Revisiting Satyajit Ray’s Boral, the village from where he started his cinematic journey in Pather Panchali
As Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, becomes the only Indian film to feature on a list of 100 best foreign language films of the 21st century released by the BBC recently, HT travels to the village where he shot the classic in the 1950sindia Updated: Jan 07, 2019 23:03 IST
Eighty-two year old Krishnapada Dutta holds filmmaker Satyajit Ray responsible for making him neglect his studies as a young boy in school. “I was a good student. Then Ray started shooting Pather Panchali, his first film, in our village, Boral, in 1952-53 and I started bunking school to watch them shoot. Of course, I did badly in my exams,” he says in all good humour, and without any trace of guilt or remorse.
In 1992, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded Ray an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. His oeuvre of films includes more than 30 titles made over a career spanning nearly four decades. But for many, Pather Panchali remains the most iconic Ray film. It was his first and introduced a new era in Indian filmmaking. Sixty-three years after its release, it is also the only Indian film to feature on a list of 100 best foreign language films of the 21st century released by the BBC recently. That Pather Panchali would be a groundbreaking film was clear in Ray’s mind even before he had started shooting. As he writes in the memoir ‘My Years With Apu’ – a book published after his death, which documents in detail the making of Pather Panchali and its sequels, Aparajito and Apur Sansar – “I knew that Pather Panchali would have a very different look from the usual Bengali films, so I decided to draw fairly elaborate sketches which would normally describe the film in sequence like a storyboard.”
And Boral, a small town in West Bengal, shares a special bond with Ray for having given him the fictional village of Nischindipur [where Pather Panchali is based] from where he started his cinematic journey.
The Song Of The Road
As with most things for Pather Panchali – be it selecting actors or finding producers for the film – Ray, with no previous experience of film making, depended on word of mouth and recommendations from friends and family members to zero down on the location for the film. During the initial phase of prepping for the film, he took a few shots at Gopalnagar, where Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the author who had written the novel on which the film is based, used to teach and on which he had loosely set his story. Finally, as he writes in ‘My years…’, “The village that we selected for the film was recommended to us by one of the founder members of the film society [the Calcutta Film Society]—Manoj Mazumdar. It was only four miles from the city limits and this meant that we could make daily trips…”.
The Ray connection surfaces the minute one hits the Boral main road. Over the years, what was once a village just on the outskirts of Kolkata, has in many ways become a part of the greater city. Multi-storeyed buildings and shops line the road, as automobiles rush past, coating the leaves of the shrubs with a thick layer of red dust that hides the green underneath.
“ Boral was a big village with a school, and some of it had acquired the look of a small town and didn’t suit our purpose,” writes Ray in ‘My Years…’, but adds ‘But then the mango trees, the jungle of bamboos, open fields, ponds with water lilies in them and old thatched mud houses were exactly right for us’.
One gets a glimpse of Boral’s rural roots as one travels away from the main road. There are traces of its rustic past in the immediate vicinity of the house that had served as the residence of Harihar and his family – wife Sarbajaya, their two children Apu and Durga and an old cousin, Indir Thakrun – the protagonists of Pather Panchali. “When Ray was shooting the film, there were no pucca roads here. The house where he shot was abandoned, the family lived in Kolkata. As kids, we would play there,” recalls Dutta, as he points out the house. Across the road, adjacent to an old temple, is the ground where Apu and Durga were filmed watching the bioscope.
Around the house remains a patch of untended, neglected greenery. The pond where Apu, after his sister Durga’s death, is shown throwing away a necklace that she had once been accused of stealing, also remains, though it seems to have shrunk in size somewhat. The house itself looks drab, but can hardly be compared to the ramshackle structure shown in the film that had seemed to tremble to its core under the fury of a storm, as Durga lay dying in bed.
Occupied by the grandsons of the gentleman who had rented it to Ray, the house is divided between the two brothers who now own it. “The part where the actual shooting happened is owned by my elder brother,” says Joy Gopal Mukhopadhyay, one of the siblings, as he points out what remains from the time of the shooting – a hibiscus plant in the courtyard and the base of a tulsi mancha where Sarbojaya used to pray. Mukhopadhyay’s brother being away on the day HT visited, his part of the house was locked from the outside. “My grandfather wanted to sue Ray when he vacated the property after the shoot – the house was so badly damaged,” says Mukhopadhyay. “The then chief minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy intervened and gave some compensation to him,” he adds.
The family, says Mukhopadhyay, was also peeved that Ray never gave any credit to them for the location. (In ‘My Years with Apu,’ he does mention meeting the landlord, a Mr Ghosal, but Mukhopadhyay’s grandfather’s name was Tripura Charan Mukhopadhyay.)
On the road outside the house a bust of Ray has been installed. “Some political leaders and the media had talked about the need to preserve the place as a sort of memorial for the film. But we were very firm that we didn’t want that. This is our private property,” says Mukhopadhyay.
Most locals though would love Boral to be promoted as a site for culture tourism. For them, the Ray connect is a matter of pride. “One day we saw them shooting a scene where Indir Thakrun is shown eating rice and milk. But the actress [Chunibala] didn’t have teeth. So she was eating mashed paneer. We laughed so hard,” recalls 80-year-old Bholanath Mukherjee, another Boral resident.
Ray had roped in locals for some scenes. As he writes in ‘My Years…’, “For some of the other old men who came to Harihar to try to dissuade him from leaving the village, I decided to use non-actors from Boral itself. There was the role of an old bald-headed man who goes to sit by a pond with a fishing rod in hand and dozes off only to be suddenly awakened by a drop of rain falling on his head. I had a particular person in mind, whose name I didn’t know..” The man, as Ray would find out eventually was a Hari Babu.
While Hari Babu is mentioned by name in the book, Biswanath Bhattacharya says his late father, Krishna Kali, was also among the old Boral residents who were seen on screen. “He could sing old Bengali songs and was active in theatre. Pather Panchali was his first screen experience, but he went on to do bit roles in other films after that – Apur Sansar, Teen Kanya…” he says.
From the open spaces and water bodies of Boral to its sounds and people, Ray captures it all in his film, drawing life as it were from it. “Most of the outdoor shooting for Pather Panchali happened in Boral,” says Ray’s son and filmmaker, Sandip. One exception is the iconic scene in which the film’s two young characters – Apu and Durga – run through a wide expanse of fluffy white kaash (grass flower) blossoms and get their first glimpse of a train.
A Tale Of Two Towns
Ray himself records the shooting of the ‘train scene’ in ‘My Years…’ but doesn’t name the place. “I had conceived the scene taking place in a large field of white fluffy kaash flowers to contrast with the black smoke of the train. Kaash was a flower which bloomed in autumn and had a life of about a couple of months. We enquired and learnt that there was a train sixty-five miles from Calcutta whose railway line ran alongside a large expanse of kaash. It would be the perfect setting for us.”, he writes.
Popular memory varies on the location for that scene. While Subir Banerjee, who played the young Apu in the film, says the scene was shot in a village called Palsit, Ramesh Sengupta, who had been part of the editing team for Pather Panchali and had worked in many Ray films subsequently, says that the train scene for Pather Panchali was shot in Adisaptagram – a place about two hours drive away from Kolkata.
The recall for one scene can’t be compared to that of nearly 80 per cent of a film shot for over two years in one location - as was the case with Boral. Neither director, nor the locals, fail in their memories of Boral’s links to the screen classic. “The first time he came here, he was travelling in a rickshaw. No one knew him then. Of course, when shooting started people gathered to watch, because it is a film shoot. But he wasn’t anyone famous,” recalls Mukherjee.
After Pather Panchali, Ray returned to Boral to shoot parts of the sequel, Aparajito. But for some, the connection went beyond Apu. “See that chair,” says Dutta, pointing to one in a corner. “It belonged to my grandfather. Ray saw me sitting on it and studying while he was shooting Pather Panchali. Years later, while shooting Teen Kanya, he sent a man down with a note saying he needed just that kind of chair,” says Dutta, adding, “He had to break it for the scene. He got it fixed and returned it to me after the shoot.” Ray’s eye for detail is well known. But some stories live only in the undocumented memories of those whose lives he passed through on his way to excellence.
First Published: Jan 05, 2019 21:00 IST