Listen to Pather Panchali - Song of The Road from Sunday 24 February at 3.00pm
Meera Syal (Indir) and Rhea Somaiya (Durga)
Myself and the Producer Nadia Molinari have worked together on a number of radio drama projects going back over the past decade and we pitched the idea of adapting the novel Pather Panchali for radio for several years. Imagine my delight when Radio 4 finally came through. Wooo! I have always loved this story. In fact, when my late father finally decided to accept my partner as part of the family, this was the book he presented him with.
The novel was written in 1929 by Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji and its popularity in Bengal was immense. In the west, we know this story through Satyajit Ray's iconic film of the same name. Ray won critical acclaim at Cannes and I remember, in my childhood, watching it with my family many times. But the book is just fantastic and whilst everyone remembers the film (even Martin Scorsese raves about Ray's film), the novel is, in my mind, even better. I guess I am a writer, so I would say that wouldn't I?
At the heart of it all are the children, Opu and Durga and the story is told through their eyes. The vivid descriptions of Bengali village life, the trees, rivers and jungle, coupled with the children's lives are spell-binding. The crushing poverty in which the children and their parents live is authentic and, at times, heart-breaking. But what I rediscovered on working on this radio version are the stories. All the characters constantly tell each other stories which have been handed down through the generations. Hence, one gets a sense of a very ancient land and a magical world which the children inhabit. However hungry they are, however badly treated by their neighbours Opu and Durga do what all children have done through the ages - they make-believe. The ancient Goddess of the forest, dacoits who worshipped Goddess kali, lakes full of the skeletons of victims of robberies fill the imaginations of the children and in turn us, the audience.
The life of a poor Brahmin family is seen through the eyes of Opu and Durga
Meera Syal plays Indir - who tells Durga the story of Biru Ray
We were very lucky that most of the actors we had in mind agreed to take part . The wonderful Meera Syal effortlessly played the old aunt whilst the production team scoured the North West in search of Asian children who could not only act but also act with an Indian accent. Never work with children or animals? In this case, the children were integral and a complete joy to work with. Given that they had never acted on the radio before, they seemed to take to it like ducks to water. And I do remember the look of complete joy on the face of the 14 year old Rhea who plays Durga, when she realised she was acting opposite Meera Syal. Adnan who plays Opu was amazed that Ace Bhatti who played a murderous baddie in EastEnders was actually quite a nice man. As I was taking the tram out of BBC Media City, I received a tweet from the children saying 'Gupta - we smashed it'. I'm guessing that means they had a positive experience - Right?
We ask you to share in our thoughts for our inspirational colleague, actor Shiv Grewal, who is currently in critical care at King’s College Hospital.