Friday, June 21, 2013

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali
Director: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Subir Banerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Karuna Banerjee, Chunibala Devi

For everything the modern American filmgoer thinks they know about Indian cinema, none of it would exist without Pather Panchali and Satyajit Ray.  Although Ray’s work is light years away from the flashy Bollywood spectacles, and much more akin to the Italian neorealist movement, Ray’s work put Indian cinema on the map, and this is the one that started them all.  Is Pather Panchali an easy film, or even an entertaining film?  No, not really, but it occupies a significant place in film history.

The film follows a small, poor Indian family living in the country in the early twentieth century.  The mother (Karuna Banerjee) is constantly worrying about money, as her husband is a priest and playwright who works only sporadically and doesn’t bring many wages home.  She’s also looking after an elderly relative Auntie (Devi) while tending to her two children, daughter Durga (Das Gupta), who is the first born, and young son Apu (Subir Banerjee).  

And that’s about it.  There is no overarching storyline from beginning to end; we merely observe this family living its life throughout the film.  It’s not even episodic; there are not distinct threads we explore and then fulfill.  No, we just watch and observe, become a part of the family’s life for the period of the film.  This works very well to paint an image of the lives we are following, but, to be honest, it makes for a rather difficult and long film to take in.  At two plus hours, it tends to move at a snail’s pace, and it’s a bad sign when, thirty minutes in, I feel like we should be halfway through.  I appreciate greatly Ray’s desire to draw for us these wide swaths of poverty-riddled rural India, and there is absolutely no doubt that this film exposes me to a world I would otherwise not have known.  But it’s a bit of a rough journey along the way, the end result being not exactly the most gripping film.

Now, having said that, there is tremendous beauty in Pather Panchali.  The film is set in the countryside, and Ray goes to town with some gorgeous shots of a small path in the woods, of rain falling on a pond, of fields of wheat, of old buildings nestled amongst trees and streams.  For a filmmaker making his first film (and a director of photography shooting his first film, and several actors acting in their first film), there is an extraordinary sense of confidence in Pather Panchali.  Ray plays with light and shadow in some scenes, we have a tracking shot through the women in the village square, and constantly, there are subdued performances from all the lead actors, and at the end of the film, there is the feeling that this is exactly the movie Ray wanted to make.  

Once again, here is a film that uses mostly nonprofessional actors to fill the leads.  The father, played by Kanu Banerjee, had some experience, as did the actress playing Auntie, but all other parts were filled by amateurs.  What I tend to like about nonprofessional film actors, is how they typically underplay their scenes, as this can be very effective.  It’s no different in Pather Panchali.  The emotional range of the story is great, starting with birth and going to death and back again.  The actors, though, leave histrionic fits at the door and instead are simple and open in their delivery.  Ray apparently had little script to work with, so these actors were also improvising based on his notes for the scene.  When it came to the two siblings, Durga and Apu, this approach led to a very natural relationship.  Durga and Apu feel like real siblings, a brother and sister who play together, fight together, and do chores together.

Additionally, my favorite aspect of Pather Panchali, and, indeed, most of Ray’s films, is probably its use of music.  As this is not Bollywood, there is little to no singing, and music is mostly for soundtrack purposes.  The music in Pather Panchali is mostly that of long instrumental ragas, songs that are repetitive in nature, but that I also tend to like.  Wikipedia tells me that ragas can be defined as “a tonal framework for composition and improvisation,” and this definition seems fitting.  There is a distinct sense of hypnotism in this sort of music, in its gentle yet insistent percussive repeats, where lack of a distinct melody actually works.  Every time Ray uses soundtrack in Pather Panchali, I feel the movie works better.  It’s a shame, then, that he chooses not to use soundtrack for the majority of the film.  In the quiet of the simple dialogue, I watch the family with a bit of a sense of tedium, but when Ray adds music, it’s magical.  The music provides a further emotional underpinning to Ray’s message, and I love it.  All the pieces are distinct enough to emphasize the particular scene they were chosen for, and there is a wide range of emotional set pieces and therefore, a wide range of musical accompaniment.  But it’s all good stuff.

Ultimately, Pather Panchali is a film that deserves your respect, even if you don’t exactly enjoy yourself while watching it.  It’s a bit tedious at times, and more than a little depressing at times, but it’s also full of beauty and warmth.  Pather Panchali was a huge bounding step forward not only for Indian cinema, but international cinema as a whole, as it speaks to the fact that people in every country have a story to tell with which the whole world will identify. 

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10


  1. Wonderful review. I absolutely adore this film. Something in it, and almost all of Ray's films, seems to speak directly to me. I don't think I was even aware of the time passing. For me, the most beautiful image is when Durga washes her hair in the rain. And that ending!

    1. Y'know, I see this film as being similar in philosophy and approach to Ozu's "Tokyo Story," and I know you love that movie too, so I suppose it makes sense that you adore "Pather Panchali."

      Durga washing her hair was gorgeous; lovely, simple, and still.

  2. I had already seen Mother India, The Golden Thread, and Cloud Capped Star before watching the Apu trilogy, so I was experienced with the sheer misery that Bollywood films of this time liked to put on screen. One of my favorite jokes in the 2009 Bollywood film 3 Idiots is when they say that one of the characters "lives in a 1950s movie" and suddenly the film is in grainy black and white as we meet his crippled father, consumptive mother, and unmarried sister, all living in a hovel in the country.

    I actually watched all three Apu films back to back to back so I didn't have an issue with the pacing dragging on me. They did start to feel like Rocky movies, though. (Now there's a comparison you probably weren't expecting. I'll explain.) As each Rocky film went along someone else had to keep dying to motivate Rocky to train to be a winner. In the Apu films it felt like they had to keep killing people to give Apu more and more heartbreak as he went through life.

    1. Ha! I like that joke - crippled father, consumptive mother, hovel in the country, yes indeed!

      I haven't seen the Rocky sequels (I looooooooooved the original, though), but yes, after your explanation, that does definitely seem an odd but fitting comparison. Chip, I honestly think you're probably the only person to link these two film series together, but that's pretty darn awesome. Go you.

    2. Thank you very much. That put a smile on my face. (and it's way better than "you're weird", which is a response I've gotten more than once.)