by Juhi Saklani
As Satyajit Ray prepared for the shooting of ‘Jalsaghar’ and Chhabi Biswas took horse-riding lessons for his role, unexpectedly, the opportunity arose for Biswas to go to the Berlin film festival with a film of his. Biswas had never been abroad and wanted to go for an indefinite length of time. Ray did not have the heart to say 'no' to him.
In the interim, he decided to make a quick film. He chose the comic-fantasy ‘Paras Pathar’ (The Philosopher's Stone) by the great humourist Parasuram. Through the story of an ordinary bank clerk who happens to find a stone that turns base metal to gold and his subsequent travails, Ray made a semi-comedy that also doubled up as a social comment and was quite moving in parts.
Tulsi Chakraborty, often compared by critics to Chaplin not for his formal style but for his ability to evoke comedy as well as pathos, used his huge eyes and mobile face to great effect as the clerk who is greedy as well as terrified by his possession of the miracle stone. He simultaneously feels he will be punished by the gods but also daydreams of having statues put up in his honour as a great man. He succumbs to temptation and soon becomes a rich philanthropic pillar of society by selling the gold he could create thanks to the ‘Paras Pathar’. At a cocktail party, however, new to alcohol and out of place amid the high-society types, he gets drunk, loses all good sense, and shows off his stone. The secret is out. The newspapers are full of it.
A powerful sequence follows: people start fearing that gold will not be of any value anymore and rush to sell off their gold possessions, thus bringing about a crash in gold prices and share market values – exactly what they feared in the first place.
Meanwhile, Paresh babu is taken in by the police for smuggling. But his secretary, a young man thwarted in love, has swallowed the stone! He is carried off for X-rays. His marvellous metabolism actually digests the stone, and as it does, all that new gold turns back into the original metal. The police have nothing to arrest Paresh babu for and they all go back to their normal life, happier and wiser.
Ray clearly appreciated Tulsi Chakraborty very much and said that with this role he had "his first opportunity in a career spanning 46 years to play a really important role worthy of his talent". ‘Paras Pathar’ was praised in the newspapers but did not become the hit Ray had hoped for. It is among his least mentioned films but it does deserve a viewing.
(‘Paras Pathar’ booklet, Musui Art Collection. Note that the back cover carries advertisements for Ray's forthcoming ‘Jalsaghar’ as well as for Ritwik Ghatak's ‘Ajantrik’)
First published by Musui Art Foundation
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer, and cinema lover.