“Parash Pathar” - Satyajit Ray (1958)

Satyajit Ray’s third film, Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), was an unexpected change of pace following the poetic realism of his first two features – Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956).  For this occasion, Ray ventured into lighthearted fantasy. This was something of a deviation from what would become Ray’s usual, more serious, tenor (he did quickly return to the Apu theme and complete the trilogy with Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)).  And as with the Apu trilogy, the cinematography was by Subrata Mitra, the film editing was by Dulal Dutta, and the musical score was written by famous musician-composer Ravi Shankar.

It turns out, in fact, that Parash Pathar is rather unique to Ray’s entire oeuvre.  Although the film is often referred to as a comedy, I wouldn’t call it that. It is not so much a story played for laughs, but is more of a social fable akin to the works Nathanael West and Voltaire, or even De Sica’s and Zavattini’s Miracle in Milan (1951). Thus, like those works, the film’s real contribution lies in the implied commentary it makes on the foibles of modern society. 

The fabular theme of Parash Pathar, as indicated by the title, concerns a modern day discovery of the mythical “philosopher’s stone” – a marvelous substance long obsessively sought by alchemists that could purportedly change base metals such as iron into gold. Medieval alchemists, unaware of the nature of chemical elements, for centuries believed that such a potent substance might exist and to find it meant immeasurable wealth for the discoverer.  In Parash Pathar, a lower middle-class bank clerk in Calcutta stumbles upon such a stone and tries to come to terms with the life-altering consequences.

Ray’s screenplay for the film was based on a short story of the same name by “Parasuram”, the pen name of Rajsekhar Bose, whose brother happened to be the Rays’ family doctor [1].  There are some curious aspects as to the way this story is told, however.  In particular, pivotal events in the narrative, such as the discovery of the stone and the main character’s accumulation of wealth, are passed over quickly and barely covered.  Instead, Ray presents the viewer with extended relatively static situations that show the main character’s state of mind at various stages in the story.  This may have been an effort on Ray’s part to accentuate the mouth-agape and bug-eyed  theatrics of his lead actor, Tulsi Chakraborty, whose onscreen persona dominates the film’s flavor and tone.

The film’s narrative passes through three basic phases.

1.  A Life-changing Discovery
Paresh Chandra Dutta (played by Tulsi Chakraborty) is a middle-aged bank clerk who is facing an impending layoff and is generally bored with his humdrum life.  On the way home from work one day, he gets caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in a public park, where he happens upon a small marble stone which he apparently pockets and gives to the small boy Poltu who lives next door to him.  The boy soon discovers the marble’s miraculous powers and demonstrates them to Paresh – just bringing the stone into contact with another metal object will instantly transform that object into one of pure gold.  Paresh now bribes the lad with a ton of sweets in order to buy back the invaluable nugget. 

Paresh is now excited, but his traditional cultural upbringing makes him fearful that the gods will punish him for having such a powerful instrument and that he should discard the stone.  However, his wife Giribala (Ranibala Devi), being of a more modest practical bent, convinces him that he should at least first turn all her kitchen utensils into gold and then exchange them for cash at the gold bullion merchant bazaar. This Paresh does, and on the way back from the market he takes an extended taxi ride (which he can now easily afford) along the way of which he lapses into Walter-Mitty-like dreams about his newly acquired wealth.

This taxi ride, which occupies six minutes of screen time, is a memorable sequence in the film. As the taxi passes the steel frame of a multistory building under construction, Paresh stares at  it and presumably imagines it being touched by the stone in his pocket.  Other passing sites stir his imagination, and he dreams of being a high military commander and becoming so famous that a city statue of him is erected in his honor.  When he passes by a metal junkyard, the temptation is too great, and he orders the taxi to stop.  After browsing around in the yard, he packs up two iron cannonball to take home with him.

2.   Paresh Dutta, the Wealthy Patron
After the taxi ride, the action jumps forward, and Paresh is now a wealthy man.  He and his wife live in a mansion, they own a limousine, and Paresh has his own personal secretary, Priyotosh Biswas (Kali Banerjee).  Paresh has become a noted pillar of society and is sponsoring charity shows, bestowing prizes, and laying cornerstones to buildings he has commissioned.  And Priyotosh reminds him that he has recently been the Chief Guest at 26 functions.  All in all Paresh is now a bigwig.

Finally Paresh gets invited to an upscale cocktail party, and Ray’s nine-minute depiction of this event is another one of the film’s extended situational characterizations (and an opportunity for Tulsi Chakraborty’s histrionics).  The party is swamped with a sea of mindless platitudes and pseudo-intellectual chitchat, and Paresh is clearly out of his element.  Not used to alcohol, he gets drunk and frustrated at being ignored.  So before departing the scene, he decides to show the assembled guests just how great he is by dramatically demonstrating the prowess of his magical stone.

3.  The Collapse
The last third of the film is the most interesting part, because it expands on the social element of this story. The morning after the cocktail party, a sobering-up Paresh realizes he foolishly let the cat out of the bag regarding the secret to his wealth.  In no time, the cocktail party host, assuming that Paresh must have some secret formula for making gold, comes over to blackmail him about it.  When he fails to get satisfaction, the man exposes to the press what happened at his party.  Paresh’s mysterious wealth becomes front-page news.

Paresh is sure that the gods are finally punishing him and that the police will assume he is a smuggler or criminal.  After all, how could a lowly bank clerk have come up with so much gold?  He and Giribala decide to make a getaway.  Before leaving, he gives his mansion, his belongings, and his special stone to Priyotosh.  Then they escape with the police hot on their tail.
Meanwhile the news about Paresh and his magic stone lead to a general economic collapse, which is depicted in a five-minute sequence that offers the film’s best social satire.  People with gold belongings now figure that if Paresh can generate gold so easily, there will soon be a gold surplus and its value will plummet.  So there is a rush to sell gold on the market, which quickly does generate the feared devaluation.  Since many businesses have investments in the presumed safety of gold reserves, this leads to an overall stock market collapse.  Paresh’s boon has led to a nationwide panic and a possible ruination of the whole society.

The police eventually capture Paresh and accuse him of smuggling.  However, other elements of the police, believing in the stone’s magical powers, raid Paresh’s mansion, where they discover that Priyotosh, frustrated over his failing relationship with his girlfriend, is ill from having swallowed the stone. With the whole country swirling in turmoil, these police want to have doctors operate on Priyotosh and extract the stone from his stomach.  

But the doctors inform the police that X-rays reveal that the stone is rapidly dissolving in Priyotosh’s intestines.  When the stone finally completely dissolves, all the gold objects in the city that had been converted from base metals return to their original base-metal states. 

With the world returned to normal, Paresh, Giribala, and Priyotosh are released from custody and can cheerfully get on with life; and they take off together in a humble carriage as the film ends.

Parash Pathar has a pleasant feel to it, but I wonder if Ray had more extended plans for it or if there were significant narrative elements missing from the version I saw [2]. The character of Priyotosh has some attention devoted to it: he appears to be an Anglo-Indian who has a mad crush on a Hindu girl whom we never see. But nothing much comes of this character development, and the narrative effect of his presence is minimal. Similarly Paresh and Giribala have a family servant, Brajahari (Jahar Roy), on whom there is also some focalization, but his presence in the film, which is presumably for humorous effect, also seems to be truncated.

Overall, Parash Pathar’s best moments come in the three extended situation scenes (one in each act)  – the taxi ride, the cocktail party, and the gold panic – in which Ray can satirically portray various aspects of modern society.  We are reminded in these scenes that often what people value (such as gold or a famous Rembrandt painting) is rather artificial and dependent on the “crowd’s” opinions.  People are frequently shown to value something highly simply because everyone else does.  We should not forget that the truly important elements in life, such as love, have their intrinsic value.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 301-305.
  2. The listed running time for Parash Pathar at SatyajitRay.org, IMDb, and Wikipedia is 111 minutes, but the version of the film that I saw had a running time of 90 minutes.

No comments: