What can one write about a film about which so much has already been written? Dare one even attempt a review?
But since I did watch Pather Panchali (‘Song of the Little Road’) recently, and since it is such an iconic film, a review is in order.
Satyajit Ray’s debut film has been hailed as one of the hundred greatest films ever made, but its making was fraught with difficulty for Ray. Funds were hard to come by, since investors were unwilling to put their money into a film that had no major stars, no songs (though Ravi Shankar did compose the background music for Pather Panchali, a score which forms an important part of the film), and was so bleakly real. Pather Panchali eventually ended up being funded by the government of West Bengal, and took three years to make.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali begins in a small, sweet way which nevertheless manages to establish the main theme of the story: the poverty of Hori (Kanu Bannerjee) and his little family. Hori is a priest, a learned man, but he is constantly trying to make ends meet. He is not at home in this scene, where his wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) is doing her chores. Hori’s cousin, the elderly widow Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi, an octogenarian veteran actress whom Ray coaxed out of retirement to do this, her last role) also stays with the family.
Sarbojaya is often short-tempered and nasty to Indir Thakrun, impatient with the old woman. One of the irritants, as far as Sarbojaya is concerned, is the way Indir Thakrun indulges Sarbojaya and Hori’s little daughter, Durga (Runki Bannerjee). When the film opens, Durga is seen pottering about, running through the trees nearby, hiding to avoid being seen, sneaking a couple of small guavas home for her Pishi (‘aunt’, as she addresses Indir Thakrun).
… stolen guavas, which Durga takes from the orchard next door. The orchard once belonged to Hori’s family, but he was so deep in debt, he had to sell it off. It is now owned by a wealthy family, and the mistress of the house shrieks abuse at Sarbojaya, accusing Durga of stealing fruit.
Durga gets yelled at, of course, but Indir Thakrun is also at the receiving end of a tongue-lashing from Sarbojaya. It’s she, encouraging Durga to get her fruit, that’s causing all of this. But Indir Thakrun laughs it off; she is unfazed by it, and though Sarbojaya is rude enough to tell Indir Thakrun to get lost, the old woman takes it all in her stride. She gathers up her tattered shawl (Hori keeps promising to buy her a new one, but there is never enough money) and goes off.
… only for Sarbojaya to send Durga to fetch her back once Sarbojaya’s anger has cooled.
That night, while Hori paces about worriedly and Indir Thakrun sits beside Sarbojaya’s bed with a friendly neighbour, Sarbojaya gives birth to her son, Apu.
The bulk of Pather Panchali is set a few years later, when Apu is a young boy (Subir Bannerjee), the darling of his doting family. Sarbojaya sits patiently, feeding him one morsel at a time, while Apu practices archery with a makeshift bow and arrow, and finally runs off, too distracted to want to eat any more.
Hori, overseeing Apu’s studies, while going through his own papers, as the little family sits together one evening, all of them gathered round one lamp.
And, most of all Durga (now Uma Das Gupta), with whom her little brother spends much of his time. They go on little expeditions together, find little joys and small triumphs together. Fight and make up, are siblings and best friends. Share a clandestine treat, go racing through fields of kaash grass to see the train go past.
For me, these brief but impactful vignettes comprise one of the most memorable aspects of Pather Panchali. Like many of Ray’s films, this one too does not have an action-packed story at its centre. The story, in the sense of things happening, is somewhat flimsy; not very much happens here. What does happen, though, serves to build up images of the characters and their lives. Indir Thakrun going about, her balance fragile but her spirit seemingly indefatigable, standing strong against all the rudeness Sarbojaya flings at her. Durga, quietly envying friends who are better off than her, but not complaining, not commenting.
Or Sarbojaya herself, sharing in Hori’s excitement at the prospect of him finally getting a reliable source of income—but, stoically going about her work, aware that this is her lot.
What I liked about this film:
The little details with which Ray delineates his characters. The brief dialogues, the tiny gestures, the often unspoken words, the expressions which offer an insight into these people. For instance, from the beginning, it appears that Sarbojaya favours her son over her daughter (is that merely because he is the younger, or is it a reflection of the common Indian belief that a son is better than a daughter?). Durga is ticked off for minor infractions; Apu is indulged, allowed to have his way. Even in the expression as she looks at her son, or in the softness of her tone, you can see that Sarbojaya loves him. To Durga’s detriment?
But in one telling scene when Durga is accused of thievery, Sarbojaya stands up for her daughter, even though it draws on her the scorn and anger of her wealthy neighbour. And, in a climactic moment near the end, you get to see just what Durga means to her mother.
The poverty of Hori and his family is, of course, the focal point of the film, but even here, I like the way Ray tempers that depiction. This is not the unrelieved despair and anguish of (say) films like Mother India; Pather Panchali has many moments when you see Apu, Durga, or their family finding something to be happy about even in the midst of all the want and hunger. The children’s games, their friends, the joy they derive out of something as basic as finding a sugar cane to chew, or getting a coin from Hori to be able to peep into the bioscope that is brought to the neighbourhood.
Or Indir Thakrun, indomitable, singing to herself or telling the children stories. No matter if her shawl is utterly threadbare and she grumbles about having to mend it, though even threading a needle is an uphill task for her old eyes and trembling hands.
Then, there’s the sheer beauty of the frames Ray composes. The wind rippling through the kaash, or ruffling the edges of the lotus leaves on the pond. Sarbojaya, silhouetted against a window. Even something as prosaic as a dead frog lying in a pool surrounded by the wreckage of a hut in the wake of a storm.
Lastly, several things that came to my mind as I watched this film, and which in some way help emphasize what I liked about this:
1. How well the children act. A hallmark of a good director: one who can make a child’s acting seem like it isn’t acting at all.
2. How unglamorous it all is. From Indir Thakrun’s gnarled hands and dry skin to the door panels, so worn and cracked at the bottom that they really just end halfway down—Ray’s ‘poor people’ come across as far more poor than a lot of Hindi films back then showed them. (I have to compare to Hindi cinema here, since that’s what I’m familiar with; I have a feeling, though, that this stark realism was very novel for Indian cinema in general).
3. The tiny glimpses of humour. Indir Thakrun’s nonchalance, of course, but also a satirical scene where the local schoolteacher (Tulsi Chakraborty, in a brief but memorable cameo) juggles classroom with his work as a grocer, local gossip, and more.
A memorable film, and made with so much care, so much attention to detail.
I love Pather Panchali. There’s something lyrical about the movie though it is, at its core, a sad reflection of reality. Of the trilogy, this movie and Aparajito are my favourites. Your review captures the tone and mood of the movie so well.
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I too like this one and Aparajito more than Apur Sansar (which I always think of as ‘more filmy’!) |
Glad you liked my review, Anu. Thank you.
A really good film to watch, if you enjoyed Pather Panchali, is the recently released Bengali film Aparajito, a loving paean to Ray and his first movie, and available on streaming channels with subtitles. It’s about how Ray managed to get the film made, against all odds, to coin a cliché. 😊
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Oddly enough, I was told about this film just last week, when I was part of a panel discussing Ray’s cinema at a Satyajit Ray retrospective. But the person who was speaking about it was far less complimentary about the film! I should watch it for myself to take my own decision on it. :-)
Since it’s considered an all time great film with accolades being showered on it for decades, little surprise that you liked it so much and found nothing to mention under the heading ‘what I didn’t like’. Since I haven’t seen it, I presume that it’s free from the cliches of the Hindi movies. Before seeing this classic, I would like to read the novel of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (I hope, translation can be found). As I have found by reading a lot of Bangla literature (in translated form), the great Bangla authors and authoresses used to present a mirror image of the Bangla society of their times through their stories. Pather Panchali must also be that kind of a story. Hearty thanks for familiarising your readers with this extraordinary movie.
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I’m glad you enjoyed this review. Thank you.
Also, yes: Bibhutibhushan’s novel is available in an English translation. I found a copy on the online library, archive.org, and will try to read it sometime soon to see how it compares.
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I remember watching this some time back. A beautifully crafted film. Hard to believe it was his first film. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your review and recalling the film. It is time to watch it again.
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Indeed a beautifully crafted film, and certainly hard to believe it was his first. It’s really a masterpiece.
Dear Madhu et al,
Madhu, your review of “Pather Panchali” is so evocative and moving…. it felt great revisiting this with you!
Do hope you will make time to see this rather long response of mine…(and esp. the LINKS given, which include a couple of photographs)
Over the years, one has been fortunate to have seen onscreen, some, if not all of Satyajit Ray’s remarkable unmatched oeuvre….in particular, his earliest films that comprise “The Apu Trilogy” – “Pather Panchali” (1955), “Aparajito”(1956) and “Apur Sansar”(1959) several times, (with “Aparajito being a personal favourite of mine).
What caught my eye in Madhu’s review of “Pather Panchali” was this: the closing remark
“A memorable film, and made with so much care, so much attention to detail.”.
And thereby hangs a tale:
Here below are two LINKS that highlight the pioneering work by the genius art director Bansi Chandragupta that contributed to the “look” that Satyajit Ray’s films were known for….
Film Heritage Foundation
(post on Facebook on 20 December 2020).
A chance to work with the crew of ‘The River’ (1951) under Jean Renoir himself proved to be a blessing for Chandragupta. Not only did he manage to learn the ropes of production design from the renowned Eugene Lourie, but he also met Satyajit Ray, who was helping Renoir scout locations for the film. A young Subrata Mitra too was an observer on the sets. Noticing his keen interest in art and films, Ray invited Chandragupta to become a part of the Calcutta Film Society that he had formed along with other cine-philes.
When Ray began work on the legendary ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955), Chandragupta, working as art director was easily the most experienced member of the crew. Despite not being a native Bengali, his portrayal of an impoverished village in rural Bengal and an unfortunate family in it was enormously acclaimed and feted the world over. The film and its sequels ‘Aparajito’ (1956) and ‘Apur Sansar’ (1959) followed the protagonist through Benares and Calcutta before returning to the Bengali countryside over a span of nearly three decades. Chandragupta’s production design was peerless in its evocation of periods and milieux, a quality that Ray’s films, famed for their realism, benefited enormously from.
Be it the crumbling feudalism of ‘Jalsaghar’ (1958), the stifling Bengali aristocracy of ‘Charulata’ (1964) or the eclectic, fantastical world of ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (1968), Chandragupta’s intricate, pitch-perfect art work often laid bare entire worlds of characters. Moving to more contemporary subjects, his design was just as incisive, as evidenced by the suffocating urban landscape of ‘Mahanagar’ (1963), the restlessness of a prolonged train journey intercut with the surreal imagery of ‘Nayak’ (1966) and the roiling, restive, urban flux of ‘Pratidwandi’ (1970) and ‘Jana Aranya’ (1975). But it was his work on Ray’s ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’ (1977) that is widely considered to be his creative zenith. His depiction of the Avadhi aristocracy in all its accumulated, lazy grandeur and its narcotic obsession to music and chess was based upon his own, parallel research into the customs of the 19th century North Indian elite.
Apart from Ray, he worked on several notable films with considerable directors such as Mrinal Sen (Baishey Srabon, 1960; Akash Kusum, 1965; Akaler Sandhaney, 1980), Tarun Majumdar (Palatak, 1961; Alor Pipasha, 1965, Balika Badhu, 1967), Basu Chatterjee (Piya Ka Ghar, 1972; Chakravyuh, 1978; Manzil, 1979; Apne Paraye, 1980), A.K. Kaul (27 Down, 1974), Rabindra Dharmaraj (Chakra, 1980), Shyam Benegal (Kalyug, 1981), Aparna Sen (36, Chowringhee Lane, 1981), Muzaffar Ali (Umrao Jaan, 1981) and Kumar Shahani (Tarang, 1984).
Madhu, in your review, you had earlier noted :
“How unglamorous it all is. From Indir Thakrun’s gnarled hands and dry skin to the door panels, so worn and cracked at the bottom that they really just end halfway down”.
It is uncanny, Madhu, that you focused on a detail of the set, even as you made the comparison with Indir Thakrun…
I use the word ‘uncanny” because here below is “a select excerpt” from what Bansi Chandragupta himself wrote:
“I developed a technique all my own own to depict the effect of rain and sun on a set: softly char the prop and then brush it well with with a wire brush.
Remember the door of Apu’s house in “Pather Panchali”?
Like old Indir Thakrun, the door too is ancient and crumbling.
We made the door with pinewood, burnt it and brushed it to get the required look. In fact I burnt the lower part of the door a little more to depict its worn down nature. Then we bleached the door with caustic soda.
No one can tell it was a new door treated to resemble that of an old village home.”
Select Excerpt from
Please do make time to read “this archival note” from Bansi Chandragupta on his meeting/ working with Manek (as he addressed him).
You get to visualise those early years….
Thanks again, Madhu, for all that you do!
best wishes always,
Thank you so much for this comment! I will read the link to the Cinemaazi article later, but I read your comment with a lot of interest. Those details about the treatment of the door are indeed an eye-opener.
Thank you, this was such a great comment and added so much to my review. :-)
Thanks so much for the review! This was a film I watched several years ago, well after I went completely off Bollywood, and found utterly refreshing.
I’m not at all surprised that you didn’t have a “What I didn’t like” section!
After all these years, I vividly remember many of the scenes.
This is in fact one case where I saw the movie and liked it so much I did not feel the urge to next go and read the book!
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Yes, this is such a refreshing change from Bollywood (though I personally think Apur Sansar, made just four years later, is far closer to Bollywood than this film or Aparajito!) So very real, this one. And so immersive.
I have seen Pather Panchali a number of times. I saw it precisely because it is such a celebrated movie. That is a trap, because we all go with prior knowledge of its fame, National Award, acclaim at the Cannes Festival etc. Even audience then knew it had created waves abroad – it was released in Calcutta more than 3 months after its premiere at MoMA, New York. Renoir, John Huston became his admirers even before its release. Martin Scorsese, Kurosawa, Richard Attenborough and others held him in very high esteem as a great film maker. I am saying all this because if I have to introduce a discerning viewer “off Bollywood” to Ray I would advise him to watch Charulata and Jalsaghar (aka ‘The Music Room’) first. They are great cinema without anyone telling you so. Ray regarded ‘Charulata’ as probably his finest film. I can watch these films any number of times as beautiful cinema, I can also get myself to watch PP off and on to discover new facets of Ray’s genius.
Coming back to Pather Panchali, it has beautiful images which was the hallmark of Ray, because what he could visualise through the lens was exceptional. The film has great moments of silence in keeping with Ray’s belief that “really crucial moments in a film should be wordless.” ‘Charulata’ and ‘Jalsghar’ too have moments of silence which speak more through images, but these films have a conventional narrative. ‘Pather Panchali’ has a rambling style; Ray used to say that poor people in rural Bengal had a rambling life, and it was in keeping with the narrative of the novel. You have mentioned all the important scenes in the film. The last scene of Apu discovering a necklace in the ruined home and throwing it into the pond to hide the shame is also a highly acclaimed image. On Apu’s inscrutable expression Ray said,”I cannot describe the state of mind really – it’s much too complicated. Essentially cinematic.”
It was surprising to me that making of PP was Ray’s fist exposure to rural Bengal. He has been a third generation Calcutta literate aristocracy. That a person with such a background could show such rural realism was amazing.
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Very well-written comment, AK – something almost lyrically Ray about that one!
I agree with you that it’s creditable that Ray, with no former association with rural Bengal, was able to conjure it up so beautifully in this film. He did keep returning to the countryside – in Jalsaghar, for instance, or Devi – and to some extent Aranyer Din Raatri – but the village and its people as he shows them in this film are in a space by themselves when it comes to a realistic depiction of life among the very poor of Bengal.
I have read both the novels Pather Panchali and Aparajita by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay on which the Apu Trilogy is based. The novels have a very loose structure and is rambling in many parts. Pather Panchali, in particular, captures the warmth of human relationships along with the petty jealousies, frustration, poverty and human endeavor that are a part of village life. Ray has distilled the essence of the novel with impeccable artistry and attention to detail. He, like Bibhutibhushan, does not let poverty take center stage. Instead, everyone is hopeful for a better day to arrive. Good review, Madhu.
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Thank you, Soumya! And for that insight into the novels. I have Pather Panchali bookmarked on Archive.org, so will hopefully be able to find time to read it sometime.