When talking about Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), it is hard to avoid superlatives. Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke had said, “Pather Panchali is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful films ever made.” Salman Rushdie, arguably a man of measure, feels that “Pather Panchali is a work of such lyrical and emotional force that it becomes, for its audiences, as potent as their most deeply personal memories”. Akira Kurosawa, Wes Anderson and Adoor Gopalakrishnan are similarly effusive in their praise for Satyajit Ray’s debut picture. Pather Panchali isn’t faultless – Ray himself felt that its first half is a tad sprawling – but almost all cinephiles will agree that it’s as close to perfect as one can get. The release of The Pather Panchali Sketchbook is thus an occasion.
Pather Panchali was incepted in a drawing book. Using pen, brush and ink, Ray sketched the sequences which would make his first film. He took this book to producers, but no one was impressed. Ray had never made a film before, and worse still, the movie had no songs. Though this struggle has been documented in the Harper Collins Sketchbook, the book importantly makes Ray’s drawings accessible. As actor Dhritiman Chaterji writes in his foreword, “This sketchbook is precious to the world of cinema because, quite simply, it shows us how one of the greatest films we’ve ever seen was visualised.” Chaterji’s claim, despite its seeming extravagance, is right on point.
Sketches of Apu and Durga getting wet in the first monsoon shower
Pather Panchali, as Ray himself noted, has “no clear-cut plot.” The story of a family in the forgotten Bengal village of Nischindipur, the film’s transitions are seamless, and it is in these smooth shifts that Ray finds for his debut an unforgettable poetry. This published Sketchbook is proof that Ray arrived at a coherence well before he started filming. Without lengthy dialogues that could help establish character, Ray, the artist, builds identities with simple brush strokes. In Pather Panchali, death, discovery and childhood are never dramatic. It’s in the everyday that Ray imbues surprise. That’s true for his sketches too. The director, even in his imagination, never once submits to excess.
Sketches of Apu and Durga in a Kaash Field
Much about Pather Panchali is now iconic. The almost quiet love which marks the relationship between Apu and his sister Durga is evident in a sketch that sees them lying in a kaash field. Their sudden sighting of a passing train is captured in frames that do seem a tad too small for a scene that was to become one of cinema’s most seminal moments. Drawings of a hunched old Indir are translated with a near precision on screen, and Apu’s and Durga’s mother Sarbajaya demonstrates in this sketchbook, all the emotions one identifies with her – rage, affection, despondency. Even minor characters such as the grocer-cum-teacher are brushed with a care that is painstakingly meticulous.
Satyajit Ray plans a shot on the sets of the film
These sketches apart, the Sketchbook compiles essays, reviews and articles by the film’s cast and crew. For fans of the film – of which there are undeniably many – the book is a veritable treasure trove. Ray writes about the relevance of his audience. Subrata Mitra talks about the scandal that the filmmaker had caused by hiring him as a cinematographer, “a twenty-one-year-old novice.” Uma Dasgupta, who played Durga, remembers how Nargis Dutt was disparaging. She felt it was “better not to showcase such poverty to the world”. And Subir Banerjee (Apu) writes about his first and only film with a moving fondness. Pather Panchali, it soon becomes apparent, was first a labour of love.
Ray waiting for the right weather during the shoot of Pather Panchali
A 1955 review in Hindustan Standard read, “Being Bengali, it Pather Panchali is bound to conquer the rest of India and the whole world.” The reviewer was vindicated by American critic Pauline Kael, who later noted, “Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new version of India to the screen.” In her introduction this book, Sharmila Tagore confesses, “Writing an introduction to Pather Panchali is challenging. What is there to say about the film that has not already been said?” The Pather Panchali Sketchbook doesn’t necessarily say anything new, but it helps a reader revisit a film whose brilliance is beyond question and whose director above reproach.