The other day, I watched Pather Panchali again. I wanted to reach that scene, and not just me I’m sure, there are any number of others who can return and return to Durga lifting the blanket and, with precision and trepidation, opening Apu’s eyes. A world has just unfolded, in slow wonderment. Behold it. Stay there.
In Ray’s debut, filmed over two years, even in the most elemental frame of wretchedness, there is beauty, so much of it, in such an amount that Indian cinema had not seen before, in the state of being trapped. The first of the Apu trilogy is not as much about Apu as it is about Durga. Her entrapment, too, is written in her eyes.
To realise it in full scale, think of the eyes behind the camera. Ray saw them all—the emotional range of the trapped and the rawness, the starkness, of the world they inhabit, in graphic detail. Apparently he had the sketches in his notebook. Still, as he told Shyam Benegal in the documentary the latter made, he shot what he had in his head, not necessarily what he had in the script. Ray carried within his head a world damned by reality but redeemed by art.
In that world: a stolen necklace becomes a posthumous reminder of the fragile border between shame and dream; your last thirst is quenched only when, reflexively, the plant is also watered, with trembling hands, a tribute to life from the dying; the train, first a distant sound and then an astonishment in motion, is the possibility beyond, the story not yet written; in a stormy night, death wants to break in, and you can resist only for a while, and the dance of destruction outside is matched by the quiet, lonely withdrawal of the one destined to miss the train…
Still, misery is not the name of Ray’s mise-en-scène. The social realism of poverty makes bad art. It has, consistently, because it carries the burden of pedagogy. Ray of Pather Panchali is not an arthouse voyeur of the great Indian dispossession. He is not an artist of sentimentalism either. (Sarbajaya breaks down only once, towards the end, when Harihar returns with gifts for the children.) The realism of Ray has no other intention than to serve the purpose of higher art. The highest art of filmmaking.
His mind was trained by the best of the classical West. It was not the progressivism of the change-seeker in wretched India that powered his art; it was the sophistication of what the West—Hollywood or Europe—had to offer that shaped his art. Out of which was born Indian stories that get better with each viewing.
Ray is forever because he validated higher culture with the elegance and detachment of one who was always out of the picture. The eternity of his pictures owes to that absence.