Ray made this movie during a break in the filming of Jalsaghar (The Music Room), but you wouldn’t know it. Right at the beginning of the film, Ray keeps the camera pinned on Paresh Dutta (Tulsi Chakravarti) as he walks along the sidewalk in front of the Governor’s mansion in Dalhousie. It’s a quintessential Ray scene. As Paresh frets and fumes his way home after being laid off at the age of 55 from his job as a bank clerk, all of his personality is bequeathed to us. It sets the stage for us to understand why Paresh does what he does when he accidentally finds the paresh pathar (The Philosopher’s stone).
Based on a short story about the discovery of a stone that turns everything it touches into gold, the movie is a delightful satire of society success and individual greed. As Paresh transforms his decrepit household into a mansion, his wife mourns their loss of piety even as she desires a beautiful necklace. The pilgrimages to Kashi and Hardwar are constantly postponed, and Paresh dreams of running for office.
When is enough,enough? The age old question sits on the edge of our tongues as Ray guides his characters expertly through the moral crisis of wealth.
Ray supposedly wrote this movie specially for Tulsi Chakravarti, and it shows. The camera lingers on Paresh, we see his eyes bulge, we see his mouth tighten, we see his cheekbones relax. We feel his fears, and we sense his discomfort at having become rich without effort. Tulsi is especially funny while getting to indulge in his love of acting while delivering a public speech on the heritage of Bengal. The language used by Ray is deliciously inane, powered by the exaggerated histrionics of Tulsi Chakravarti.
All through the movie, caricatures abound. The anglicized Bengali, Subodh Percival Chatterjee, softens when he meets his compatriot, Priyotosh Henry Biswas. The Bengalis doctor chants in charming English “Please breathe deep” as he turns on the X-Ray machine. The comedy is blacker than coffee, and sharp.
However, the movie does not have the finesse of Charulata, or Seemabaddha. It has the trademark flashes of Ray in the beginning; the lingering camera, the attention to detail. As the movie progresses, it starts to hurry as if Ray needed to get back to shooting Jalsaghar.
One note of mention: the music. Ravi Shankar, who also composed the music for Pather Panchali, creates some excellent vignettes of music for Paresh Pathar. Music is central to the movie, and to the comedic effects scattered across the film. There seems an evident meeting of minds between two great artists, Satyajit Ray and Ravi Shankar, in the making of this wonderful little gem.
And last, but not least, the movie is a wonderful archive of a different time as one sees the wide streets of Calcutta in the 50s, the open maidans, and far less people, even during rush hour.