DVD Review Of Pather Panchali
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/14/08


  Somewhere between the Oriental placidity of a great Yasujiro Ozu film and the harsh reality of a great Vittorio De Sica film lies the world of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, the first of his Apu Trilogy of films. And in case there was any doubt, that place is a very, very good one for any filmmaker to be, for the two aforementioned filmmakers were masters of their own sorts of films, and- if this one, and first, film of Ray’s is an indication, the same plaudits can be ascribed to Ray, a former advertising firm’s employee who struck out on his own to raise Indian cinema from the melodramatic doldrums it had been in since its creation.

  This almost two hour long black and white film, made in 1955, was not only Ray’s debut in the medium, but the first ‘serious’ film in Indian history- at least that made by an Indian. It is no surprise that Ray, a Bengali, made his film in his part of India- funded by the provincial government of West Bengal, away from the more commercial films of what would later be called Bollywood. The film’s English subtitle is Song Of The Little Road, but this is a bit of a nonsequitur since the film is based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, and the only road with any prominence in the film is a recurring hagiography of a local set of railroad tracks. Some websites claim that the title connotes the subtitle, and that Pather, in Bengali, means of a path, and Panchali means a kind of Bengal song; however, other sites and critics dispute this claim. The tale is set in the early 20th Century, although the film never specifies a date- at least not in the white English subtitles of the Artificial Eye DVD The Apu Trilogy three pack, which includes the other two films, as well: Aparajito and The World Of Apu.

  Like the Italian Neo-Realist films of De Sica, Ray relied on an excellent script (adapted by Ray, from the novel) and amateur actors, for the most part, to pull the film off. A low budget made ‘big’ scenes an impossibility, but Ray shows off, in this film, some nice touches with the camera that cost nothing but a few minutes of cogitation. These skills all led to international praise of the film in many quarters, and a special award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

  The plot of the tale is rather simple, and easily conveyed, but this film is a great example of how merely recapitulating or summing up a plot utterly does an injustice to the deeper and greater story. First, although Apu is the titular character of the trilogy, the lead character in this film is the boy’s older sister, Durga. The tale follows a former family of note’s struggle to reclaim their one respected place in society. The film opens following the lives of a man named Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), his wife Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), their daughter, Durga (Uma Dasgupta as a preteen and Runki Banerjee as a child, before and up till Apu’s birth), and an elderly auntie, Indir (Chunibala Devi)- the lone professional actor in the main cast, as stated in the extra features of the DVD, before the birth of Apu. In researching the film, however, it seems that Kanu Banerjee also had some professional acting experience, and Uma Dasgupta had acted in amateur productions. Perhaps this information was not known at the time of the filming of the segments featured in the special features of the DVD, or perhaps it was merely a nice legend to propound.

  In a series of small scenes the basic dynamics of the family are established. The father is a genial dreamer, a man who allows himself to be used and abused by neighbors and employers, while planning a return to style via his career as a poet and playwright. The mother is a slowly embittering woman who loathes Indir, for no real reason, and loathes herself and her state in the community even more. She feels helpless in stemming young Durga’s propensity for thieving the wares of others. Durga is a bright girl with a penchant for mischief and petty crimes, but she endears herself to her auntie by turning over stolen fruit to her. Auntie Indir is the most complex character, to begin with. She is an old thin crone, with a back stiffened by arthritis, arrayed in threadbare garments, but ever smiling, almost as if in a permanent state of dementia, but she connects to Durga via her storytelling and general good will, especially contrasted with the sometimes sour personality of Sarbajaya.

  All of these character traits are displayed in a very effective series of brief vignettes that lead up to the birth of Apu (Subir Banerjee- none of the four actors named Banerjee were related), and then move into the second act of the film, set about six or seven years later, where Durga is now entering puberty, and Apu is starting his schooling at the hands of an imbecilic yet sadistic teacher. The transition is a direct cut, with no markers of time’s passage save the acceptance of the older actress as Durga, and Apu’s obvious age difference from a newborn. The clan still lives in their natal village of Nischindipur. Harihar earns a living as a bookkeeper and part-time priest, of sorts. His employer regularly takes advantage of him, to his wife’s unending dismay. The viewer understands these scenes because, even if not as impoverished as them, the dynamics are universal. The wife is not a harridan, but she definitely feels stuck with her life and kids, and resents it, a bit. Thus, her taking out her frustrations on the always eager and helpful Auntie Indir is explicable, if not defensible. There are a couple of scenes when Auntie Indir leaves the family household to shack up with other relatives, but she always comes back. Usually, she leaves in response to Sarbajaya’s abuse, such as calling her a beggar when a neighbor gives the old lady a new wrap out of pity.

  The bulk of the film, however, follows the sibling relationship between Durga and Apu. At times motherly, Durga is more or less the only pal Apu has, and vice versa. They are outcasts within their village, due to poverty and Durga’s thievery, but this bonds them. Midway through the film, a girl and her mother accuse Durga of stealing the girl’s pretty beads. Durga denies it and the incident fades, until the end of the film. But, the film’s vignette style is especially effective in such scenes as just described, or one where a sweets-seller, the equivalent of the All-American Ice Cream Man (Good Humor, etc.) passes by, and Durga and Apu follow him to town to bum sweets off the other kids. Their following is shot from across a river and all one sees is the upside down reflection of the three figures blur into something deeper than the described. A very effective technique which displays the Pied Piper Effect such a profession holds over the young, and how easily that could be taken advantage of. There are even a few scenes where Durga manipulates Apu into getting a bit of money from their father for the sweets-seller. Other scenes of note are when acting troupes stop by, and when a bioscope vendor brings dream into the lives of the children. But, the most telling, powerful, and mythic scenes between the siblings occur back to back. First, they run to a distant field to watch the passing of a locomotive. The train clearly holds a pull over both, but especially Apu; heralding its prominence in his later life. On the way back, however, they discover Auntie Indir’s corpse. Durga tries to wake the old woman, but when she falls dead, the look on the girl’s face is genuine, and as Indir’s water pot falls down a hill, into a puddle, the descent’s sound amply displays the girl’s change in worldview. It is a great filmic moment, and one devoid of melodrama and the musical crescendos that often drown such scenes, robbing them of narrative impact.

  Then, after Indir is buried, a bit later comes another bravura sequence. When the monsoons hit, Durga is cavorting in the showers, as Apu watches, Eventually, she joins him under a tree, and wraps him, with her, in her sari. The scene ends with her sneezing. The next scene opens with Durga ill. She slowly progresses to grave illness, then death, at night, as her father is away earning money. Several times, the mother is in despair, until Apu comes running home with a letter from his father. The film captures the simple pleasures that today can never replicate, such as the excitement of really reading another’s thoughts, which need to suffice for days, weeks, or months, rather than be answered in minutes or seconds via email or instant messaging. AS a storm rages, one night, and Apu sleeps obliviously, Sarbajaya tries to keep the wind and rain from encroaching into their shack. No words are spoken as Durga moans and is held by her mother. The next morning, she is dead, the mother is stricken with grief and depression. Earlier, there was a great scene where Sarbajaya soliloquized her grief and disappointment with her life and station, and it rung really true, for it was not over-eloquent, but filled with the minor observations of reality and the need to accept. Here, after her daughter’s death, Sarbajaya is wordless, and yet- as an amateur, speaks proverbial volumes. In moments like this Ray shows that he is light years beyond lesser filmmakers, for the mother’s grief needs no comment, least of all from her. Her eyes say it all. Then, in the next scene, life goes on, until Harihar returns with gifts for all. Sarbajaya breaks down again, and Ray, again, shows utter mastery. Music swells, we hear nothing as the husband comforts his wife as she sprawls on their porch. Then, we see his face, as he has manifestly learnt of his daughter’s demise. Again, no words, only the visuals. Also, it is here where the musical sitar soundtrack by Ravi Shankar is very effective. Also, in playful moments between the children. There are, however, a dozen or so scenes where the music is utterly superfluous or woefully emotionally inapt or technically inept in its synchronization with the images, and this is the film’s only flaw. A good, ironic, and humorous scene, however, comes when one of Durga’s friends enters an arranged marriage, and It’s A Long Way To Tipperary is played.

  The film would end here, at Durga’s death, if a Hollywood melodrama. But it goes on another ten or more minutes, with the family finally deciding to leave the village and strike out anew. Harihar finally is moved to make real changes after life changes him with Durga’s death. But, before the final scene of the family toting their possessions away in an ox cart comes another scene which shows Ray’s utter mastery of realistic storytelling. While packing up the family’s belongings, Apu comes across a bowl with a large spider spinning a web, and is repulsed. Then, in the next bowl he finds the necklace that the other girl claimed Durga stole. He takes it, runs to a pond of algaed water, and plops the necklace through the scum which recoalesces around the spot left by the necklace- a great touch, visually, but also it shows the brother’s love and loyalty to his flawed sister, to save her reputation in death, as well as his emergence from under the influence of the three women who have dominated his life until then. Whether he realized it or not, Ray adds an incidental poesy to the scene by having a definitively masculine act (throwing) end up with the past (the necklace) being consumed by the feminine (the water), to which Apu, the man in waiting, turns his back forever on. Yet, this all occurs in the famously masculine dominated society of the subcontinent, showing Ray well ahead of his time by having the film so effectively and wonderfully focus on the three main female characters.

  Ray’s film proves, along with the Neo-Realism of Italy, that a great film consists almost totally of a great story. Have the great story, and the odds are high that a great film will follow, even if, as in this film, the camera work is often pedestrian. This is because, despite the seeming illogic of it, film is primarily a literary form of art (storytelling) with pictures, not a visual form of art (painting) with words. There is not a great film I’ve ever seen that lacks a great screenplay, but there are many, many films with great visuals that do not even come close to being great films. Most critics actually got this film right, upon release, and praised it, although a quick scan of the reviews shows a paternalistic condescension, as if this is a film of lesser quality than Hollywood fare, but of the ‘good for what it is’ sort. A few notable critics, like the infamously stolid New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, claimed, ‘Any picture as loose in structure or as listless in tempo as this one is would barely pass as a ‘rough cut’ with the editors in Hollywood.’ In essence, the fool was praising the picture vis-à-vis the more light fare that a Hitchcock film or musical would or could offer. And, contrary to the film’s worst critics, the film is not slow- every scene contributes to the character development of one or more of the characters, which thus makes the film’s every frame meaningful, unlike movies that are plot-driven, and have the expected peaks and valleys one can discern minutes before the expected happens. In short, one can plan bathroom trips during plot-driven movies, but not during character-driven films. Events that occur in the lives of the characters are not generically pre-ordained, as in plot-driven fare, but occur organically out of the characters’ and their responses to forces beyond their control- like poverty, famine, pestilence, monsoons. One senses that Indir will die, that Durga will pay for her frolicking in the rain, that Durga did steal the beads, that Harihar will be unsuccessful professionally, that Apu will be the only family member unscathed, etc., but it is never a certainty, never predictable, and surely plays out with a depth and drama missing in the predictable climaxes of plot-driven cinema.

  Another problem critics have goes in the opposite direction, praising the film not for its immanent excellence of story, crafty innovation with the camera, the wonderful acting, nor the use of emotional ellipses, but for its being ‘truthful,’ even though this is clearly fiction. Yes, fiction can be based upon realities and have a modicum of truth, but art (from the same root word as ‘artifice’) is always a lie, although one designed to move one to a greater knowledge of reality. Realism, as conventionally defined: ‘the depiction of real objects without embellishment or interpretation,’ is therefore a definition of that falseness, for the word depiction severs the thing from its reality (or the near tangency of its ‘truthfulness’). Pather Panchali is not a truthful film, but a Realistic one; and the two things are not synonymous. Nor are the claims that Ray’s film glorifies poverty. Unlike a more modern film, Angela’s Ashes, the viewer is not hit over the head with the main characters’ poverty. It simply is, and no narration is needed to define its ills and why we would like to avoid it. Ray’s characters have no choice- or very little, as the film’s end shows, and just accept life as it is. And this is realistic. As a child, it took the pointing out of my own childhood circumstances by another person, in my early adulthood, for me to realize how deprived I was of things others took for granted. Before that I knew I had been ‘poor,’ so to speak- although poor in 1970s America was still several steps above the poverty this film depicts. Nonetheless, I never reveled in it as a sign of strength or a badge of honor the way the characters in Angela’s Ashes do. Ray’s film, by contrast, is not a film on poverty, but a film with poverty in it. This is not a small distinction.

  The Region 2 DVD, put out by Artificial Eye, contains all three films, and will only play on Region 2 or Code Free DVD players (a good investment for about $100 or less). The film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The first disk, with Pather Panchali on it, has no audio commentary, and has a brief selection from a BBC television show called Omnibus, an episode called The Cinema Of Satyajit Ray. There are storyboards, still photos, production notes, and a biography and filmography of Ray. The actual print used in the DVD transfer varies reel to reel. Some are almost perfect, while other have major wear and damage to both the sound and visuals. The white subtitles, on the black and white background, also are a distraction. Gold should be used for all black and white films, especially if no English language dubbing is used. Even worse is the fact that there are a number of instances of missing letters from words. I assume this is a DVD problem, not original to the film, as the subtitles are optional.

  Pather Panchali is a truly great film; it is not only a classic of its native land, but of the very art form of film. And, as mentioned, it not only derives its power from Italian Neo-Realism, but also from the diurnal do of Yasujiro Ozu’s films. Ozu is another filmmaker who has been criticized as dull and tedious, but both men are keen observers of their fictive worlds. In those realms the flicker of an eyebrow can have greater consequence than an army brigade’s assault on an enemy. Yet, to the viewer not yet weaned off of the Lowest Common Denominator, such moments are not even noticed. I only wish that Satyajit Ray, who died in 1992, was still around to know that his film was yet influencing more people in the positive way all great art does, but realize, as he surely did, that he need not be, for great art always and eventually fills out the places the human body gives way to. In watching Pather Panchali, one gets a sense of Satyajit Ray, as he was. Go know him.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Obsessed With Film website.]


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