By Richard R.D. Finch
The raw material of the cinema is life itself,” wrote Satyajit Ray in a magazine article in 1948, adding that “the truly Indian film should…look for its material in the more basic aspects of Indian life, where habit in speech, dress and manner, background and foreground, blend into a harmonious whole.” This close examination of the details of Indian life within the context of a story comprehensible even to Westerners, was what Ray set out to do in his first film, Pather Panchali (1955), and as a guiding principle to filmmaking, it’s one he never abandoned for the rest of his more than 35 years as a director.
The film concentrates on one family. The father, a scholar, is the descendant of aristocrats fallen on hard times and has moved back to his ancestral village to find work and try to pay off his many debts. A rather feckless individual who dreams of being a writer, he isn’t a consistent provider for his family. The mother is frustrated by the family’s poverty and their status in the village as debtors, and often behaves in a shrewish and impatient manner. The father’s decrepit elderly aunt also lives with the family. Their daughter, Durga, is a mildly rebellious teenager who often seems to become the automatic focus of her mother’s dissatisfaction when she isn’t being petulant with the aunt. But for the viewer the most important member of the family is young Apu.
Apu is is no way the prime mover of any events in the film—he’s most often a passive watcher observed through numerous reaction shots—yet he is clearly at the center of the film, for nearly everything in the film is seen through his sensibility. This is one of the great films about childhood—perhaps the greatest ever—in the way it shows the viewer its world through the nonjudgmental but keen-eyed gaze of young Apu. To a child like Apu, the natural world is a source of wonder, so the film’s several montages of natural scenes and animals, sometimes used almost like the pillow shots in an Ozu film, convey the ineffable mystery of the natural world from a child’s point of view.
Another sign of young Apu being at the film’s center is its feeling of the slow, even progress of time. There’s a strong sense of the amorphous passage of time as a child experiences it, where life flows smoothly from one event to the next without temporal measure, even though if we think about the plot analytically we know that the film’s events must take place over a period of at least several months. In Pather Panchali, Ray seems to find a coherent dramatic pattern in a film composed of a series of small, personal and often unrelated events whose main effect on both the characters and the viewer is cumulative.
Although Pather Panchali works its spell more by its whole effect than by its parts, it does have many individual parts that stand out. Two in particular deserve mention. One is the performance by Chunibala Devi, an actress in her eighties with only two much earlier films to her credit. As the decrepit elderly aunt, she is nothing short of a wonder. In frail health, with no close family and no means, she lives with Apu’s family on sufferance. Yet she maintains her dignity and accepts her situation without protest. It’s a performance both brave and pathetic. (The actress died just before the film’s release, but Ray was able to show her a pre-release copy.) The spare music score by Ravi Shankar—just sitar, flute, violin, and tabla—also deserves mention. The first Indian music many Westerners ever heard, it is in its simplicity and authenticity an ideal complement to the film.
“It is only in drastic simplification of style and content that hope for the Indian cinema resides,” Ray wrote in his vision for Indian film. That belief is beautifully mirrored in Pather Panchali. Ray abhorred unnecessary spectacle, action, and melodrama, knowing that even a series of small events can sustain a film if those events are true to human life and nature. It’s not the scale of the action that’s important. It’s the action’s authenticity. So successful is Ray at this reduction of filmmaking to essentials that Pather Panchali seems for the most part hardly like a movie at all but almost like watching something that’s really happening. Ray helps this impression along by using the simplest, most unobtrusive directing style, including simple camera set-ups and a minimum of editing. Yet in no way does the film seem amateurish or hesitant. Pather Panchali might have been Ray’s first film, but his command of cinema technique, insight into character psychology, and ability to make such a mystifyingly different culture completely transparent seem more those of an experienced filmmaker than of a beginner.
Note: Criterion will be releasing newly remastered versions of Pather Panchali and the two other films in the Apu trilogy in November 2015. These will be the first updated versions since the reconstructions by the Merchant and Ivory Foundation twenty years ago.