The Song of the Little Road

At long intervals over the years there have been a few, totally unexpected, unforgettable films that attempt and achieve a reality strikingly different from contemporary efforts. Such a picture is ‘Pather Panchali’… As poetic as the wind riffling the lily pads… A film to be treasured, seen again!      Read More…
26th August 2015, Wednesday: We all have short lived memories. Even among the few of us who had once been walked through those sporadic spells of receptivity (“..people were born, lived out their lives and accepted their deaths..”) by one of the greatest artists of our time, how many did remember that it was on this day 60 years ago that ‘Pather Panchali’ was released in Calcutta’s (Kolkota) ‘Bashusree’ theatre amidst much fanfare; or even how small an incident that happened a year earlier had actually altered the course of Indian cinematic history elevating Satyajit Ray as an icon of the golden age of art house film production?.
Song of the Road

Song of the Little Road

In 1954 John Huston was in India exploring locales for his film ‘The Man Who Would be King‘. In between, however, he saw a 20-minute rushes of ‘Pather Panchali’ in Calcutta. Huston was captivated by the underlying syntax in Ray’s visual detailing to the extent that he wired Monroe Wheeler, the curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) recommending the inclusion of ‘Pather Panchali’ in the latter’s planned series Living Arts of India. On 3rd May 1955, a good three months before its official release in India, ‘Pather Panchali’ was premiered in MOMA. Most film critics in the audience were enticed by Ray’s kind of songful storytelling. Almost a year later it found its way to the Cannes film festival where it’s official screening took place close to midnight. Having already outlasted four feature films that day the jury members were exhausted and some gave ‘Pather Panchali’ a skip. Meanwhile, the few patient jurors who watched the film were so impressed by what they saw that they insisted on a repeat screening for those who had skipped it the previous night. Eventually ‘Pather Panchali’ fetched the special citation as the ‘best human document’. It was the first Indian film to have earned such accolades in the European art house trail. The perception of beauty, however, proved to be subjective with Ray’s film. Francoise Truffaut was reported to have expressed his disappointment at its slow pace. While it left an enduring impact on a young Martin Scorsese’s sensibilities, Akira Kurasova felt it flowed with the serenity and mobility of a big river.

Apu, the observer

Apu, the observer

Much like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1928 novel of the same title (‘Pather Panchali’) was also set in an illusory hamlet, Nishchindipur (The timeline also coincides; Faulkner wrote ‘The Sound and Fury‘ in 1929). Harihar Roy was a desolate Brahmin priest irate with his struggles about sustaining the family that constituted his pragmatic wife Sarbajaya, the advertent little Apu and Apu’s rascally older sister Durga. Then there is also the manipulative Indir Thakrun, the aged cousin of Harihar who also pokes her head all along as the plot sedately unfolded.

Durga, Apu's rascally elder sister

Durga, Apu’s rascally elder sister

During his short stint with an English advertising agency in 1950 Ray had spent three months in London. By his own admission all the spare time he had, he spent watching movies – 98 of them in all. Some European film critics maintain that Ray has been influenced by the proletarian neorealism of Vittoria de Sica (‘Bicycle Thieves‘). But Ray’s narrative had a demure naivety that made one’s heart ache which was a far cry from the postwar Italian neorealistic objectivity (‘the truth of actors’, ‘photography reminiscent of the reportage style’, ‘refusal of the studio’, etc.).

Ray with his Arriflex

Ray with his Arriflex

‘Pather Panchali’ was made in a shoestring budget defying all norms of conventional film production of its time. All except one (Chunibala Devi who played the mercurial aunt Indir Thakrun) of the film’s actors were nonprofessionals. None of them wore make up. Ray’s twenty one year old cinematographer, Subrata Mitra was a novice with the movie camera. Being a first time film maker, Ray himself did not have much success in convincing financiers what he was actually up to. As a consequence, midway through he was left with no other choice except to self-finance his project by parting with his collection of books, vinyl records and even pawning some of his wife’s jewelry. Still falling short of funds Ray approached Chief Minister Dr. B.C. Roy. As the state fiscal budget had no provision for financing a feature film and the title of the film had the term “road” in it, the obligation of project management eventually fell on the Public Works Department! The fidelity with which Ray had chartered Bandopadhyay’s trail left his own contemporaries like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen overwhelmed. Only a cinematic prescient like Ray could have chosen the small village of Boral as the Nischindipur model that was located in the outskirts of Calcutta near Garia in South 24 Parganas. The natural habitat that Boral was – the trees, the fruits, the winding paths, the birds, the clouds and most of all the evening sun – as much the citadel of the film as were its central characters.

In ‘Pather Panchali’ the protagonist Apu’s entry occurs almost twenty minutes into the film. As a matter of fact our Accoladesfirst glimpse of Apu is that of a single murky eye, gazing at us unpretentiously from beneath a blanket. It is from behind those two human observatory posts that we experience not only the coming of age of a suckling but also the evolution of an inept and distressed nation. Soon after the country’s independence from British rule, Ray’s own Bengal was split into a Hindu western half and a Muslim east. The fact that the sutures of that historical lesion still remains insolent which widens under geographical and political influences is subtly underpinned in Ray’s narrative. The rhapsodic Bengali verses that Apu often recites to himself are manifestations of the director’s own dialectal nationalism. Perhaps more importantly, Ray had projected the character of Apu’s mother at center stage at a point in time when women’s domestic dilemmas weren’t the cynosure of deliberation even in the West. But what made the world cinematic audience fall hook, line and sinker for him was how Ray would capture the disappointments, tragedies and little delights in everyday life, weaving them into tapestries of universal predicaments that remain with you like the environment you grew up in.    Only in 1992 when the Academy of Motion Pictures decided to confer a lifetime achievement award on Ray, the naked truth emerged that the original negatives of his early films were in an abysmal state. The negatives were then hurriedly shipped to a South London lab for restoration.  However, a massive fire broke out in the lab nearly destroying the film reels. When they came to know of the tragedy, an art house distribution company called ‘The Criterion Collection’ came forward and took charge of the restoration procedures. They shipped the film reels, or rather what remained of them, to a lab in Bologna, Italy for digital scanning. It then took a laborious struggle on the part of the Criterion technicians to bring back Ray’s black and white classics (‘Apu Triology‘) to life.
Pather Panchali in Google

Pather Panchali in Google

During a 1975 discourse in Moscow, Japanese film director Akira Kurasova said that not seeing the films of Ray was like “living in the world having not seen the sun or the moon”. Now that they are available in a pristine 4K restoration, it is up to you to choose how you want to live in your world, with or without the sun and the moon, that is.


The SHRIEK that Shattered Glass

He portrayed the forgotten face of history in brisk black fables”, said the Swedish Academy in its 1999 Nobel prize for literature citation. “The Tin Drum will forever remain one of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century..” 
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17th April 2015: Günter Wilhelm Grass passed away last Monday, on 13th April after a transient hospitalization. The immediate cause of his death is not known. But in a letter he wrote 3 weeks ago to American novelist and screen writer John Irving, Grass had said that his age was giving him a hard time and his heart and lungs were “paying him back” for what he did to them – “smoking with assiduity.”

Grass: words written by one man achieves what the moon should do and move the tides.

Grass: words written by one man achieves what the moon should do and move the tides.

The extraordinary global attention the death of Grass drew, and the untainted grief felt by readers all across the world at his exit, tells us that the love for books still lingers very much in our hearts. Somewhere a severed horse’s head is spilling over with ravenous eels; a criminal is hiding from view seeking refuge beneath a peasant woman’s layered skirts; and a child is deciding to stop his growth, and stay three years old forever by falling down the stairs and succeeds, at the same time acquiring the power to let out a high pitched shriek that will shatter any glass he directs it at; aside from that undeniable power, he is also repeatedly pounding his tin drum, which he absolutely refuses to let go of.

We live in an age of sketchy and deceptive world where predators and zombies stalk. Sadly though, this has gotten to become the order of the day. Yet, in spite of the conceited disquiet in some literary minds, in the better part of the fictional world there is more legitimacy than fantasy. Whereas, Gabriel García Márquez’s  Macondo, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi were non-existent in the real world, the case of the free city of Danzig (under League of Nations then, Gdansk in Poland now) of Günter Grass was not so. But all these writers of our time used imagination to supplement reality, not to break away from it.

Receiving his Nobel Prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 1999

Receiving his Nobel Prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, 10 December 1999

The Tin Drum is fifty five and half years old now, and despite its immense and continuing popularity, its technique — magic realism — has largely given way, in Europe, to other forms of narration. Francis Ford Cappola had said about his 1979 film Apocalypse Now that it was not about Vietnam, but Vietnam. Grass’ novel The Tin Drum was not about twentieth century, but twentieth century. The Tin Drum has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the moment it was published. On Grass’ 65th birthday, Russian-German writer Lev Kopelev wrote, “Günter Grass’ books present surprising and extremely contradictory combinations of opposites. Minutely detailed presentations of real things and scientifically precise descriptions of historical events are melted together with fairy tales, legends, myths, fables, poems and wild fantasies to produce his own special poetical world.” No writer from Germany has had a comparable impact in the last half-century. No writer from Germany since Goethe was so widely read as Grass.

Despite gaining wide acceptance, Magic Realism is a mostly misunderstood writing style. The trouble with the technique is that people only hear half of it (magic) without paying attention to the other half (realism). But if the writing style contained purely magic, then nobody would take it seriously. However, the magic in magic realism is rooted in the real. As a matter of fact, the technique grows out of the real and highlights it in alluring and fortuitous ways, that stays like a lead weight in the readers’ subconscious.

Grass wrote The Tin Drum during the late 1950s living in a basement apartment in Paris. In what later came to be known as the Danzig Triology, Grass next came up with the Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). The former was a novella that revolved around a protagonist with a bizarrely large Adam’s apple that set him apart from the rest of mankind. The Dog Years examined three decades of the German history with an end note of frustration, which Grass perhaps had intended to be his magnum opus. His other books include From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Flounder (1977), The Meeting at Telgate (1979), Headbirths or The Germans are Dying Out (1980), The Rat (1986), and Show Your Tongue (1989). In 1999, handing him the Nobel Prize for “portraying the forgotten face of history in brisk black fables”, the Swedish Academy said “The Tin Drum will forever remain one of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century”.

Grass had trained himself as a stoneman and studied graphics and sculpture before he took to
writing. He always designed his own book jackets. His books often contained illustrations by himself. In an interview with the quarterly magazine Paris Review Grass said, “For me, there is a very clear give-and-take relationship between art and writing. Sometimes this relationship is stronger, other times weaker. In the last few years it has been very strong. Show Your Tongue, which takes place in Calcutta, is an example of this. I could never have brought that book into existence without drawing. The incredible poverty in Calcutta constantly draws the visitor into situations where language is stifled—you cannot find words. Drawing helped me to find words again while I was there.”

Elsewhere in the same interview he said, “Ours was a lower-middle-class family; we had a small, two-room apartment. My sister and I did not have our own rooms, or even a place to ourselves. In the living room, beyond the two windows, was a little corner where my books were kept, and other things—my watercolors and so on. Often I had to imagine the things I needed. I learned very early to read amidst noise. And so I started writing and drawing at an early age. Another result is that I now collect rooms. I have a study in four different places. I’m afraid to return again to the situation of my youth, with only a corner in one small room. . . .  As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies. . . .  I started to write down my lies very early. And I continue to do so! I started a novel when I was twelve years old. It was about the Kashubians, who turned up many years later in The Tin Drum, where Oskar’s grandmother, Anna, (like my own) is Kashubian. But I made a mistake in writing my first novel: all the characters I had introduced were dead at the end of the first chapter. I couldn’t go on! This was my first lesson in writing: be careful with your characters.”

Peeling the onionHe was a longtime supporter of the Social Democratic Party and has been known to write speeches for Willy Brandt for almost ten years, before relinquishing his association with the party and the Berlin Academy of Arts, as an expression of resentment against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Germany.

The food one favors tells a lot about the individual. Grass loved home cooked ordinary peasant food like, smoked goose breast with sauerkraut and caraway seeds. In 2006, days before his memoirs Peeling the Onion was due for release, in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Grass sought redemption by confessing that he had been a member of the elite Nazi Waffen-SS. “It was a weight on me”, said Grass, “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”

He had also equated the 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (Peace Bu Upon Him) to Nazi caricatures of Jews. In opposing the first Persian Gulf war, he expressed his anger toward his own country, accusing German arms manufacturers of supplying weapons to the then Baath party regime in Iraq.

In 2012, his controversial poem What Must be Said came out, reproving Israel’s nuclear drive and hostility toward Iran. In the poem he said, he had kept silent on the issue for fear of labeled anti-Semitic.

Inseperable Companions

Inseparable Companions

At the end of 2013 he became one of the 562 signatories of Writers Against Mass Surveillance calling on people to protest against the surveillance practices of US intelligence services.

A thread of dance and music ran through both of Grass’ two marriages. His first, with Swiss dancer, Anna Margareta Schwarz, ended in divorce in 1978. His second marriage was with Ute Grunert, an organist. While he had four children with Anna, he also became a step father to two sons with Ute. Ute also gave him two daughters.

Those locks of black hair falling across the forehead, the drooping walrus mustache and the bifocals slipping halfway down the nose, all have now gone down to the loom as yarns that weave our memory fabric.  Let us savor the moment by being grateful when words written by one man achieves what the moon  should do and move the tides.

(Günter Wilhelm Grass, 1999 Nobel laureate for Literature, Born: 16 October 1927, Died: 13 April 2015; Most significant works – The Danzig Trilogy:  The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.)