Pather Panchali (1955)

“This is my home now too. But just look at it. It’s like living in the jungle. Jackals prowling around as soon as night falls. No neighbours to sit and talk to. When you’re not here, I’m terribly uneasy. But you wouldn’t understand. You eat and sleep and go about your work, unconcerned whether you’re paid or not. I had lots of dreams too. All the things I wanted to do…”

‘Pather Panchali’, directed by Satyajit Ray in 1955, is the story of a family in a small village in rural Bengal. The mother, Sarbajaya, looks after her daughter Durga, and later in the film her son Apu, and an elderly relative called Indir. Her husband travels around the region looking for work and occasionally returning. The family slips into penury, their house into dilapidation and the death of Indir leads to a cycle of tragedy that ends with them leaving to being a new life. It’s a melancholy film, threaded with scenes of poverty, but also filmed in a way that highlights the beauty and nostalgic richness of the landscape. The two children still have a childhood and, despite the absence of their father and the remoteness of their mother, find comfort together and with Indir. Scenes showing the children encountering visitors from outside the village (a sweet seller, a troupe of actors, a travelling cinema and, most notably, a train) add excitement and the sense of a wider world to the story, and also point towards where the family will end up. The most notable thing about the movie is the realism: Ray uses real locations and real people to tell a simple, but presumably, universal story. Much like Ozu with ‘Tokyo Story’, Ray focuses on the marginalised: the poor, the uneducated, the socially disadvantaged, the elderly and the young, with this focus he produces a snapshot of life in rural India that is not only poignant but also important. It’s a tragedy but somehow doesn’t feel like it, almost as though the tragedies that are suffered by the family are an essential part of their cohesion and force them into making the pragmatic choice to escape the village. The actors are exceptional, especially the eighty year old Chunibala Devi in her final role as Indir who manages to embody her character with fragility but also a wicked sense of energetic humour.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s great and compelling. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Tokyo Story’ or maybe watch the next two films in Ray’s Apu trilogy, both of which are now on my list.


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