Pather Panchali

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One of the breakout hits of world cinema – a term that didn’t yet exist – Pather Panchali came seemingly from nowhere in 1955 and swept all before it. It remains a highly regarded film to this day, still featuring on Sight and Sound’s prestigious once-a-decade 100 Greatest Films of All Time list. In other words it’s one of those films you really ought to have seen if you’re going to hold your held high in the world of film buffery.

It’s part of director Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, along with Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), the three films forming a Bildungsroman slab of biographical drama centred on the child Apu, who is maybe eight years old as Pather Panchali gets underway.

Bildungsroman is another way of saying there isn’t really much of a story. You watch as you might watch a soap opera on TV, hooked to the characters, who are an engaging bunch – slightly ineffectual, incurably optimistic dad (Kanu Bannerjee), worried sick mum (Karuna Bannnerjee), sparkly, magpie-like daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and big-eyed Mowgli-like Apu (Subir Bannerjee). This dirt-poor family has lost its orchard (dad’s fault, it’s suggested) and so struggles to feed themselves and their permanent guest, Indir, aka “Auntie” (Chunibala Devi). The rest of the village looks down on them. They’re not outsiders, or Untouchables or anything like that, just poor – they’re a family whose grip on existence is loose.

It’s a remarkable film in many respects not least the fact that almost everyone involved was fresh to the game. It was Satyajit Ray’s first film as a director – he’d worked as a location scout for an encouraging Jean Renoir when Renoir was filming The River in India – the cast were mostly amateurs, the crew was composed of rookies. Even the DP (Subrata Mitra) was making his debut, which makes the images he got in the can all the more remarkable.

One exception was “Auntie”, aka Chunibala Devi, a seasoned actress whom Ray coaxed out of a long retirement in her 80s to play the crook-backed, toothless Indir. She’d be dead before the film was shown publicly, but what a brilliant presence Auntie is, scurrying about, feral, naughty, smarter then she’s letting on and in many ways the soul of the film.

Chunibala Devi as Indir
Chunibala Devi as Indir

It’s a storyboarded film rather than a scripted one, relying on strong images to get its message across. They’re often beautifully composed and brilliantly lit, sometimes stark, sometimes almost liltingly bucolic, like when the two children run through a field full of feathery white seed heads, the low sun setting them aflame as the kids try to catch a glimpse of a passing steam train, an effect heightened by Ravi Shankar’s sensitive sitar.

The magic moments are offset with tragedy – there is death, and not entirely where you might expect it – which helps to give a shape to a film that’s been accused of being rambling, which was entirely what Ray was after. He’d been greatly influenced by seeing Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist The Bicycle Thieves as part of a massive movie-binge while on a business trip in London (he worked in advertising at the time) and it shows.

Prepare to be enchanted rather than gripped, in other words. Accusations that Ray has prettified poverty do hold some weight, though that’s just at the level of image. As the narrative makes clear repeatedly – as the mother sells the last of the family’s valuable to buy rice, for example – the family’s whole existence is in the balance.

Look closely and you can spot that the kids are older in some scenes than other – the film took three years to make on account of lack of money – and the Criterion Collection version I watched does allow for a good close look. Remarkable when you consider that the original negative was damaged in a fire and some extreme technical innovation was required to “rehydrate” it. Even so, there are woolly images here and there, where the original was too far gone and second or possibly even third generation copies have been used as source material for the 4K scan.

They don’t ruin the enjoyment of a film that’s a milestone achievement.

Pather Panchali – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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