The Bengali feature film Pather Panchali or Song of The Road in English was directed by Satyajit Ray and released in 1955. It was considered a landmark in the field of Indian as well as world cinema. Although it was director Ray’s debut effort it went on to win critical and popular acclaim from all around the world. The path breaking movie was also instrumental in winning the ‘Best Human Document’ award at the Cannes Film Festival of 1956.
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Satyajit Ray had his first truck with neo-realism as far back as 1949, when Jean Renoir the famous director from France came to Calcutta to make the film The River. The neo-realistic influence that is apparent in most of his movies came from this association with the famed movie maker as also from the neo-realistic propensities of the then prevailing Italian cinema (Ruberto. L, Wilson. E & Kristi. M 2007). Ray happened to take the famous director to various potential locations in the Bengal countryside. Later he went to London on official business. During the short time he was in London, Ray saw myriads of movies and seeing the film Bicycle Thieves made so profound an impression on him that he decided to be a movie maker, then and there (Robinson, 2003).
Pather Panchali is considered to be neo-realist in its implications. The main reason for describing the movie as neo-realistic was the fact that it was filmed not long after the II World War when neo-realism held sway in most of Europe. What made the critics tack the label of neo-realism to Ray’s movie?
Ray chose mostly natural locations while shooting Pather Panchali. He wanted the backdrop of each shot to speak for itself. Also, he totally refrained from the artificially exaggerated practices and gestures of the popular cinema prevailing in India. The movie is said to have amply demonstrated some affiliations with the traditions narration, representation as well as musical address prevailing in earlier times in an effort to articulate in an Indian identity of the day following independence” (Vasudevan, 2000). In an attempt to dissociate himself and his creations from the commercial movies emanating from Bollywood, Satyajit Ray stated, “The differences appear to emerge from evaluating the status of the narrative form through which the real would be articulated, through what means of representation, styles of acting, aesthetic strategies the real would be invoked. Here the popular compendium – studio shooting, melodramatic, externalized forms for the representation of character psychology, non- or intermittently continuous forms of cutting, diversionary story lines, performance sequences – was not acceptable within the emergent artistic canon, for they undermined plausibility and a desirable regime of verisimilitude (Ray, 1976).
Pather Panchali possessed all the essential characteristics of neo-realism as proposed by the great Italian movie maker Zabattini. The neo-realistic theory lays down the dictum that the filmmaker should not ever impose his own individual interpretation on the movie that he is making and should always remain a passive observer of the reality that he happens to be creating. It does not matter whether he is depicting misery or prosperity, the movie maker should always uphold the utmost objectivity, by subordinating logic to action at all times. Although, even the staunchest of the neo-realists were utterly unable to attain such total objectivity for the simple reason that the subjective element always had a tendency to creep into any artistic creation, they never stopped from trying to achieve it.
The same thing holds true for Satyajit Ray when he made his debut film Pather Panchali. In fact Ray was virtually unable to keep the subjective element out of his movie. But he never made comments on his actions, characters or situations. He never pitches hints at his audience and never tells them just what to think and feel. At the same time he was not at all apprehensive about taking the appropriate stances. This is because he was predisposed not to his characters but to the drama of life itself. He had his own ways to suffuse life on to the screen in order to impart a shimmer of hope to all his characters.
Pather Panchali and Bollywood movies : A contrast
Bollywood movies are a far cry from the realism and objectivity of Ray’s movies When comparing and contrasting a Satyajit Ray movie to any Bollywood movie, there is nothing much to compare but there is a lot to contrast. The only factor a movie like Pather Panchali has in common with a Bollywood movie is that both are shot in India and is about life in India. The similarity ends there. While Ray’s movies are predominantly realistic, there is nothing even remotely realistic about Bollywood films.
To make matters worse, Satyajit Ray’s art films received their due recognition from the cognoscenti and welcomed with open hands within the ambit of world cinema. Evidently, Ray’s movies were in stark contrast to the populist fare dished out to the masses. This further discouraged any scholarly discussion of Bollywood movies within cinematic and media study circles. Madhava Prasad (2003) a film scholar wonders about the significance of the term Bollywood (2003). It might be that being imitative Bollywood cinema needs to be rechristened to emphasize this derivativeness.
In another context, Gokulsingh et al states that “whereas Hollywood filmmakers strove to conceal the constructed nature of their work so that the realistic narrative was wholly dominant, Indian filmmakers made no attempt to conceal the fact that what was shown on the screen was a creation, an illusion, a fiction.
While movies like Pather Panchali comes under the genre of art cinema or parallel cinema, Bollywood movies come under the genre of Masala meaning a mixture of hot spices. The main characteristic of the Masala genre is the song and dance sequences, a critical factor in defining the particular genre. But audiences that invest social realism into cinema find it difficult to accept the genre as they are ‘extraneous constructions of the ‘real” (Dudrah, 2002). It might be interesting to note that the term ‘Bollywood’ does not signify Indian cinema as a whole but is confined to those movies emanating from Mumbai, the erstwhile Bombay (Corliss, 1996).
Any film begins with a budget which in turn necessitates financial backing. Another factor that delineates Pather Panchali and Bollywood movies is the matter of budgeting. Pather Panchali was shot with the meager budget of $3000 while Bollywood spends incredible amounts to make musical extravaganzas. Even a single dance scene from a Bollywood movie costs tens of thousands of dollars. Satyajit Ray could not afford even what to a Bollywood producer is an insignificant sum. The government of Ray’s home state contributed the lion’s share of the production costs of Pather Panchali. This never happens with Bollywood films. Film distributors around India are standing ready to advance princely amounts of cash to a masala movie emanating from Bolllywood. Monroe Wheeler, the then head of the prestigious Museum of Modern Art was greatly impressed with high levels of quality prevalent in Pather Panchali although what he saw at the time of his visit to Calcutta in 1954 was an incomplete footage. Later Wheeler asked John Huston, the American movie director who was on a visit to Calcutta to look into the progress Ray’s debut movie. At Huston’s favorable feedback, the Museum of Modern Art provided Ray with additional funds. Still three years had elapsed before the movie went into post-production (Mehta, 1998).
The screenplay for Pather Panchali was based on the Bengali novel of the same title by the popular novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The novel was about the simple lives of people inhabiting the Bengal countryside of the period. Such a theme is generally anathema to Bollywood directors. Again, the scripts of Bollywood movies tend to be involved, complicated and resemble the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that somehow come together at the very end. In contrast Pather Panchali did not have even a whole script (Robinson, 2003) as it was solely based on Ray’s notes and drawings. His theme was simple enough with seemingly random sequences of trivial as well as significant sequences pieced together, a practice that is foreign to the mindset of Bollywood movie directors. Rather than dishing out a fare to assist the moviegoers to escape from the harsh realities of life even it is for a few hours as is the case with Bollywood movies, Ray wanted the script “â€¦to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble (Ray, 1976).
Quite unlike a Satyajit Ray movie, a bollywood film is replete with a plot that is extremely melodramatic in its connotations. Most of such movies follow a regular formula with ingredients that is often mindblogging to a serious movie goer. Such formulae is replete with love triangles, family ties, irate parents, corrupt politicians, conniving villains, kidnappers, golden hearted prostitutes, siblings long lost, sudden reversals of fortune, impossible coincidences and what not.
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The musical score consisting of Pather Panchali was prepared by the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar who at that time was at the initial stage of his musical development (Lavezzoli 2006). The background score, in the best tradition of Indian classical music, was something that was truly plaintive and exhilarating (Hoberman, 1995). A sound track that was based on the ragas of classical music and did not contain any songs to portray dance sequences was singularly at variance with the inane capers of Bollywood and something that was happening for the first time in the annals of Indian cinema.
A Bollywood movie is an epitome of mediocrity with nothing to relate it with life as lived in India. The main emphasis is on musicals consisting of catchy tunes and words accompanied by a series of song-and-dance sequences. Even the theatricl trailers made to promote a movie have their emphasis on song and dance scenes The standard of a movie is based on mainly on the quality of the songs it features. In fact one major factor of movie promotion with Indian ‘commercial’ movies in general is to release the songs that a movie contains far ahead of its release.
A Satyajit Ray movie appeals to the filmgoer for the aesethetic sense it imparts. To see Pather Panchali was to have what MSN Carta defined as a ‘cerebral experience’ (MSN Encarta).To understand such films the audience should have a sound notion of what a true movie should be as also expect them to be of a high standard. But it is not at all so in the case of Bollywood movies.
Plagiarism in Bollywood Movies
Bollywood script writers and music composers have a tendency to plagiarize from western sources and from Bengali and Malayalam movies of India which are of a comparatively high standard. Plot lines, ideas, tunes as well as riffs are fair game for Bollywood (Ayres & Oldenburg, 2005). In the past Bollywood could get away with impunity as the movies were largely unknown to non-Indian viewers with the result that none had the faintest notion that one’s materials was beeing plagiarized (Dudrah, 2002). Well known Bollywood Director Vikram Bhatt put it succinctly when he remarked “Financially, I would be more secure knowing that a particular piece of work has already done well at the box office. Copying is endemic everywhere in India. Our TV shows are adaptations of American programmes. We want their films, their cars, their planes, their diet cokes and also their attitude. The American way of life is creeping into our culture.” and also “If you hide the source, you’re a genius. There’s no such thing as originality in the creative sphere”.
However some copyright violations were indeed resulted in litigation. For instance the Bollywood movies Zinda in 2005 and Partner in 2007 were taken to court for having plagiarized from the Hollywood movies Oldboy and Hitch respectively.
Another point to note is that Ray’s films remains an important part of world cinema and he has received more accolade than any other Indian moviemaker. Noted critic Basil Wright made this comment after viewing Pather Panchali for the first time: “I have never forgotten the private projection room at the British Film Institute during which I experienced the shock of recognition and excitement when, unexpectedly, one is suddenly exposed to a new and incontrovertible work of art” (Chapman, 2003). For instance the noted film critic Constantine Santas opined that Ray ‘developed a distinctive style of film-making’ (Santas, 2002). Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake stated that the basis of Ray’s works is comprised of strong humanism and visual lyricism (Gokulsing & Dissanayake, 2004). Roy had the singular honor of ‘establishing himself as an auteur of cinema’ with his very first movie (Santas 2002).
In contrast no Bollywood film has ever won an international award, won any critical claim or even special mention from anywhere in the world except in those pulp magazines singing paeans to the movie moguls of Bollywood and their mediocre creations; this in spite of the fact that Bollywood churns out more movies per annum than any other country in the world.
Although Bollywood movies are immensely popular with India and Indians living abroad, many South Asians eye them with derision labeling them as maudlin and unrealistic. To quote Edward Johnson’s aside as he was commenting on the film posters of Bollywood movies, “Indian cinema has a reputation in the West founded more on myth than reality. ‘Art’ directors such as Satyajit Ray are given fulsome praise whilst the majority of ‘commercial’ cinema receives nothing but ridicule and the entire industry is pilloried as specious drossâ€¦(Johnson, 1987:2).
“Even scholarship in India which, at times, was dismissive of popular films as Technicolor fantasies catering to the masses.” To them Bollywood movies were characterized by dance and music, melodramatic content, lavish production procedures and over emphasis on spectacles and stars. And this is why Bollywood films have attained box-office success and raving audiences within India as also globally and not because of aesthetic excellence or on any grounds of merit.
. The evolution of Bollywood Cinema with its constant interruptions of dance and song sequences is cited as a critical feature distinguishing it from other cinemas (Gopalan 2002); it is often also cited as an impediment to serious cinema as well
Bollywood apologists complain that their movies are evaluated in the glum shadow of European cinematic forms, epistemologies and aesthetics and that in the confines of these rubrics Bollywood movies become poor imitations of art, exhibiting a total lack of realism of any sort and so remain shallow spectacles of fanatastic settings and music.
In the latter half of the 20th century filmmakers as well as screen writers of a serious mien became frustrated with the then prevailing musical movies. They wanted to reverse this trend and take the Indian movie to a higher and saner realm. They wanted to develop an altogether new genre of movies that portrayed reality from an aesthetic perspective (Roy, 2008) and not mediocre escapist fare. The pioneering efforts of Satyajit Roy gave birth to a number of highly aesthetic and unforgettable movies from avant garde directors like Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and Girish Kasaravalli. And while it lasted – no good thing lasts for long – it was a real relief from the artifice universally distributed from the gaudy sets of Bollywood.
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