Pather Panchali is truly one of the most delicate, humble and deeply felt movies I’ve ever seen. It will wreck you, build you up, ennoble you and leave you in a daze. You know, sort of like life.
The first installment in director Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, Pather Panchali is set in rural Bengal in the 1920s, where a small family – consisting of a stooped, older aunt; a worried, mindful mother; a dreamy, often absent father; a clever older sister; and a lively younger brother – scratch out a quiet life in the shadow of richer, more established neighbors. The movie opens with little Durga (Runki Banerjee), before her brother Apu has been born, stealing fruit from those neighbors and the subsequent shaming of her mother (Karuna Banerjee) for the act. Need, honor, shame – these will continue to be the themes that dominate the household as the years roll by.
As the unofficial name of the trilogy suggests, Apu (Subir Banerjee) will come to be the focus of the tale, and what a delightful introduction he gets. In hopes of avoiding school, Apu is hiding under a blanket and pretending to be asleep when his older sister (now played by Uma Das Gupta) slowly pulls the blanket away to reveal a close-up of his bright, playful eye. Those eyes will prove to be the movie’s spark, and your heart will rise and fall as you watch toil and trouble try to snuff them out.
The sibling relationship between Durga and Apu is the heart of the film, so simpatico are the young actors in their scenes of everyday intimacy. Ray’s camera captures their squabbles, games and moments of tenderness, whether they’re huddling together during a rainstorm or chasing after a man selling sweets – not because they have money to buy any, but because it’s better to at least be near the possibility of sweets than to live in a world completely devoid of them.
Need, honor, shame – these will continue to be the themes that dominate the household as the years roll by.
There is death in Pather Panchali, but for me the most wrenching scene is a slighter one that marks a monumental change in this brother-sister relationship. After Apu has taken something of Durga’s without asking, the two begin to bicker. Their mother separates them and tells Durga: “You’re too old for a toy box.” Their crestfallen faces suggest the significance of the line their mother has just drawn, between Apu’s childishness and Durga’s adolescence. She’s opened a devastating rift.
In this moment and others, Ray’s film is perfectly attuned to the universal rhythms of family life. There is a wonderful scene in which they are all gathered outside their meager home, Apu’s father (Kanu Banerjee) working on a story or poem while Apu aspirationally scribbles something next to him; the mother brushing Durga’s hair nearby; and aged auntie (Chunibala Devi) mending her shawl in the corner. The quiet domesticity is interrupted by the whistle of a faraway train (one of a few instances in which traditional life is invaded by modernity). The camera cuts to Apu, who immediately looks up, and the gleam of excited curiosity in his eyes tells us that he’s already, in some sense, begun to leave this nest.
That cut is representative of the way Ray’s camera is always where it needs to be – and in the way it needs to be there. He consistently puts us at the very heart of the family dynamic. The variety and intricacy of the camerawork is astonishing, especially considering Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra were new to filmmaking. Among their techniques is an insistent tracking shot as the father paces outside the home during Apu’s birth. Another is a prankish POV shot from inside a large jug as Apu pulls a gaggle of kittens from it. There’s even a swish pan during one of the mother and aunt’s frequent squabbles that suggests Ray is a key influence on Wes Anderson.
Ray and Mitra also make exquisite use of their rural setting. The sunlight is so plentiful, they must have only shot on the brightest of days. When smoke from cooking fires is added, the effect is otherworldly. The contrast to this idyllic scenery, of course, is the monsoon sequence, a drenching darkness that turns the figures on the screen into ghostly blurs. In the aftermath of this destruction, we come to understand just how closely to the edge Apu’s family has been living. If the movie leaves you emotionally drained, it’s because you’ve been living with them all along.