Review: Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) (1955)

Starring: Subir Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Das Gupta

Directed and Written By: Satyajit Ray

It has often been said (many times by me) that films are a great tool for escapism. In times in which life is just hard, there’s a comfort that there will be movies out there to help us forget about our worries for two hours at a time. One can easily see this during the Great Depression where Hollywood produced extravagant musicals such as the Gold Digger series or the romantic comedies of the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. However, there are movies that choose to not ignore the issues around them. Yes, life is hard and they’re going to show you not a world you wish you lived in, but a world you can completely relate to. This is the category the Bengali film Pather Panchali falls into. It is an harsh but realistic look into what it means to live in absolute poverty.

The film follows a family who doesn’t have much in regards to food or possessions. Their house is in bad shape, so much that it looks as if someone created a roof in the jungle and places some walls up underneath it. They don’t have much in terms of possessions, their clothes become torn and old. This is the world in which Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is born into. His father (Kanu Bannerjee) does religious work, but dreams to become a writer. His mother (Karuna Bannerjee) is is constantly stressed out as she’s the one that has to face the scorn and gossip of others. However, Apu does have his sister Durga (Das Gupta). Durga is a thief of sorts, but she is the typical older sibling. While she may tease the younger Apu, she is very protective of him.

As with any family, there are issues. The father and mother argue frequently. The father appears to be lazy and cowardly. Even when he’s owed three months (THREE MONTHS) worth of wages, he hesitates to even ask for something while his children are hungry and in dire need of clothes. The “house” is the father’s ancestral home, but he puts off the much needed repairs. While he appears to be a nice man with a good heart, it takes him quite a long time to finally search for real work for his family. When he finally does so, it is up to the mother to keep things moving at home. However, there is a tragic turn of events that happens as he’s away which he walks unknowingly into upon his return.

There really isn’t much of a plot to discuss. It’s just a family living to the best of their ability. While they never go without food, they’re definitely malnourished. It doesn’t help ease the mother’s mind that Durga is very much a free spirit. She does as she wishes and doesn’t seem interested in learning “womanly” duties. As stated before, she’s not above stealing things which draws the ire of neighbors down upon the mother. It just adds even more stress. It’s this free spirit which Apu is drawn to. She shows him things that few have ever seen (including an actual real life train in a famous sequence).

This film was done completely by amateurs. This isn’t a knock at all, it’s the truth. Ray was a first time director with Pather Panchali. He was previously worked at an advertising agency and just decided to try to make a movie. His crew had never worked on a movie before nor did any of the actors he cast in the roles. With all of that in mind, it’s absolutely stunning to see what that odd mix was about to turn out. The movie is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It simply is amazing that a man, without any experience whatsoever, could go out on a shoestring budget and make a film such as this. There are those who have compared Ray to the great Akira Kurosawa. While I won’t make THAT leap, it’s hard to argue with the results we see here.

There isn’t much bad I can say about Pather Panchali. It’s a bit of a labor to watch given the subject matter. It’s a family that goes through issue after issue, always dealing with their poverty. Like the family, we get glimpses of happiness (such as the train scene or the kids running off to watch a play), but those moments are almost immediately followed by another setback. The other thing is that despite the bombardment of trouble the family goes through, it is very slow and one gets that feeling that perhaps not a whole lot happened through it’s duration. It’s definitely a film that needs to sink in and be reflected upon.

Bottom Line: While Pather Panchali is a truly difficult film to watch, it’s also one of extraordinary beauty. I still find it amazing that such a movie can be made by a group of people who had never made a movie before. More than that, it’s an important look at poverty and how it not only affects the human condition, but also our perception and temperament as well. This is the first of Ray’s Apu trilogy and, while I have not seen the rest yet, I’m interested in how this beginning will ultimately shape the man Apu will become.

9/10 (Highly Recommended).

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