Director: Priyanka Kumar
Priyanka Kumar's documentary on the Indian director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) is named in honor of the English translation of the title of Ray's first film, Pather Panchali. The seventy-minute long documentary approaches Ray's career and legacy from several angles, using interviews with experts in various fields of film studies as well as brief excerpts from Ray's films. Ray's movies are examined by Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and past president of the National Society of Film Critics, and by director Martin Scorsese, whose commitment to film preservation is well known. Both of these men, ardent admirers of Ray, offer genuinely perceptive observations about his work, in particular the great early films, which are the focus of The Song of the Little Road.
Typically, Scorsese approaches Ray from the point of view of his own personal relationship to Ray's films. Of watching the entire Apu trilogy in one sitting, Scorsese says that it "was one of the great cinema experiences" of his life and was a direct inspiration for his own early films, explaining how his realization that Ray was able to make stories so "foreign" seem "personal" made him see that he could do the same thing with the world he grew up in and was familiar with. Rainer enthusiastically calls Ray "the complete filmmaker" and credits his rediscovery of Ray's films with changing his mind about giving up film criticism as a career because of his disenchantment with contemporary movies. The two men discuss many of the most important elements of Ray's work: his humanism, the "introspective" and "meditative" quality of his films, his affinity for telling stories from a child's point of view, the almost documentary simplicity of his technique, his seamless integration of music and narrative. Interestingly, both point out the resemblance of his movies to literature: Scorsese compares watching the Apu trilogy to "reading a two thousand page novel," while Rainer observes that Ray "really does give you the kind of richness and complexity that you get from great literature."
The documentary also uses interviews with personal friends of Ray like Ismail Merchant and musician Ravi Shankar to give us a sketch of Ray the man. We learn of his modest lifestyle and of his gregariousness and sense of humor, as well as his fascination with the arts of all kinds. (His small apartment in Calcutta was virtually a salon for lovers of cinema, literature, music, and art.) We also learn of the financial problems of his film career, which were so great that he had to write novels to support his family because he earned so little from his movies. Most of the early films were made for only around sixty thousand dollars but were nevertheless difficult to finance because they were not popular in India. It was really only the success of his films with foreign audiences that allowed Ray to keep working. So great was his love of his native Bengal, though, that he turned down many offers to work abroad after he became a festival and art-house favorite, preferring to make modest movies about Bengal even if it meant scraping together financing, working with primitive equipment, and knowing that his films would never be popular at home.
Michael Pogorzelsky, director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives (Ray received an honorary award from the Academy in 1992, less than a month before his death) and film restorer David Sheppard offer some fascinating insights into the subject of film preservation and the challenges of restoring Ray's films. By the time a restoration project was begun in the 1990s, few prints of Ray's early films remained. Not only had the negatives been used to make so many prints that they were essentially worn out, but the humid climate of Bengal had caused severe damage, causing a progressive process of chemical decomposition called "the vinegar syndrome" because of the strong smell of vinegar the damaged film gives off. After a set of negatives in good condition was discovered and sent to London, they were destroyed in a fire before any significant work could be done. The restorers were then forced to rely on assembling new prints from bits and pieces obtained from various sources, a process further complicated by the fact that only prints without subtitles could be used. Given these difficulties, it seems almost miraculous that the restoration project was able to be completed. I have seen the restored prints of the Apu trilogy sponsored by the Merchant and Ivory Foundation that resulted from the project and although not absolutely perfect, they are quite acceptable, especially compared to the much poorer quality prints of Ray's films from other sources.
My one reservation about The Song of the Little Road is that the interviews are illustrated not by live footage of the person being interviewed, but by stills apparently taken from the interview footage, giving the film a rather static quality at times. However, this is certainly offset by the excellence of the commentary and the power of the excerpts from Ray's films, which seem particularly well chosen to illustrate the point being made. All in all, The Song of the Little Road, which is distributed by NEHST Studios, is without question essential viewing for anyone interested in Satyajit Ray. Click here for more information.
Laurie Pederson of NEHST kindly sent me a review copy of The Song of the Little Road after reading my post on Ray's Aparajito and The World of Apu, the second and third films in the Apu trilogy.