Location scout

Back to Boral: Looking for Satyajit Ray in the town in which he shot ‘Pather Panchali’

Time has been cruel to the settlement but memories linger.

There aren’t many good reasons to visit the town of Boral, which lies on the edge of Kolkata and the fringe of its consciousness. Not unless you are a Satyajit Ray loyalist and a romantic who believes that the worlds created by master filmmakers are for real and remain frozen in time. Because that is what a classic does to you – every time you watch it, you belong, believe, live the lives of the characters and cohabit their space.

As it turns out, Boral is anything but the photogenic Bengali village in which Ray set his remarkable debut, Pather Panchali, 60 years ago. It is a profusion of stocky, garishly painted houses rather than elegant mansions. And then there is the Goddess of All Things, chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose visage and folded hands appear on posters, pillars, temple gates, plaques, cornerstones and banners everwhere.

Every time we stop to ask for directions to the house in which Pather Panchali’s characters lived and died, we are greeted with questions. Are we looking for property to buy? Are we looking for directions to the Zee Telefilms studio that is located here?

Ray’s Boral is obviously genuflecting before a new deity. “No one knew that Pather Panchali was shot here,” said a man with an umbrella and a bag of fresh vegetables. “Not until Satyajit Ray died [in 1992] and someone put up a statue here.”

A bust of Satyajit Ray in Boral.

Pather Panchali is set in a rural home in which siblings Durga and Apu, their mother Sarbojaya, father Harihar and great-aunt Indir eke out a precarious existence. The first of three films based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito, it remains among Ray’s best-loved works. A restored version of the Apu trilogy has been produced by the American arthouse cinema label Criterion and the Bologna Film Festival in Italy, and it will be shown at the upcoming Jio MAMI festival in Mumbai (October 29-November 5).

The search for Ray’s Boral takes us through a few wrong turns before we finally reach a comparatively verdant part of the congested town. It seems to be the kind of place where dusk could bring the call of conch shells, and wispy smoke from old clay stoves. Maybe it has something to do with the bakul tree reflecting on a still pond – the same one that Ray filmed in Pather Panchali.

“No one knows how old it is,” a resident said. Under the tree is a small cart selling tea and boiled eggs. “This is the famous bakul ground,” the man said. “And that’s the temple that he shot in Pather Panchali.” He points to a couple of Shiva temples built in the distinctive Bengal architectural style, with curved roofs and domes. The terracotta panels on one of the temples are still visible, but time and cement have wiped out the detail on the other. The robust monsoon has helped a shock of green, electrocuted hair sprout from the spires.

Ray shot some scenes at this temple.

A skinny, tarred road on the other side takes us to a half bust, supposedly of Ray. Any resemblance to the director is purely coincidental. Over the bust's head hangs a signboard advertising a local cable television service. It is surrounded by weeds and assorted flora.

Behind the statue and hidden from view is a house belonging to the Mukherjee family. Its cracked walls are covered by moss and the blush of monsoon overgrowth. There are no signs of life, except the drone of a split air-conditioner. As with the statue, any similarity with the impoverished home in Ray’s film is a stretch. This is the house of Apu and Durga’s crumbling world, which was reclaimed by nature after the bereaved family left for a better life.

The house that features in the film.

We stand gaping at the structure, which stands apart and aloof until luck walks out through a half-shut door in the form of a man in a yellow shirt.

“You don’t expect things to remain the same, do you?” he said. No, we didn’t. Another man stopped to chat. “The family made some money in Kolkata and moved here some time ago,” he volunteered with the assurance of the town gossip. “Promoters have been sniffing around for a while, there is some litigation going on, but sooner than later, this house is set to go."

Ray’s biographer, Andrew Robinson writes in The Inner Eye that the filmmaker had described the owner of the house as a “nasty old man”, who was bedridden in Calcutta when he was approached to rent out the place for the shoot.  The gent had grudgingly agreed to accept what was then a princely sum of Rs 50 per month.

In his quest for the perfect setting, Ray scoured the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s before zeroing in on the place that came closest to the village described in Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1929 novel of the same name. According to Robinson, the location demanded a decrepit house, a pond nearby, a river, fields, and a railway line. Boral ticked almost all the boxes except the river (which Ray did without) and the railway line (which he shot farther south of Calcutta, in Palsit).

Boral suited Ray’s needs like no other village.

Most importantly, writes Robinson in The Inner Eye, Boral was “photogenic”, unlike the actual village of Gopalnagar where the novel was set. The biggest challenge for Ray and his team was their unfamiliarity with rural Bengal. “Ray's principal challenge in turning Pather Panchali into a film was, ironically enough, to dispel his ignorance of village life,” Robinson writes. “Unlike Tagore, and many other Bengali writers, Ray had very little first-hand knowledge of it apart from what he had seen in the villages around Santiniketan sketching and painting…He had to invent ways to convey on the screen the all-important atmosphere of Banerjee's novel…”

Pather Panchali didn’t have a screenplay, but was instead based mostly on Ray’s drawings and inspired by his reading and understanding of Bandopadhyay’s novel.

Robinson quotes from a lecture by Ray about the movie in 1982: “You had to find out for yourself how to capture the hushed stillness of dusk in a Bengali village when the wind drops and turns the ponds into sheets of glass, dappled by leaves of saluk and sapla, and the smoke from ovens settles in wispy trails over the landscape, and the plaintive blows from conch shells far and near are joined by the chorus of crickets, which rises as the light falls, until all one sees are the stars in the sky, and the stars and blink and swirl in the thickets.”

Anyone who has been touched by the sensuality of Pather Panchali’s iconic sequences will identify with Ray’s endeavour, and fragments of his imagination of Boral as Apu’s world survive despite the passage of time.

We run into 80-year-old Krisnapada Dutta, a former government employee with a treasured memory, who was on his way to the bazaar. “That is the pond where Manikda [Ray’s pet name] had his Eureka moment, and I was lucky enough to have witnessed it,” said  as he pointed to a still, green-coloured water body next to the Mukherjee abode.

Dutta was at the spot that day, unable to take his eyes off Ray, who he says was sitting by the pond, lost in his thoughts. A little boy suddenly crept up behind the director and flung a stone into the water. The curtain of water hyacinths parted for just an instant. “Manikda jumped up in joy – Eureka, peyegechi [Got it] – he shouted and immediately gathered his unit to shot a scene."

Boral resident Krisnapada Dutta watched the film being shot when he was a child.

It was only when Dutta watched the movie as a college student many years later that he connected the dots. “It is the same sequence towards the end of the film in which Apu flings a necklace he had stolen from his sister into the water,” Dutta said. “The necklace, which had caused his beloved sister much grief, sunk to the bottom with its dead weight. Nature was telling Apu to move on.”

Half the village gathered unfailingly to watch Ray shoot the film that rocketed him to national and international fame. “I was in my eighth standard then,” Dutta said. “A film shoot in this godforsaken place was unheard of. There was no way I could have missed it. I do not remember many names, places, people, but I can never forget those magical days, my most impressionable ones ever.”

He clearly remembers the iconic sequence in which Durga gets drenched in the rain. “It was all natural – everyone in the unit and us bystanders got drenched in the rain that day,” Dutta said. “The sky was overcast on one side, and the sun was out on the other. Manikda used huge reflectors wrapped in silver paper to use the natural light and shoot. After the scene, Uma Dasgupta, the girl who played Durga, came down with fever. She had to be sent away immediately.” In the movie, Durga’s rain twirl leads to pneumonia, which causes her death.

“I could go on,” Dutta confessed, but the sight of a bicycle-borne fishmonger got the better of his nostalgia. The conversation immediately turned towards the catch of the day – a rohu with a fat tummy – and Dutta politely left.

As we turned our backs to the house and the pond that witnessed cinematic history, the gent from the Mukherjee household returned on his bicycle, stopped and urinated against a tree behind Ray’s bust.

Perhaps, like Durga’s necklace, Ray’s dubious likeness is waiting to be tossed into the pond so that Boral can finally move on.

All photographs by Wriju Mallick.

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