks it is. Or his awkward attempts to socialize with upper class people. Or the hilarious manner in which a young man tries to introduce him at a social function organized to honour him. But such scenes are almost always followed by an unmistakable element of pathos. For instance, in the film's opening scene, a narrator rues at the hopelessness of the middle-class office-going clerks of pre-independence Bengal, whose lucks turn according to the whims and fancies of their British bosses. In another brilliant scene towards the middle of the film, Paresh Dutta's wife Giribala laments that although she now has everything that she could wish for, she misses her old neighbours from the dingy by-lane where she used to live. Just like the humour is never in your face, the tragedy too is invariably subtle. Small things, like the fact that the Duttas never let go of their old and faithful servant, or that they were always generous in their donations, endear them to the audience.
In yet another scene, the poor clerk decides to throw the magical stone away, fearing the wrath of God, but changes his mind when he accidentally finds himself in the middle of an industrial dumpyard, with mounds after mounds of metal scrap spreading as far as his eyes could see — the possibilities now slowly beginning to emerge in his head
Despite the financial constraints under which Ray had had to work early on in his career, the film was technically brilliant. For one, it had some clever uses of light, especially in a beautifully shot scene at a cocktail party to which Paresh Dutta is invited, and in which, despite all his wealth, he struggles to find social acceptance. Towards the later part of the scene, the use of shadows and silhouettes is what can best be described as the cinematic equivalent of Ray's dexterity with and fascination for ink-work – something he had learnt during his education in fine arts at Shantiniketan.
In another side-scrolling scene juxtaposing common pedestrians against the lavish Governor's House in Kolkata, Dutta is seen hastily walking back home after a charity football match, knowing very well that his tattered umbrella would not protect him from the impending thunderstorm. The contrast is perfect here, and yet, characteristically subtle. It is an everyday sight, Ray just makes us sit up and take notice with his clever camerawork. In yet another scene, the poor clerk decides to throw the magical stone away, fearing the wrath of God, but changes his mind when he accidentally finds himself in the middle of an industrial dumpyard, with mounds after mounds of metal scrap spreading as far as his eyes could see — the possibilities now slowly beginning to emerge in his head. The sheer volume of metal around him makes the audience giddy, because for the first time, we realize the true potential of the stone.
With Parash Pathar, Ray successfully connects with the fears and insecurities of the common man. These scenes are sure signs that Ray's genius was anything but a one or two-film wonder. Consider this, for instance. The film's lead role is played by a gentleman named Tulsi Chakarabarti — a veteran Bengali character actor — of whom Ray had once said that no comic scene in Bengali cinema is complete without him. And yet, Ray uses the same man to depict the tragedy in the delusion of contentment that wealth has to offer. Only a filmmaker of Ray's calibre can achieve something like that.