Tuesday, September 13, 2005
The Bicycle Thief and Pather Panchali
Over the weekend, I watched Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) back to back. It was an experience that I had been waiting for for most part of my life. Both the films are landmark films. In fact, Ray's Pather Panchali is said to have started the so-called art cinema movement in India. It was the first of the Apu Trilogy. The other two films of the trilogy are Aparajito (1956; The Unvanquished ) and Apur Sansar (1959; The World of Apu ). This trilogy tells the story of Apu, the poor son of a Brahman priest, as he grows from childhood to manhood in a setting that shifts from a small village to the city of Calcutta. The conflict between tradition and modernity is the interconnecting theme spanning all three films, which can be construed as portraying the awakening of India in the first half of the 20th century.
Ray has written in his My Years with Apu that he was deeply impacted by The Bicycle Thief. When he was in London, he saw this film many times over. This neorealistic film, with its downbeat story and its economy of means -- location shooting with nonprofessional actors --, convinced Ray that he should attempt to film his favorite novel, Pather Panchali . Ray had illustrated this novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, and had been contemplating its cinematic possibilities after seeing De Sica's work.
Though I am not going to analyze these two masterpieces (they anyway have been done to death), what I was trying to discover through this experience was the possible influence of De Sica's work on Ray's vision. The two films do share their spirit of humanism in an atmosphere of poignancy and depict the tortures that poor people have to undergo in order to survive (the aspects of social commentary). De Sica's work is matter of fact; Ray's is poetic. I cannot forget the scene where the trembling lotus leaves herald the arrival of monsoon as well the scene where Apu and Durga discover the train. Both the films have struggling parents and innocent but astute and understanding children. Both the films end on the road, without a resolution. While Apu and his parents escape (from crushing poverty, and sadness due to Durga's death) to Benaras, Antonio and his son Bruno keep walking on the road towards an uncertain future.
The story of The Bicycle Thief develops like a chase and the audience is kept in suspense throughout. Will Antonio find his stolen bicycle? Will he get his job back? In Pather Panchali, the story develops like life itself, Harihar's family and its relationship with the neighbourhood being revealed slowly. Ray uses a lot of close ups and extreme close ups and the camera often lingers on faces to depict the moods. The music is brilliant and rooted in the culture of Bengal.
I found the last part of Pather Panchali especially relevant as it deals with the issue of migration. When the poor Brahmin family is all set to migrate to Benaras, a neighbour visits them and says: "Staying in a place for a long time makes people mean. We will also see if we can migrate."
Apu's father Harihar is a priest and writer but he finds no takers for his art. Apu's migration from poor Bengal to the literary Benaras reminds me of Naipaul's (also a Brahmin's son) escape from Trinidad to London.
De Sica's film also reminded me of Bimal Roy's classic Hindi Film Do Bigha Zameen. In its vision and philosophy, it is much more closer to The Bicycle Thief.