What Does Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali tell us about Visual Poetry in Cinema?



Poetics, just like poetry, is an all-encompassing word. ‘Poetry’ can be everything, and ‘poetics’ can be ‘of everything’. Aristotle, as far as we know in documented literature, was the one to start the trend of delineating the poetics of things. His deliberation on the art of writing poetry opened the doors for deliberation on the art of things. That of war followed a few centuries later. And in the many, many centuries that followed, that of everything. Poetics of Racial Identity, Poetics of Manhood, Poetics of DNA, Poetics of Personification, and Poetics of Cinema are the handful of titles I could find, courtesy of a google search. It makes me wonder if there is poetics to googling? There must be, as I said earlier, poetics can be of everything, and isn’t it a wonderful thought? There is an art to everything, even for things as mundane as a google search, for things as cruel as war. It also makes one wonder; can poetry dissociate itself from the very medium that has carried it for eons – language and words?


In Moonlight and Valentino (David Anspaugh, 1995), the protagonist asks her students to write a wordless poem. It first reminded me of E.E Cummings’ Grasshopper. Though not wordless, it is equally visual.


Grasshopper by E.E.Cummings

I wonder if it would have made sense to me had I encountered outside the walls of a poetry class. But then, this grasshopper-shaped thought-train leaped to another class: one about film appreciation. If you have ever been in a place where films are discussed, dissected, loved, and appreciated – this space takes many forms: introduction to cinema workshops, the panels post screenings in film festivals, the plethora of videos on cinema on YouTube, Instagram pages dedicated to cinema, podcasts discussing everything an average viewer misses about any film, you name it – if you have encountered discussion on and about films in any capacity, it is likely that you have heard this term thrown around:

VISUAL POETRY. So and so film is a specimen of ‘visual poetry’ in such and such way. I still haven’t been able to grasp what exactly qualifies as visual poetry?

Poetics of what one sees?

Poetics of what one is shown?

Photography that stirs emotions in you?

All elements that comprise a moving image, all of them coming together to be described best by nothing else but the term poetry?


What does one make of this term – visual poetry?

These are my observations as an ardent lover of cinema. It certainly is not just words. It may or may not be pleasing to the eye. It may or may not have a sound. It does, without a fail, stir something in you. Essentially, everything a good poem does to the reader, but without being a poem as we know it.


Like all entering Satyajit Ray’s world of neorealism and cinematic serenity, I too started with Pather Panchali (Song of The Little Road). How does one make a story about small joys and big losses of life, wrapped in the humdrum of getting by seem interesting? Debutants in their crafts at the time, Ray and Subrata Mitra (cinematographer, Pather Panchali) made a film so visually stunning that the viewer cannot look away. Ray frames the mundane instances of life in all their beauty. As Apu, the young protagonist, the observer, navigates his days, we navigate the effortless lyricism of the film. It isn’t in the dialogue or technicalities like the transition of one frame to another. It is in how the plot has been stitched together to resemble the natural flow of a day even though the story unfolds over a period of really difficult months. The mundanity of life is evident in the long, wide-angle shots. The habit of it passing by is woven into the flow of the plot. A lyric that rolls off one's tongue. A poem that seeps into one’s bones.


Still from Pather Panchali (1955), dir. Satyajit Ray

In a remarkable scene; one that aims to emphasize the different lives we all live while sharing the same time and space, a wall separates the two characters in the frame. Apu’s mother, the one burdened with worrying about everything sits in the kitchen pouring her heart out to Apu’s carefree father, one who believes good things await just around the corner. Apu’s father is in the adjacent room, almost asleep. Their different realities are distinguished literally by the wall that separates them physically. Apu’s mother’s words leave her mouth, but not the space that binds her. It isn’t the most picturesque of the frames in the film. Pather Panchali is composed of frames that can stand alone as poignant images but it is its lyrical movement, the layered composition that turns the film into visual poetry. Ángel Fernández-Santos, a celebrated Spanish film critic often used the concept of visual poetry to describe films that “feature a special lyrical exaltation to represent feelings or reflections of proven intellectual depth, permitting the audience to transcend the surface of images and move to abstract territories”[1]

Still from Pather Panchali (1955), dir. Satyajit Ray

It is not the framing of the separated realities of Apu's parents but the lack of either being able to penetrate this wall that one may find poetic. Call it affective fallacy if you may, but what use are the pristine aesthetics and technical correctness if it fails to appeal to the heart of the audience. Poetry has always been one to be of the heart, of the right brain, as romantics put it - of emotions. Its visual counterpart, though different in its medium of existence, originates from and serves a similar purpose.


If not mine, take James Broughton’s word for it, he says, “to ask for poetry in cinema does not mean that one is asking for verse plays embalmed in celluloid. The search is for the moment of truth, the sudden illumination of experience, the thrill of discovery of beauty in squalor, of the exciting in the ordinary.”[2]


It is this illumination of experience that Ray offers us - drawn from lives like our own, presented in a manner that leaves the tingle of having read a good poem on one's back. What can be best described as visual poetry if not this aftereffect? When Ray shows us childhood at its most innocent, he taints it with the cunningness that begins to brew in a child’s heart as days of childhood pass. One such instance is when the sweet seller comes to the village and Apu and his older sister Dugga can’t afford to buy his sweets. They follow him to the richer parts of the village. The parts where Dugga’s friend lives. One who is bound to not only buy those sweets but share them as well. They follow the seller, and we follow them from a distance, watching their reflection as they walk by. We watch the reflection through nostalgia-tinted glasses. Nor are these glasses to be trusted, neither is the temporary reflection of water. Nostalgia paints all pictures rosy. Reflections in water, akin to childhood, die out with time.

Pather Panchali is a collection of interwoven instances of visual poetry that say to the viewer - come, have a look. Bask in the warmth of simpler times. Don’t come too close though. You might see what escapes a child’s eye. This is a harsh life you’re looking at.

 

Prakhar Patidar is a 23-year-old English and Cultural Studies postgrad from Bhopal. Currently based in Jaipur, working as a Research Assistant at a school, she is experiencing the other side of school life. When she is done with the work at 4 (one of the perks of working at a school), she dedicates her time to reading about, watching, appreciating, loving, writing, and talking about films. So much so that she produces a podcast about world cinema called AROUND THE WORLD IN 8MM.


You can listen to her work here or keep up with her in general, here.


 

[1] Planes Pedreño, José. (2015). The visual poetry in the film criticism of Ángel Fernández-Santos. 28. 125-141. 10.15581/003.28.4.125-141. [2] Qtd from “Film as Poetry” by Fredrick Aicken (1952)

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