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The Subterraneous Discourse of Caste Politics in ‘Pather Panchali’

By Samrita Sinha

Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is one of the most poetic films to ever have been made by an Indian filmmaker. The film has been celebrated for its humanistic appeal when it won the inaugural “Best Human Document Award” at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. What constitutes the film’s abiding and timeless appeal, is its celebration of the ordinary and the quotidian, as Ray’s brilliant direction and Subrata Mitra’s amazing cinematography sublimates the very nugatory everydayness of rural life to a whole new aesthetic plane, seen through the wondrous eyes of two innocent children, the archetypal Durga and Apu. The story, as we know was adapted by Satyajit Ray from the 19th century Bengali writer, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel of the same name. However, Ray’s brilliant cinematic sensibility elevated the aesthetics of the novel through the introduction of a few scenes which stand out in the collective memory and popular imaginary as the most iconic scenes of the film – the one where little Apu and the adolescent Durga run through a field of white flax to catch a glimpse of the train, an entity of technological wonder and marvel in their rural context. This scene and its mnemonic implications for the audience are that it symbolised a metaphorical leap towards an eternal hope, so characteristic of childhood as depicted by Ray.

However, what always lurks at the periphery of such joyous moments is the constant reminder of the very precarity of Durga and Apu’s lives caught in the vortex of oppressive and desperate poverty. What is particularly interesting to note is the politics of caste that intersects this life of vicious poverty. The strong social consciousness in the movie has conventionally been associated with the very realism with which Ray depicts the Indian rural topography and the concomitant poverty which was the result of a liberal democratic India following the Nehruvian ideals of urban development and industrialisation. Not much scholarship has focussed attention on the very subterraneous caste politics characterising the rural social structure in Pather Panchali. This is primarily because the figure of the Brahmin in the popular Indian imaginary has quintessentially been associated with an oppressor. The very power structure of the caste system has always pivoted around an oppressive upper caste namely the Brahmin and the oppressed, that is, the non-Brahmin. In Pather Panchali, the representation of Brahminism is not very overt and the protagonist Harihar is far from the stereotypical oppressive persona. However, in Pather Panchali, a closer look yields very interesting perspectives about how Ray deploys the caste system as a tool of social control. At the root of this social evil, as Pather Panchali depicts, is the idea that the stronghold of caste on the masses works primarily because of its strong ideological indoctrination. Caste functions as hegemonic in accordance with the Marxist philosopher Raymond Williams’ idea of hegemony as “an internalised form of social control.” In the film, caste works as an oppressive tool of power primarily because Harihar has interiorised its ideological doctrines. As a Brahmin, Harihar has been indoctrinated by a purist notion of upper caste status, the impact of which can be seen on his social behaviour. If we look at Pather Panchali through this lens, we find that the root of most of Harihar’s economic problems is tied to his internalisation of the politics of caste.

This idea is not to demonise Harihar, rather to see Harihar too as a victim of the ideological conditioning by the apparatus of caste. First and foremost, as a Brahmin, Harihar’s choice of occupations is rather limited. On one hand, he himself is reluctant to take up any occupation that is not befitting of his upper caste status, while on the other, there is also a strong possibility that a society riddled with caste-consciousness also fails to offer Harihar occupations that are not circumscribed by the stigma of caste. We see that Harihar harbours a grand illusion of a scholarly disposition, because, as a Brahmin it grants him some kind of social respectability, despite the fact that it hardly holds any promise of economic sustainability. In a poignant scene in the kitchen, as Sarvajaya cooks a scanty meal, the audience helplessly watches as Harihar assures his wife that the promising future where his scholarly writings will earn him fame and glory is getting near. The perpetually hassled wife who has to think of keeping the hearth fire alight, is pacified by such assurances from a husband who is clearly caught up in the illusions of a casteist grandeur, associated with this profession. For Harihar, the archetypal Brahmin, the profession of a writer has larger socio-cultural implications; it reaffirms and reinforces the idea that as a Brahmin, he is the sole arbiter of knowledge and scholarly wisdom, even though he is desperately poor. The perpetuation of the very masculinist grandeur of Brahminism is further seen in an evening family scene, where Harihar and his son Apu are seated side by side at separate writing desks and Harihar is busy finishing the writing of a play for the village festival, while at the same time supervising Apu’s homework. The women folk of the family are busy with their feminine chores and Sarvajaya combs Durga’s hair and talks to her about marriage while the old aunt, Indir, is busy sewing and mending her tattered clothes. What strikes us is the unfortunate truth that all the privileges of a superior caste are only available to the Brahmin male, whereas the Brahmin female’s fate is no different from the fates of other non-Brahmin women.

The core economic problem of Harihar’s family is a corollary of Harihar’s inability to think of alternate meaningful occupations than those warranted to him by his superior caste position. At times, in the face of such abject poverty, Harihar’s cheerful over sanguinity comes across as rather callow and even delusional. Although he is a rather affable man, his good-natured passivity in the face of such economic crisis, comes across as caste-induced vainglory. In another similar kitchen scene, after the birth of Apu, we see Harihar happily announcing to Sarvajaya that he has secured a job at the Ray’s (landlord) and has been asked to manage his accounts. When Sarvajaya asks him, whether he has asked the landlord as to what his pay would be, Harihar feels slighted and tells her that he will not be cheated by landlord Ray who he thinks is a good man. This blind and absolute belief that people would be good to him also is a function of his supremacist caste disposition where he rests assured that because he is a Brahmin, people would be good to him. His belief also resonates with the larger socio-cultural convention where the Vedas have taught people to believe that cheating a Brahmin is a grave moral lapse and would invite divine punishment. Moreover, his lack of worldliness also stems from this internalised idea of social supremacy as a Brahmin which deters him from asking for his rightful dues because of some vague notion of respectability and pride as a Brahmin. He even goes on to assert to Sarvajaya that he is not meant to be doing such petty accounting and clerical jobs forever and that in the long run he will shine as a Brahmin scholar, the implication being that he commands a wealth of knowledge at his disposal.

Contrasted to his supremist stance, we have the persona of Sarvajaya as the troubled wife who has to continuously bear the social brunt of poverty from mean and intolerant neighbours who double as their relatives in a tight-knit village community. Here, the politics of class intersects with that of caste. Their rich and snobbish relatives continually harass and taunt Sarvajaya with an uppity air and in one instance she is subjected to inordinate humiliation and embarrassment as Durga is accused of stealing a precious necklace from one of Sejobou’s daughters. Harihar is conveniently absent during such domestic scenes of humiliation and the audience is made to relate as well as appreciate the quiet fortitude of Sarvajaya’s character as we see her always at the receiving end of social embarrassment. Satyajit Ray has always been appreciated for portraying strong women characters but Sarvajaya’s desperate clinging on to the last dregs of dignity even in the face of such abjection is beyond any comparison to any other reel female character of Ray’s times. In a scene, where while looking for any remnant of grain to feed her starving family because her husband has gone away in search of a sustainable occupation, Sarvajaya is loaned some money by her kind and benevolent neighbour. She however refuses the favour while breaking down. The audience is drawn to further respect and hold Sarvajaya in awe as we foresee the gradual breakdown of the pride and self-respect of a woman whose only solace has been her ability to maintain a dignified composure while negotiating with a life of penury and tribulations.

The Harihar family’s situation goes from bad to worse and the ultimate blow comes with the death of Durga due to a fatal fever which she catches after the beautifully poetic and lyrical rain scene. After returning from the white flax field, Durga and Apu are caught in a thunderstorm and rain. In this beautiful scene accompanied by melodious background score, on one hand the rains appear very metaphorically regenerative, restoring the parched land and renewing nature. Subrata Mitra’s camerawork wonderfully captures this regenerative aspect of the rains where we see Durga dancing in the rains and the entire village soaking up the goodness of the benevolent rains, with the needles of rain rippling the water in the ponds and the entire vegetation revitalised. On the other hand, the rains also spell disaster for Harihar’s family as their ramshackle hut further crumbles and Durga catches a fever that ultimately leads to her premature death. Meanwhile, Harihar has been away from his village Nischindipur to look for a meaningful occupation. The fact that he returns empty-handed further tells us about the hegemonic control of caste over individuals’ lives as Harihar’s failure is two-pronged. It is not only a personal failure but also the failure of a caste bifurcated society that has failed to equip a Brahmin with the resources needed to earn a decent livelihood.

The pathos of this truth hits the audience hard as its repercussions mostly impact Harihar’s family which is further propelled towards dislocation and an indefinite future towards the poignant ending scenes. Towards the closure, Harihar throws away his water-soaked books and scriptures as village elders helplessly watch on as he prepares to leave the village to move to Banaras with his young son and wife. The irony of the ending is further emphasised when Harihar rationalises his choice of Banaras to relocate to. He tells the elders that in Banaras, at the least he hopes he would be able to earn some money as by virtue of being a Brahmin, he would be needed to officiate religious rituals and can therefore make money as a priest. Pather Panchali very subtly drives home the ultimate failure of the regressive caste system, when trapped in this vicious and ineluctable cycle, Harihar the poor Brahmin himself emerges as the quintessential victim and the oppressed subject. The subtlety of Ray’s depiction manifests his beautiful integration of aesthetics with politics. At the end, the camera poetically captures the spirit of utter defeat and dejection as the drooping postures of the three huddled bodies, that of Harihar, Sarvajaya, and Apu, are borne away by the buffalo cart into the fading day and into a metaphoric social oblivion.

Photo: Janus Films


Cardullo, R.J. ‘Pather Panchali and the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Reviewed’, South Asian Popular Culture, 17:1, 81-94, DOI: 10.1080/14746689.2019.1585618. 2019

Sengoopta, Chandak. “Satyajit Ray: Liberalism and Its Vicissitudes”, Cinéaste , FALL 2009, Vol. 34, No. 4 (FALL 2009), pp. 16-22

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1977.

An alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and the University of Calcutta, Samrita Sinha is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of English at Sophia College (Autonomous), Mumbai. She is also a visiting Professor at the PG Dept. of English at S.N.D.T Women’s University, Mumbai. Her Doctoral research is in the domain of Northeast Anglophone Literatures. She has published several articles in reputed international journals and contributed book chapters.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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