Director: Anik Dutta
Cast: Jeetu Kamal, Sayani Ghosh
Pather Panchali is a textbook example of a pathbreaking film. There couldn’t have been a film more banal, risk averse, and just plain boring, on its making than Anik Dutta’s Aparajito. It’s even more ironical because Dutta’s film dedicates a great deal of screen time in showing how Ray was making something daring and original. Not only was it going against ‘what sells’ moviemaking in Bengali and Indian cinema at the time, it was breaking rules of film grammar itself. I haven’t seen a film so lacking in self-awareness.
It was never a great idea to begin with. Making a film on the defining chapter from Ray’s life planned around his centenary? What are you going to show? A bunch of actors in costume and make up pretending to be making a revolutionary film? What on God’s glacier-melted earth is so exciting about it? Maybe calling it Ray: An Origin Story would’ve been more interesting, a Bengali superhero movie about a very tall man who smoked too many cigarettes.
Casting an actor with facial likeness to Ray is not even among the film’s top ten problems, but it’s a telling one: Aparajito’s concerns are purely cosmetic. It’s not bad, it’s worse; it’s the height of mediocrity. It’s the kind of film that says, ‘Look at me, I am a black and white film about the making of a black and white film’, and wants to be patted on the back.
It revisits legends from Ray’s early life. Counterproductively, it shows the very ideals that formed his cinema where in fact doesn’t exercise any of it. If film is essentially wordless, Aparajito defines verbose. If cinema’s essence lies in its ability to capture lifelike moments, Dutta’s film has the depth of a wax museum figurine. The filmmaker wanted to pay tribute to Ray; he has unwittingly made a parody. Satyajit Ray is Aparajito Ray. Pather Panchali is Pather Podaboli (wtf!). Bicycle Thieves is Bicycle Riders. Boral is Shoral. I was really hoping Dutta has found alternate names for the sun and moon as well.
Aparajito does everything contemporary Bengali cinema keeps doing – all fancy talk, no substance. You’re supposed to be so impressed by Film Society chatter that you hopefully overlook how the scene is done, where actors talk like they are part of a bad radio play. It’s the kind of cultural chauvinism that has ruined Bengali cinema.
In this airless, stodgy film, Dutta finds some dramatic urgency in the making-of portions, in the solutions Ray and his team find during the on-location shoot of Pather Panchali. One particular snippet is about how he makes the little boy who plays Apu perform a certain way: he’s supposed to look around as he walks towards the camera in a buildup to the iconic train in barley field scene; Dutta first shows us the okayed take and then the trick – his assistants hid themselves in different spots, calling the boy from different directions.
Aparajito banks on these kind of easy, superficial anecdotes and BTS tidbits. A film needs more than just that to exist. Aparajito’s failings might be rooted in its lack of purpose, and desperate urge to pander. A film on the making of Pather Panchali didn’t need to be necessarily disruptive – it could’ve at least been well-made and enjoyable.