Judge Bryan Byun contemplates life, death, and natural disasters as they unfold in the first film of the remarkable Apu trilogy.
"Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen."—Pauline Kael
Like Yazujiro Ozu and Jean Renoir, the Indian director Satyajit Ray is one of those highly respected artists whose films, these days, are more often admired than watched. Perhaps their gentle, meditative styles and deeply humanistic themes are hopelessly out of step with today's hyperkinetic, jaded sensibilities. Still, I can't imagine a better antidote for postmodern malaise than Ray's films, which seek to describe the human condition without artifice or cheap sentiment, but with direct honesty and respect for the dignity of all people.
Ray's contributions to cinema are perhaps best summed up by three of his earliest films—Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu (1959)—which comprise his Apu trilogy. Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) was Ray's first film and the product of a five-year ordeal during which the film was shot piecemeal, by a crew with no film experience (the director included), while Ray struggled to obtain financial backing. (The West Bengal government finally stepped in with funding to complete production.)
Ray was inspired by Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, and Pather Panchali is very much in a similar vein, a classic of neo-realism shot completely on location with amateur actors. A critical and commercial (outside the U.S.) success upon its release, Pather Panchali won a special jury prize for "Best Human Document" at the 1956 Cannes film festival and established Satyajit Ray as a world-class filmmaker.
Facts of the Case
Pather Panchali, based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee, is our introduction to the character of Apu (Subir Bannerjee), a boy born into an impoverished Brahmin family living in a small Bengali village. His father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee), is a priest who is frequently out of town searching for work. Harihar's wife, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee), is left to maintain the household and feed their family, which also includes their daughter, Durga (played by Uma Das Gupta as a young child and later by Runki Bannerjee), and an elderly aunt (Chunibala Devi).
The film lacks a plot, at least in the sense of a cohesive narrative arc; instead, we are simply brought into the family's world with a series of slice-of-life vignettes: Durga getting in trouble with the neighbors for stealing fruit; Durga and Apu stalking a candy seller whose candy they cannot afford; increasingly tense discussions between husband and wife over their dwindling fortunes. Much of this first film focuses not on Apu but on his rebellious, angry older sister, and what storyline there is has mostly to do with Durga's clashes with her mother and her family's more prosperous relatives and neighbors in the village.
The family dynamics in Pather Panchali are universal and familiar. Harihar, an eternal optimist, is something of a spendthrift, at least in the eyes of Sarbajaya, the long-suffering wife who handles the family's finances and constantly fears for their survival. Harihar is the kind of guy who always knows a guy who has a job for him, and multitudes of friends who owe him money, but is nevertheless perpetually out of work and broke. This is, of course, a source of ever-increasing stress for pragmatic Sarbajaya, who takes her bitterness out on Durga. These sedately paced domestic scenes eventually give way to tragedies both large and small, culminating in a catastrophic monsoon as the film progresses through the cycle of life and death.
The best way to watch Pather Panchali is as a visual poem instead of a conventional film narrative. Although the characters and dialogue are convincingly natural and make for a compelling story, the film sets their story within the context of nature as a whole, and moves according to the rhythms of the natural world rather than the demands of storytelling. It rambles, because life itself rambles. It's not a static portrait—characters change and grow in complex ways throughout the film, and there's an ominous sense of oncoming disaster from the first scene that builds steadily and inexorably to an emotionally devastating conclusion. Rather than weighing down the film with plot contrivances, the real story of the film exists within the expressive eyes, faces, and voices of the characters, who are performed with total conviction by a cast of both professional and amateur actors.
Ray's visual style is remarkably developed for a novice director; there are moments of graceful beauty throughout the film, one of the most memorable of which is a scene of Durga and Apu wandering through a field of white flowers and discovering a passing train. It's a striking image, in part because the rural Bengali village, with its crudely built houses and agrarian lifestyle, seems suspended in time, as if the story could as easily be taking place in the 10th century as the 20th, and the appearance of the train, our first and only glimpse of the industrial world outside the village, is both shocking and strangely alien. A later scene involving a raging monsoon takes on apocalyptic proportions, the drama underscored by Ravi Shankar's atmospheric music.
Pather Panchali is a neglected classic that more than deserves to be preserved on DVD, and Sony Pictures Classics (along with Merchant Ivory) should be commended for cleaning up the Apu films and giving them a proper release. This DVD presentation, however, leaves something to be desired. The full-frame transfer looks about as good as one can expect given the age and wear of the source print, but it falls well short of the quality of a decent restoration, featuring a great many scratches and other print defects. The picture looks soft and faded; while watchable, this is definitely a low-budget film that has seen better days. The monaural audio is similarly badly worn, with fairly dirty sound and often muted vocals, but basically listenable.
As for extra features, there are none, which is disappointing given the artistic significance of this film and the fascinating history of its production. An audio commentary, or at least a featurette on Satyajit Ray, would have been welcome, especially for viewers who aren't familiar with Pather Panchali or its director.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Pather Panchali isn't for all tastes. The languid pacing and the dismal picture and sound quality are sure to turn off many viewers, and, let's face it, this isn't exactly the kind of feel-good movie that'll have you pumping your fist with excitement as the end credits roll. It's a resolutely somber film, and one that ends fairly predictably, if you've read many naturalistic novels about the struggles of indigent rural folk. While I loved Ray's visual poetry and felt deeply for his characters, I have to admit that the film was tough sledding at times.
Satyajit Ray's work is unlikely to ever be embraced by mainstream audiences the way more accessible Hollywood classics like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca have been, but those looking for an alternative to the hectic pace and high-concept plotlines of conventional films might well find solace in Pather Panchali's quiet, sublime reverie.
The court excuses itself from judgment on Pather Panchali, as the court has no jurisdiction in the matter of Man vs. Nature.
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