Above: Satyajit Ray. Right: Sathyan
It has been 60 years since Pather Panchali, the first film of the master, Satyajit Ray, who put India on the world cinema map, was released. The film won an award at Cannes for the Best Human Document in 1956.
I saw Pather Panchali for the first time in Madras. It came to the city after winning the Cannes award, kindling pride in Indians. It was the first time that a Bengali movie was released commercially in the city.
My friend M T Antony, who was teaching at the Madras Christian College, and I planned to see the film on the very first day. As we were leaving for the theatre, Antony asked me, “How about calling Sathyan?”
Sathyan (1912-1971) was the lone star of Malayalam cinema in those days. He came to Madras often as Malayalam producers used the facilities of film studios in the city. Sathyan used to stay in Swamy’s Lodge at the intersection of General Patters Road and Woods Road when he was in the city. On reaching the lodge, we found that he was back after the day’s shoot. He was quite happy to join us.
Pather Panchali was being screened at Chithra, on the banks of the Coovum. The crowds that one usually saw outside theatres on a Friday were not there. When the show began, apart from the three of us, there was only one other small group of three or four persons in the Balcony. There were fewer people in the Stalls.
A scene from Pather Panchali
The film demanded close attention. The sights and the sound, which was interspersed with silence, kept us fully occupied and there was little conversation during the show. There was in the film a noisy scene depicting a village drama. Sathyan told us Ray has put it in to show how cinema is different from drama.
As we were leaving the theatre, Sathyan said, “I know why you wanted me to see the film. You wanted to tell me this is cinema!”
He then explained why there can’t be a film like Pather Panchali in Malayalam. He pointed out that all the characters were going about doing things without looking into the camera. "If I do that, my director will tell me to look at the camera.”
The international acclaim that Pather Panchali had already received did not impress film-goers of Madras. The theatre withdrew the film after just three days on view of the poor popular response.
Yesterday I reminded Antony, who now lives in New York, of our Pather Panchali adventure. He immediately wrote back: “I still very vividly remember, Sathyan, sitting next to me, was crying.” He added, “Let me dwell on the Satyajit.Revolution. Started with Mahabharath. Then came Kalidasa, then Tagore, and then Ray.”