Pather Panchali is one of those films that instantly helps you to recognize the merit of the cinema. It’s a cultural artifact allowing us to come to grips with the fact there is a world far larger than our little pocket of existence. Satyajit Ray does that for us here in his affecting debut by relating India to us through stark realism. It pierces to the core and captivates its audience through simple beauties. Simultaneously, he manages to touch on universal truths that prove our very commonalities as human beings.
I must admit to being fairly ignorant about many of the nooks and crannies of international film and so I needed this movie just like I needed the work of Ousmane Sembène and no doubt the films of many other directors still yet to be discovered.
In this particular instance, I deeply appreciated Pather Panchali because this is not a story told by Rudyard Kipling about a British Colony or even a Hollywood adaptation of an albeit heartwarming tale like Lion (2016). This is Ray’s picture. For all intent and purposes, told from his perspective as he so chooses. He has agency if we desire to use the terminology. It allows this to be a truly intimate portrait crafted by a budding Indian visionary as a showcase to the world abroad.
Ravi Shankar is best remembered for his connection to George Harrison but his score featured here, consisting solely of his virtuoso sitar playing, adds a strain of traditional instrumentation, further blessing the film with a sense of native identity.
Maybe this is a highly romanticized portrait. I cannot personally speak to this either, but there is a paradoxical even spellbinding quality to the imagery as it unfolds. We are seeing the everyday lives of this family. We see them in their humble means, their poverty even, and yet though we are cognizant of it, somehow it doesn’t completely register because their world somehow manages to be so rich.
The reflections in a stream reminded me of the images in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) when he captures the light through the trees. Ray is equally content with documenting the immaculate construction of nature at hand. Delicate as it is magnificent.
But against this backdrop, he unfurls a perceptive slice of life that’s its own brand of neorealism — never rushing the ordinary moments — allowing them the space to unfold of their own accord. It methodically seeks out the fascination in these common things such as the whistling of the wind, passing trains, water lilies, and incoming rainstorms.
Still, it’s about the people too and they make up the glut of the story. The most mundane of these moments made me smile with fond recognition. Two boys playing tic tac toe on their slate instead of doing sums at school. A dog and cat pawing at one another. A little boy combing his stringy locks of black hair or running around his family’s rickety home with his homemade bow and arrow as his mom chides him to finish his food.
Instead of an ice cream truck, they have a traveling sweet seller and they always beg their father for money when they see the man off in the distance. Sometimes they get it but more often they follow him to their neighbor’s to see if their playmates were so lucky as to get some sweets.
The individual characters we meet are no less intriguing and all of them, as far as I know, are amateur performers. The big sister Durga takes fallen fruit from a neighbor’s yard to give to her old auntie. But such practices get her accosted and labeled a nuisance. Auntie meanwhile, moves creakily, her face weathered by a tough life, hunched over and missing most of her teeth. Yet there’s still fight left in her and an indefatigable spirit.
The husband, though he struggles to provide for his family and oftentimes doesn’t even get paid regularly when he is working, aspires to write in his few idle hours because his forefathers were authors in their own right.
His wife has her own fears about being alone so often as he’s off at work or trying to find work. It leaves her by herself taking care of their degrading home and watching over their kids in a society with a poor support system. She has no one to turn too aside from the humiliating charity of neighbors.
Then, last but not least is little Apu and while he might not be our main character — all the family play equally important roles — it’s his point of view that’s most accessible. Ray clings to his face with soft zooms or closeups catching his reactions to all sorts of events. Young Apu peers at the world inquisitively with steely eyes. Very rarely does he speak but he’s a constant observer of the everyday.
He’s the herald of letters which come few and far between when his father is away. He and Durga frolick around the train tracks as the belching locomotive passes by. He gets into his sister’s humble cache of foil in her toy box to craft a prince’s crown. Then shares sleeping quarters with his sister in their meager lean-to that looks like it will all but collapse in the wake of the rainy season.
Certainly, there are dramatic turns in the broader story of this family unit but they are rooted in the real-life events that we experience in the day-to-day. Debts to pay off. Saving face with the neighbors who needlessly gossip. Family members passing away. Husbands gone with barely a word because lines of communication are difficult. The innate desire to want more out of life even if it’s a simple home to call your own and a better future for your kids.
What makes Pather Panchali resonate to the very last frame as we watch this family move on to the next stage in their life, is not how different they are from us. It’s how similar. Because, yes, this is a picture of an impoverished Indian family but it no doubt can speak into any person’s life who is willing to be open to its story like an inquisitive child. Ready and willing to see the world for all its innumerable complexities both the sorrowful and the joyously light.