Taking the little road

by Gautam Raja

When you come out of a movie, it’s common to take a few minutes to blink a little and realise the world is still out there. On a recent afternoon, I emerged from a movie theatre in Pasadena, California, and blinked, but remained in a daze for two days.

I’d just seen—for the first time—Indian film director Satyajit Ray’s debut 1955 movie, Pather Panchali, or ‘Song of the Little Road’. (As a half-Bengali, it was outrageous that I’d gone 41 years before seeing it, but that’s a different Cuff.)

This May, the completely restored ‘Apu Trilogy’–on a journey around the US—played at arthouse cinemas here in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times wrote about the arduous restoration process, which involved rehydrating the fire-damaged original (that had already been in bad shape), collecting usable frames from prints from around the world, followed by a frame by painful frame cleaning up of the images. The Criterion Collection’s president is quoted in the Times as saying the restoration was “the hardest thing we’ve ever done”.

I’ve watched old films in bad condition, and it’s quite an experience seeing them through all those hops, squiggles and drop-outs. Some might say these artefacts are part of the experience, but really, if you’re there for the movie and not some a cool “vintage” experience, they’re just noise.

Watching the restored Pather Panchali was… well, I haven’t wept like that at a movie for a long time. It’s not the just the absence of visual noise, but that contrast in every shot that made it a revelation seeing the deep blacks and wonderful highlights, presumably as it looked when it played at Cannes in 1956.

It’s astonishing is that this was a work by two people, Ray, and the cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who had never made a movie before. That might explain French film director Francois Truffaut’s disgusting quote as he stomped out of the first screening, saying he didn’t want to watch a movie about “peasants eating with their hands”. Add to this the cringeworthy, condescending review by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, September 23, 1958, with this sentence in the last paragraph: “As we say, it is quite exotic. The dialogue often sounds like a Gramophone record going at high speed.”

Yes Mr Crowther, it’s a different language, it’s not going to sound like English.

Though it’s called the Apu Trilogy, I was struck by how this first movie seems to be about Apu’s older sister Durga—a quirky, curious, alive little girl. It’s only at that iconic and awe-inspiring scene where the children get a chance to see a train for the first time that there’s a clue this is going to be Apu’s story. As they run towards the steam locomotive, trying to glimpse it beyond the tall grass, Durga stumbles and falls, but Apu runs on, fearlessly charging right up to the track as it passes, and staring down the rails behind it. It’s a scene you go back to by the end of movie and watch again in your head, now made so hopeful and so sad by what you know.

Even today, weeks later, as I remember scenes from the movie I feel them in my gut. Their emotional power is like a punch you never saw coming, never felt and don’t remember, and yet the ache of it stays with you. Frankly, if I’d seen it 20 years ago, I would not have been this affected. I might even have been bored. I saw it when I needed to see it, and for that I’m grateful.

First published in Gulf News, July 7, 2015