Recently, the 50th anniversary of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali was celebrated in the nation’s capital with the screening of some of his most memorable films. What was truly amazing was the massive crowd -- comprising lots of youngsters, some of whom came with their parents who perhaps had seen these films in their younger days -- which attended this film festival braving the mid-day heat and gave a standing applause to each one of those films. These included the Apu Trilogy, Charulata and Pratidwandi. But it is the rapturous response to Pather Panchali that tells an interesting story of its own.
Here was a metropolitan audience soaking in the pastoral sights and sounds of village life in West Bengal -- a way of life that is a distant memory for most of them. Movie buffs, of course, savoured re-viewing some of the classic scenes from Ray’s first film like Apu watching for the first time a train coming around the bend, the first intimations of rain, the sweetmeat seller’s walk through the village and so on. But 50 years down the road, what is fascinating indeed is Pather Panchali’s continuing appeal to an audience that is two to three generations away from any connection with the countryside in general.
Fifty years is indeed a lot of time for this process to have worked itself through in terms of the shift of population from the country to the towns and cities of India. And one obvious consequence has been a steady decline, if not vanishing of rural settings altogether in popular cinema of the Mumbai variety. Very few of the recent crop of blockbuster Hindi films, for instance, have a pastoral setting beyond the shooting of individual song sequences, say, in the mustard fields of Punjab’s countryside. It is the concerns of an urban audience that is kept in mind by such filmmakers in recent times.
But metropolises are only small islands in a largely rural hinterland. Many in the urban middle class are a few generations away from the land but the fact remains that India is still an agrarian economy. Notwithstanding decades of post Independence development, it is "one of the few examples left in the world of an enormous population still largely dependent on agriculture" to borrow an expression of Eric Hobsbawm. While many progressive changes have, no doubt, taken place on the economic front, India remains an exception to what he termed as "the most dramatic and far-reaching social change the world has experienced" in the second half of the 20th century.
This refers to the death of the peasantry -- a process that is coterminous with what is termed as modern economic development. The movement away from agriculture towards industry and services thus has occurred in most of the developed nations of the world. In fact, in many of them, the share of population living off the land is less than 5-10 per cent. Given the far-reaching nature of these changes, textbooks on development consider the share of population dependent on agriculture as a yardstick of development. Accordingly, a high share implies that a particular country like India (including China and many African countries as well) is in the ranks of the developing nations.
The land is, no doubt, emptying itself and filling up the towns and cities of India. But the pace is not that rapid as has been observed in developed countries like Finland and other Scandinavian nations in which this historic shift took place within a single generation itself. In sharp contrast, the share of population living off the land in India for long remained stuck at 70 per cent, subsequently declining to 57 per cent in 1999-2000 despite signs of acceleration in the pace of urbanization and the memory of any connection with the land receding with every succeeding generation.
Mumbai film industry, for its part, fast-forwarded this process and considered the transition over in the 1960s itself when it showcased the last of its superstars who were comfortable acting in both rural and urban settings. But the reality instead is of long periods of stasis in this transition. The shift to the towns and cities, no doubt, gathered momentum but the share of population living off the land started trending down much later. That proportion declined to 63 per cent in 1983, then remained unchanged at 60 per cent between 1987-88 and 1993-94 before heading down to 57 per cent at present. The moral of the story is that the peasantry here is far from dead but is very much alive and kicking.
India thus remains very much an agrarian economy although the share of agriculture in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has steadily declined to 24 per cent. When the share of those living off the land declines less sharply than the sector’s share in GDP, the result is bound to be a decline in agricultural output or income per head over time -- a process of immiserisation which would only have gathered momentum in the context of the near-stagnation of agricultural employment since the 1990s. The movement from the country to towns and cities is bound to accelerate under these circumstances.
But what does all of this have to do with Pather Panchali’s appeal to a metropolitan audience even after 50 years of its making? One wonders whether Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon would have drawn a comparable crowd in the land of its making, where he is largely forgotten? Despite having no connection with life in the countryside, the audience in Delhi was simply mesmerized by Ray’s mastery in holding a clear mirror to life. One needn’t go as far as some critics that this film was indeed the best that he made, but it is a timeless classic. By thronging to the festival in droves, the audience were only paying homage to a master who ranks among the greatest filmmakers of our times.
N Chandra Mohan is an economic commentator