Bari Theke Paliye is often described as India’s The 400 Blows, even though Truffaut’s masterpiece was released in 1959, a year after Ritwik Ghatak’s film. While the basic storylines - a delinquent boy runs away from home - are similar, the two films make an interesting study in contrasts. Ghatak’s protagonist is younger than Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, more of a Bengali Huckleberry Finn in his resourcefulness and cheerful defiance of authority. Bari Theke Paliye is a lot starker than Truffaut’s film – by the time it is done, the runaway has had to deal with hunger, poverty and death. But the most crucial, and least deserved, point of contrast is this: Truffaut’s film kicked off the French New Wave and is one of the most revered in film history, while Ghatak’s is a neglected masterpiece, little-known even in its country of origin.
This neglect is evident from the first frame; the picture jumps around alarmingly, and the quality of the image cries out for restoration. Even through the murk, Ghatak’s singular vision shines through. Kanchan (Param Bharak Lahiri, in one of the greatest-ever performances by a child actor) is irritated by the dampening effect his professor-dad’s disciplinary ways have on his shenanigans. He runs off, leaving his village home for the big city of Calcutta, vowing to make enough money to support his doting mother. With no money, friends or relatives, things look bleak until he’s befriended by a good-hearted trickster named Haridas (Kali Bannerjee). Ghatak incisively hones in on the distracted nature of children; even though Haridas is his best chance for survival, Kanchan keeps wandering off to have adventures.
Ghatak was just two films old when he made Bari Theke Paliye. In the coming years, he would go on to make some of the starkest films ever to come out of Bengal (or India, or anywhere) in Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. This film too has its strident moments – Ghatak’s startling overlays of sound and image, for example (and a tribute to their intellectual source – a brief visual homage to Battleship Potemkin’s famous image of an old woman with broken spectacles). But the mood on the whole is one of lessons learnt, and of hard-won forgiveness. The cinematography by Dinen Gupta is as heartfelt a tribute to Calcutta in the ’50s as Henri Decae’s in The 400 Blows was to Paris. The score, courtesy Salil Chowdhury, is another source of wonder, shifting from sitars and flutes to orchestras to emphasise the character’s journey from village to town. The director’s decision to construct the second half as a series of short vignettes upsets the film’s rhythm somewhat; the ends of some scenes feel like they’ve been loped off. But that’s a minor quibble. Bari Theke Paliye translates as The Runaway; given the relative obscurity of its status, it should have been The One That Got Away.
This review was published in Time Out Delhi.