Readers Write In #468: Song of the Road – Novel and Film

Posted on June 16, 2022


By Deepika Santhanakrishnan

Bends in the Road is what the translators of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel ‘Pather Panchali’ (1929) found it apt to name. They attributed the suggestion to the horizontal bends of a w(o)andering life’s journey. Well, I attribute it to the vertical bends in life as well. The former in the case of the protagonist, Opu and his father, Horihor. While the latter very much in the case of his sister, Durga, their mother, Shorbojoya and Durga’s Old Auntie, Indir, and in a way for Opu towards the end of this journey. It shall remain both.

While reading a translation is a huge reduction of the Original, the very things that a person of Tamil origin could relate to the cultural elements across geography gives it a special high. For instance, consider the sequence where Opu and Durga find a sparkling stone on the banks of a river and run to Shorbojoya who gets mistaken that the stone could be a diamond. The eternal optimism in a poverty stricken village is very much an ingredient in literary works across languages, borders, and across time. Basheer’s ‘Balyakalasakhi’ (1944) where the protagonists wish to live long and flourish together after being torn apart by poverty, is a case in point.

Remaining in spirit with Banerji’s novel form, I am going to go back and forth between the novel and the film, while ending this piece without a conclusion, for, art-without-conclusion (a phrase known to writers and connoisseurs of literary and of various art forms) is more apt for the coming-of-age genre in artistic works, which ideally should lead to contemplation. One is reminded of ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959), by none other than Truffaut, the man who, like Banerji, have used real elements from their lives in their masterpieces, in contrast to having a completely fictitious setting like in the world of R. K. Narayan. The child in me was heart broken when I knew that Malgudi, or aspects of the beautiful elements in the Malgudi Days series, did not exist!

The novel has two parts. The first, wholly dedicated to Horihor’s distant relative Indir. She is widowed, in her seventy-fifth; however, she becomes a child when she’s around six-year-old Durga. I like the way Banerji explained how, between Indir’s marriage and her present, there are generations after generations of water lilies and mango trees. The beauty and depth of life are portrayed in the guise of humans! While Satyajit Ray do away with explaining how Indir is related to Horihor, many descriptions of Indir’s acrid relationship with Shorbojoya in the novel get across in the film through scenes, silences, and through Durga. The short first part ends with the demise of Indir, while Ray makes Indir travel a long way, just like her life in the film.

Yes, so, a novel with descriptive details spanning over twelve odd years cannot be shrunk to a
two hour film, both because of parsimony that is inevitable and because of funds. But certain
choices Ray has made make me uneasy.

Two instances – One, Opu goes through tremendous pain when Shorbojoya establishes nasty beatings on Didi to have found stolen a necklace from Tunu. Opu’s journey that day, either while searching for lost Durga in the jungle, or being unable to concentrate on studies, was entirely his. It was only when Opu had given up his search not able to find Durga in all the places he had imagined her to be in, that he broke down to Shorbojoya. At this stage, Shorbojoya pacifies Opu, saying she knew the whereabouts of Durga that whole day. Whereas, Ray makes Shorbojoya break down for being hard on Durga, and allows her to instruct Opu to look for Durga in the jungle. If the novel form had been adapted by Ray, this could have added to the character arc of how Opu takes forward his journey in the sequels. Or for that matter, in the climax of Pather Panchali (1929) itself.

Two, the first time Opu relishes the sight of the train is not when he and Didi go to the faraway fields as portrayed in the film, but when Horihor takes him to the next village for a priest’s work. They had to wait for a couple of hours to see the train, which Horihor didn’t want. Dry-eyed and grim Opu came away with a heavy heart that day. The novel describes in detail how the little Khoka had empathy for Karna’s pain from the recitation of Mahabharata by their mother. This comes across in the film through Opu constantly playing the bow and arrow game during lunch times and putting on the prince’s crown during playtime, which are all his.

The first coming-of-age moment, though, happens for Opu when he goes to play, not listening to his mother’s words to have lunch. He gets caught in a witch’s house and the fear makes him get angry with Shorbojoya since she was largely unconcerned about him when he came back with nothing but fear. The fear matures into showing a sign of wanting to have self respect, which in his mother’s and sister’s eyes is funny. In defense, Opu abstracts into inner conversations. It’s a stark contrast that Opu in the novel has many of these dialogues and inner conversations, while Opu in the movie has very little to speak. His expressions spoke more than the childish smiles and the giggles.

To pay tribute to the ‘Song’ of the Road, there’s kirtan, where jatra’s were performed in stage plays. In the novel, there’s a story of an overthrown king, who is exiled into the forest, where he loses his wife to death. However, Ray uses the story of a king, who fights his love interest’s father to win her over. Even though it does not fit into the narrative of the movie, the excitement in little Opu’s face explains how he had fallen for the King’s portrayal, and more for the ability to sing jatras. In between these plays and the earlier scenes in the movie, a lot of Durga’s life and Opu’s mischiefs described in the novel are cut off from the movie. Parsimony.

I have been saying how Ray differed from Banerji, but there’s a heart melting moment in this whole discourse. In the novel, it was Durga, when she was sick, who asked Opu to take her to see the train when she got better. Whereas, in the film, Durga promises Opu to take him to see the train with her when she gets better. At this point, I am convinced to stop seeing the differences between the novel and the film, and to see them as two individual creations for two different mediums of expression for two different sets of connoisseurs (probably they are the same set).

As I come to that state, Durga says, “Opu, when I get better will you take me to see a train?”

The introduction to Clark and Mukherji’s translation of ‘Pather Panchali’ (1999) brought my attention to the highly coincidental and probably intentional usage of the words ‘naturalness’ and ‘realism’ in the portrayal of rustic life by Banerji. Ray took his inspiration from Italian Neo Realism in his cinema, which probably points the writer to why Ray adapted Banerji’s work for his first piece of art, as opposed to, say, Tagore’s works, which followed in the later days of his career. This makes one wo(a)nder: Can exposure to literary (or, otherwise) works of realism, like that of Banerji’s, make one transition towards works of idealism, like that of Tagore’s?

Here though, one is reminded of ‘Samskara’ (1965, 1970) of the Kannada’s Navya Movement fame, which again is a coming-of-age novel (and film), where the film makers of the adapted works of the Navya Literary Movement credit their film making techniques to have been inspired from none other than Ray. The familiar reader would know that ‘Samskara’ ended without a conclusion!