Written and directed by world renown Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, “Pather Panchali” is his first film and the initial story in the celebrated ‘Apu Trilogy’. I came upon “Pather Panchali” and the Apu trilogy after hearing that these films are prerequisites for Werner Herzog’s classes on film. If they’re held in such high esteem by one of the most prominent filmmakers over the last half century- well, that’s good enough for me. “Pather Panchali” is first and foremost Apu’s (Subir Banerji) story, it is of his beginnings and of the people and places that informed his childhood. We begin, however, with the young Durga (Runki Banerji), Apu’s older sister, traipsing about the local garden stealing fruits for herself and for her mischievous ‘auntie’ Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi). The elderly Indir lives with Durga and Apu’s family in their ancestral home in bengal, India. We see Durga’s mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee), pregnant with Apu, overhear other women from the village gossip and complain about Durga and her family as thieves- and poor thieves at that. Money is a constant anxiety for the family then as it is now, Sabojaya’s suffering has only begun though, as she is the foundation of the family and who keeps everyone together throughout the film. After Apu is born in the night, and his father Harihar (Kanu Banerji) proudly holds him, we fast forward several years.
The film is a mirror held up to the human experience, it reflects daily life in it’s cyclical rhythms, humble and lyrical in nature. We see life through the young Apu and pre-teen Durga’s (Umas Das Gupta) eyes, delighting in the small treasures of waiting for the sweets merchant and running through a field to see a train for the first time. We also see the quiet and lonely moments, one of great sadness in particular is of Indir Thakrun alone on the stoop at night in the rain as she sings, lamenting her dead family and friends, essentially coming to terms with the end of her life and wishing to die. Her unceremonious death later is at once horrifying as she is found by Apu and Durga, but also it has a sense of relief and release about it.
One of the larger arcs across the story is that of Harihar, the dreamer. He envisions great fortune from his writings, eventually leaving the home to obtain consistent work and pay through his writing and practice as a Brahman priest. With Harihar’s head in the clouds and scraping to get by the duties of day-to-day life and structure for Apu and Durga fall to Sabojaya, and thus we spend a lot of time with her through Apu and Durga’s experiences. We witness her shame at the accusation of Durga stealing from another young girl, we see her resentment of having to share her home with Indir, who never listens to the rules and undermines her authority with the children. She has a lot to deal with. Mostly though we follow Apu and Durga simply experiencing life through childish awe and ambition. It’s a film that asks a lot of it’s audience, but it gives a window into another world removed from technology and modernity.
After spending too much time out in the rain after a spat with Apu over trivial toys Durga becomes ill and bedridden. She worsens after a visit by the doctor and during a raucous storm in the night, she eventually passes away. Harihar returns home shortly after the destructive storm has wrecked their home to find Sabojaya distraught and broken. Once he discovers what has happened there is a feeling of helplessness achieved in the film that stayed with me well after the credits rolled. Once they salvage what they can from the rubble, the three take a caravan to Benares (Now known as Varanasi, the spiritual capitol of India) to start anew. Sometimes you have to accept change as it happens and evolve with it. As a Brahman priest, Harihar could provide for his family there as many make pilgrimages to wash in the cleansing waters of the Ganges river.
The film has been derided as slow, unfinished, unpolished, and raw. I would argue, as many have before me, that that rawness is what makes it so powerful. Satyajit Ray had never directed performances or blocked scenes on a film before this. Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer, had never previously shot a scene, or framed movement before. Even the (now legendary) sitarist Ravi Shankar, had never composed a film’s score before either. How they collected such natural and seemingly untouched performances from children will forever be amazing to me. “Pather Panchali” is a uniquely beautiful film because of how closely it reflects our own lives even though the setting of the film is near a century ago in a small village in Bengal, India. If time and place can become inconsequential to how relatable a story can be, then what you’ve got, dear reader, is something truly miraculous in cinematic form.
Though, admittedly this is an arthouse film. That may be a scary and insurmountable term for some, and a well known comfort for others, but if you have a love for cinema and storytelling you owe it to yourself to see this film and others like it at some point. This form of film isn’t necessarily the most profitable and consumable for the masses, and not everyone will sit through a subtitled black and white foreign film, but I’d suggest giving it your time if you love cinema. It has earned that much of you.
Final Score: 1 small family, 1 ancestral family home, and a lot of boiled milk
*Below is a video on the work the Academy did with the Criterion Collection to save the film stock of the Apu trilogy after a fire burned down the warehouse in London. Give it a watch to see the work and diligence put into restoring this piece of film history.