Pather Panchali is a punch to the soul. The film won my heart, then seized it, ripped it from my body, and trampled on it while it lay, still beating, before me. Then it spit on it for good measure, shrugged as if to say, “Such is life,” and faded into gray.
Yet when I think about Pather Panchali, I find myself smiling.
A depiction of familial hardship set in early 20th century Bengal, the film is renowned in part for its unflinching depiction of poverty; it is also not lacking for general misery and tragedy. But Satyajit Ray’s first film endures as much for its cinematic urgency and wonder as its humanity.
Born in 1921, Ray was a movie-loving graphic artist when he founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. Around the same time, he expressed an interest in directing an adaptation of the Indian novel Pather Panchali, for which he had years earlier designed a book cover and which concerns a boy named Apu and the struggles of his impoverished family, first in their native Bengali village and later as they seek a better life in the city.
Ray worked on notes and drawings for Pather Panchali over the course of a months-long stay in London in 1950, during which he immersed himself in European cinema and became entranced with Italian neorealism. Ray acknowledged Vittorio De Sica’s similarly humanistic and devastating 1948 film Bicycle Thieves as particularly influential on Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) and the subsequent films in his so-called “Apu Trilogy,” Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu).
But in Ray’s films, there seems greater devotion to visual composition and a more conscious use of the camera’s power, coupled with editing, to rouse emotion. Ray claimed he did not write a proper script for Pather Panchali, but rather storyboarded it extensively. His vision is brought to life in part by the nimble cinematography of Subrata Mitra, at the time a young still photographer who had never operated a motion picture camera prior to shooting Pather Panchali; he would go on to shoot nine more films with Ray, as well as early works by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
Pather Panchali’s most famous scene is the one in which Apu and his doomed older sister, Durga, seek out the tracks of a distant, oft-heard train. The camera races with the children through their village, the outlying orchards, and the rice fields beyond; it pauses as the siblings contemplate towering power lines, then follows them playfully through a field of tall grass. There is a moment of quiet anticipation as Apu and Durga sit amid the waving reeds and listen for the locomotive; Durga’s face brightens as the familiar chug chug chug crescendos. They pop up, their heads peeking just above the vegetation, and scan for what we can already see; the train approaches in the background, as if gliding atop the field, and the children give chase.
It is indicative of the film that this elation quickly collides with calamity. The death of the character that punctuates this scene comes as no surprise, but at a recent screening of the radiant Janus Films/Criterion Collection restoration of Pather Panchali it elicited a collective gasp. These characters are us; their dreams, sacrifices and hardships are our own.
The film opens almost whimsically. A free-spirited young Durga—Apu is not yet born—steals fruit from an orchard, which we later learn once belonged to her family, and, in a joyfully conceived shot, tends to a litter of kittens she has concealed in a large, clay pot. By the end, two beloved characters are dead, the family’s home has been destroyed, and psyches have been laid bare. The final images show the fragments of a family as they ride down a muddy road in an oxcart, a conclusion that essentially leaves us in the muck, staring back at faces devoid of hope.
But accompanying that shot, courtesy of Ravi Shankar’s buoyant score, are a gentle flute and plucky sitar that lift us and nudge us back into the world.
Exiting the theater, my spirit felt battered. In the days since, however, with the Song of the Little Road still stuck in my head, I have found myself seeing things a bit differently. And smiling, once again, at the power of cinema.
From the Ashes, A Masterpiece
When Ray died in 1992, the films of the Apu Trilogy, the great filmmaker’s best-known work, existed only in grainy, scratched prints. Just a year later, the original negatives, in preparation for a proper restoration, were burned in a film-lab fire; large segments of film were literally reduced to ash.
Yet the charred remnants were saved, and two decades later another restoration effort was launched. The results, one of the most significant reconstructions in film history, must be seen to be believed. Just in time for the 60th anniversary of Pather Panchali, the Apu Trilogy restoration is receiving a deserved theatrical run. Although Criterion Collection plans to release the films on DVD and Blu-ray later this year, if you love film and you have the chance, catch the Apu Trilogy on the big screen, where it is truly at home.