#CriterionMonth – Reflecting on ‘Pather Panchali’, Satyajit Ray’s Timeless Still Life Portrait of a Childhood in Rural India

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In 2013, Criterion acquired Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy for their latest restoration project after the original negatives of all three films were badly damaged in a fire and kept hidden for a decade. Widely considered seminal works of Indian film and the broader classical canon, the trilogy was re-released in 2015 to popular acclaim, casting new light on what had been Ray’s directorial debut 60 years earlier, Pather Panchali (1955), the first film in the trilogy.

Ray’s Bengali realist drama offers a meandering, unembellished examination of life for an impoverished rural family from the perspective of their youngest son, Apu (Subir Banerjee). Apu lives with his parents, Harihar and Sarbajaya (Kanu Banerjee and Karuna Banerjee), and teasing but motherly older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta), who opens his eyes to the many wonders of life in the dense forest that surrounds their small village. Tensions resulting from their lack of wealth are made more strenuous by the presence of Apu’s elderly auntie, Indir (Chunibala Devi), in their home, with whom his mother resents sharing food and resources. When Apu’s father leaves their home to try and find a better job in the city, the family falls into even greater poverty, with responsibility now placed solely upon the shoulders of his mother. Despite the slow collapse of his world around him over the years, the young Apu remains wide-eyed and wilful in the face of tragedy he can’t quite yet comprehend.

Upon viewing, I could immediately understand why Ray’s film might be considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly worthy of preservation and distribution by Criterion. The scope of the story, the believability of the performances, and the subtle but powerful treatment of hardship and tragedy made this film so engaging despite the expansive run-time. I enjoy these kinds of slow-paced, meditative films that tend to creep up on you in their effect; it wasn’t until the film’s final moments that I realised how invested I had become in the characters. I felt that I could never tire of Apu and his world, and it provided me with an enlightening experience in terms of understanding his family’s way of life. Somehow I felt both distant from and very close to the family; though their cultural traditions and living conditions differ vastly from my own, the family dynamic and treatment of human emotion in the narrative are themes that are entirely universal and timeless.

Watching the world through the eyes of a child is consistently a narrative focus that captivates me. I found the most powerful aspect of the film to be the way the relationship between Apu and his sister Durga was portrayed, particularly through the performances of the child actors. It was both amusing and poignant for me watching the two fight and play together in equal measure, as I have done with my own sisters my whole life. As an elder sibling, I felt Durga’s aggravation in the scene where Apu steals the precious tin foil from her toy box – some things clearly don’t change between siblings no matter where or when you are. The childishness of such scenes also showed the children’s lack of understanding, or perhaps lack of care, for their underprivileged lifestyle. Whilst the adults worry about money, work, and food, the siblings find blasé enjoyment in the little that is available to them, such as listening out for the whistle of passing trains. It’s a narrative that still plays out strikingly today, reminiscent of more recent films like The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017). The nostalgia and sentimentality with which I comprehended Pather Panchali was probably the most significant aspect of my appreciation for it. The depth and realism of the relationship between the two siblings, built up and layered over so many years, also contributes greatly to the devastation of the film’s ending. Sarbajaya, who at first seemed so unsympathetic to me, broke my heart as she battled alone against the storm as it ravaged their home, trying to protect her children.

The use of some inexperienced actors (who were not related despite sharing surnames), as well as the novice crew, location shooting, and minimal budget, call to mind the production methods and aesthetics of the post-war Italian Neorealist movement. Certainly, the sense of humanist realism accomplished by Pather Pachali is another great achievement; Ray was the recipient of the Best Human Document award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, a duly deserved title. Even in the moments where I felt myself getting a little fidgety during the slowest scenes, it made me realise the importance of taking the time to depict life in its fullest detail, emphasising even the smallest actions. In an age where shot lengths are getting shorter, so are our attention spans – it’s rewarding to revisit films that don’t surrender to the growing synonymy of ‘faster’ and ‘better.’

The visual treatment of the landscape and small details in the rural mise-en-scène also provided great nuance and immersion in the setting. One visual that stuck in my mind was the lingering shot of a single pond-skater dancing across the water. Nature plays a pivotal role in the narrative, particularly at the heart-breaking climax of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the classical Indian music of the intermittent soundtrack, which also helped me to situate myself within their world. Though the technical aspects felt less important to me as a viewer than the emotional gravity of the story, they are a huge contributing factor to the film’s powerful presence in cinema history. Overall, the film’s balance of humour and sincerity in telling this quiet, unassuming story of family life, makes Pather Panchali – in my mind – worthy of consideration as one of the greatest films ever made, and its cultural and historical significance within the classic film canon is undeniable.

You can view Pather Panchali on Criterion here.

by Megan Wilson

Megan is a northerner currently studying film in London. She likes cats, old musicals, and films about lesbians who don’t die. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Twitter: @bertmacklln

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