Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is among the most assured filmmaking debuts in the annals of cinema. Ray’s adaptation of a portion of Bhibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel of the same name was released in 1955. Sixty-six years later, the spell cast by the chronicle of a family in rural Bengal is intact.
Pather Panchali revolves around the hardscrabble lives of Harihar, his wife Sarbajaya and their children Durga and Apu. Harihar’s elderly cousin Indir Thakrun also lives with the family and is particularly close to Durga. Sarbajaya, weighted down by poverty, is often rude to Indir, causing her to temporarily seek shelter with another relative in the village.
Bent, toothless and playful, Indir is the movie’s scene-stealer. In My Years with Apu, Ray’s memoir about the making of the Apu Trilogy – comprising Pather Pachali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar – he wrote, “The most outstanding performance was of course Chunibala’s… She felt already at home in the part and never gave us trouble, as long as she had her dollop of opium with her afternoon tea. The day she didn’t have it, she nearly fainted.”
Chunibala Devi won an award for Best Actress at the Manila Film Festival, but didn’t live to see Pather Panchali’s remarkable journey. She broke her hip and died shortly before the theatrical release. However, Ray had arranged a screening for her at her home.
Ray recounted his experiences with Chunibala Devi in a Bengali essay titled Orofe Indir Thakrun in 1955. The essay was translated by Gopa Majumdar for the anthology Speaking of Films in 2005. Following are edited excerpts.
Finding Indir Thakrun
I can never forget the state of my mind on the day I first went to see Chunibala Devi in her house in Paikpara. The film (Pather Panchali) was already underway. Cast had been finalized for the roles of Apu, Durga, Harihar and Sarbajaya. I had also decided who I’d use for Prasanna, Shejo Thakraun and Nilmoni’s wife. The only major character left was Indir Thakrun.
‘She was an old woman of seventy-five, her cheeks were sunken, her back was slightly bent and her body leant forward; things in the distance were not exactly visible to her’ – it was not easy to find an actress to fit the description given by Bhibuti Bhushan, especially when our advertisement in the press had announced time and again: ‘no make-up is going to be used in this film’. It was not as if we had not tried to look for an old woman who fitted the description¸ but her appearance was not the only thing we had to worry about. The biggest worry was whether an old lady well into her seventies would be able to withstand the exertions of outdoor shooting. Besides, age could often affect one’s mental prowess. Could Indir’s memory be trusted?
It was Reba Devi (who played Shejo Thakrun in Pather Panchali) who told us about Chunibala. Chunibala was said to be Nibhanoni Devi’s mother. She had worked in two silent films and, before that, had been in the theatre during the time of such actresses as Tarasundari and Nagendrabala. We collected Nibhanoni’s address and turned up at her house on a Sunday morning.
Chunibala did not disappoint us… She fitted the description perfectly.
‘Do you know any rhymes? Can you recite poetry?’ I asked.
Chunibala recited a nursery rhyme for us: Ghoom parani maashi pishi (Come to our house, Auntie Lullaby). I had always heard ten or twelve lines of it – that was all I thought there was. The rhyme that emerged through Chunibala’s lips were surprisingly longer… I had to admire the memory of this old lady. Most of my fears were removed. Now I asked her the second most important question.
‘You will have to leave here at six in the morning, travel to a village fifteen miles from here and spend the whole day shooting. Then in the evening, you will be driven back home. Do you think you can manage that?’
While working with Chunibala Devi, I kept thinking just one thing: if we hadn’t found her, Pather Panchali would never have been made. She grasped, right from the start, that we were not going in for anything fake or artificial. ‘Since you have chosen me instead of a young actress simply made up to look like an old woman, I can see what you’re really interested in doing,’ she said to me, and made sure that at least her portrayal of Indir remained realistic throughout.
Let me give an example. Chunibala was given a plain white cotton sari to wear to show that she was a widow. The sari was torn in many places. ‘Indir was known to tie knots to cover the tears. You can tie as many knots as you like, it’s up to you,’ I told her. After a few days of shooting, the old sari became much more threadbare. One day, I overheard Chunibala muttering, ‘This sari is so badly torn now, I can hardly cover myself properly!’ The next day, she was given another sari with fewer tears. Chunibala said nothing. When she appeared for shooting, dressed as Indir, we saw that she had rejected the new sari and was still wearing the old one.
The script of Pather Panchali sometimes deviated from the events described in the novel. Chunibala raised no objection to anything, except the scene which shows Indir’s death. ‘Indir was a most religious woman… is it fair to show her dying in the bamboo grove?’ I tried explaining to her that if the two children discovered her corpse in a bamboo grove purely by chance, the emotions that discovery might arouse in their young minds would be most significant, both from the point of view of cinema, and in creating a dramatic effect. Chunibala said nothing more.
The scene of her funeral procession was shot when most of the work on the film was already finished. This scene was not in the original screenplay either. It was added later, on the grounds that it would make Indir’s death even more poignant…
Chunibala Devi arrived in a taxi at five a.m. and found us waiting by a track that ran through a field, getting ready for the shot. She had no idea what the scene involved and why she had been brought there. Somehow I managed to muster up enough courage to say to her, ‘Today, we’ll put you on a bier!’ Chunibala was not in the least taken aback or put out. ‘Very well. How many people can experience such a thing? I have no objection at all!’ she said.
We spread a mat over a cot made of bamboo and asked Indir to lie on it. Then her body was wrapped tightly with the shawl that she had begged from her nephew, Raju. Ropes were then spread across the bier to make it more secure. This was followed by a rehearsal for the benefit of the camera, and the funeral procession started.
When the shot was over, the bier was lowered to the ground, the ropes untied. But Chunibala did not move. We exchanged glances. What was the matter with her? My heart gave a sudden lurch.
In the next instant, however, I heard Chunibala’s voice: ‘Has the shot been taken already? Why, nobody told me! So I was still pretending to be a corpse!’
Her acting was truly extraordinary. With that shot, Indir’s role had come to an end.
Excerpted with permission from Speaking of Films, Satyajit Ray, Penguin Books.