Centenary year: Did Ray’s realistic cinema influence Tamil film-makers?

The world renowned Bengali genius's 'Pather Panchali' has inspired generations across the globe. Here's a look at what it changed (or did not) in Tamil cinema

Satyajit Ray
From Mahendran to Balu Mahendra to Maniratnam, many have been inspired by Satyajit Ray

It is said that you look at an elephant, sea or train and the feeling is that you are seeing it for the first time. Oscar-winning film director Satyajit Ray’s debut film, ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955), falls in the same category. Film critics say that watching the film every time helps you discover a different element as if it was hidden somewhere in the script.

It’s hard to believe it was Ray’s first film. Though the classic script, basically a novel of eponymous title, was written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, it was Ray’s screenplay and cinematography that breathed the soul into this cult film.

The beauty of the film indeed lies in its realistic portrayal of various characters (for example Durga and Apu) and situations (for eg poverty). On seeing it for the first time, you may like the character of Durga. On second viewing, you may fall in love with Apu…then poverty. The liveliness of the village shot with all its dirt and beauty mesmerises the viewers. Then, shots of trains aren’t easy to forget either.

To understand the real meaning of ‘Pather Panchali’ or life itself, the film should be watched along with its sequels ‘Aparajito’ (1956) and ‘Apur Sansar’ (1959).


Relevance of ‘Pather Panchali’ today

Literally and metaphorically, making a film of this standard is no child’s play. A lot has been written about the making of ‘Pather Panchali’, but what stands out is the sibling relationship…the lives and playfulness of Durga and Apu. Many tend to overlook poverty that was hidden behind each of the little happy things they share…be it stealing a fruit for the old lady Thakrun, a distant relative of them or walking behind the sweet seller or watching a bioscope. A ‘train’ was used to convey a message to viewers that in the later part of the movie, the lead characters will leave their native town once and for all.

The film has cast a spell on every film industry in India, including Tamil.

‘Ray inspired Tamil parallel cinema’

S Thirunavukkarasu, editor of film magazine ‘Nizhal’, said that ‘Pather Panchali’ has laid the road for parallel and realistic cinema not only in Bengal but also in Tamil Nadu.

“In 1952, we had ‘Parasakthi’, the first film in Tamil that addressed social issues. Viewers then had to wait till the 80s for more realistic films. This happened because of the triumvirate — Mahendran, Balu Mahendra and Bharathiraja,” he said.

According to Thirunavukkarasu, Bengali cinema pioneered realistic movies because Bengal had a theatre tradition. “In Tamil Nadu, we had movements and most of them resorted to campaigning. We had no theatre. Besides, Bengal set up film societies way back in the 1950s. Tamil filmmakers at least started making realistic films in the 80s because of the influence of other regional language films. If the Tamil film industry hadn’t accepted parallel cinema then, it would have stood exposed before others,” added Thirunavukkarasu.

“Ray had a strong influence on Indian filmmakers, and his legacy continues till this day if you look at the works of directors like Girish Kasaravalli and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. As far as Tamil cinema is concerned, one could argue such an aesthetic presentation of realism could be found only in Chezhiyan’s film ‘To Let’,” wrote renowned film scholar Swarnavel Easwaran, in an article written in Jump Cut magazine in 2019.

Swarnavel, who is also an associate professor in the Department of English and the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University, argues that one cannot see a direct influence of Ray on Tamil cinema.

“Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955) marked the beginning of the art cinema movement in India, mainly because of his consistency in engaging with realism. By 1960, five years from the release of his internationally acclaimed debut film, Ray had five more films to his credit: Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), Devi (The Goddess, 1960). As Ray himself acknowledged, Italian Neorealism had a significant influence on him, in particular, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948),” Swarnavel said while speaking to The Federal.

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Though Tamil filmmakers like Mahendran and Balu Mahendra had a touch of Ray, their films were loaded with melodrama. Ray’s films, on the other hand, were aesthetically less dramatic and more realistic, said Swarnavel.

Can a ‘Pather Panchali-like’ film be made in Tamil?

The film has inspired a lot of filmmakers from the Tamil industry from Mahendran to Balu Mahendra to Maniratnam. The scene where Durga dances in rain has inspired many filmmakers across languages and regions. But is a film like ‘Pather Panchali’ possible in Tamil cinema?

“The Tamil cinema is in the hands of actors. It was never in the hands of directors. Until this changes, it is difficult to make realistic films in Tamil,” said Ra Chezhiyan, director of the award-winning film ‘To Let’. It was the debut film of Chezhiyan and according to renowned film scholar Swarnavel, the film is a fitting tribute to Satyajit Ray.

Chezhiyan says that Mahendran and Balu Mahendra too tried to get inspiration from Ray. “One of the films of Balu Mahendra, ‘Veedu’, was one such attempt. We cannot call it a completely realistic film since it has some gimmicks like love tracks and songs, which was lacking in Pather Panchali. However we can definitely say the latter could have been the inspiration for Balu Mahendra,” he added.

‘We need filmmakers who talk about our soil’

Talking to The Federal, well-known producer G Dhananjayan said that to make a realistic film in Tamil would cost around Rs 2 crore and it comes with a whole lot of risks.

“In Bengali, such films can be made for a few lakh rupees. But Kollywood (Tamil cinema) is huge. Here there is no differentiation between commercial cinema and art cinema. The shooting costs for both types of films are the same. So it involves huge risk for producers,” he said.

“But why should one go for another Ray? Tamil cinema has its own Ray in the form of CV Sridhar, K Balachander, Mahendran and Balu Mahendra,” adds Dhananjayan.

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Ajayan Bala, who authored ‘Tamil Cinema Varalaru’ (History of Tamil Cinema), says Tamil and Malayalam cinema have been inspired by Ray in two different ways.

“While Tamil filmmakers like Balu Mahendra showed the beauty of landscapes and inner thoughts of people, Malayalam filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan made films on the philosophical background. We cannot say it’s an inspiration but a mere reflection of Ray’s style,” he said.

Ray too was inspired by European films and he was encouraged by French filmmaker Jean Renoir to do realistic films. Ray’s films were rich in Indian philosophical tradition and European aesthetics.

“But it was Ritwik Ghatak who came from this soil and truly talked about his people. His films reflected the Bengali spirit. We need such filmmakers instead of someone inspired by foreign thoughts. And Tamil cinema already has such filmmakers. We need to celebrate them,” said Bala.