The first movie of his magnificent Apu Trilogy (and also his debut as a director), Satyajit Ray’s 1955 Pather Panchali – arguably the most poignant and naturalistic film about childhood – seems melodramatic in tone and unfocused at times, but it knows exactly what is doing.
When Akira Kurosawa, a giant of world cinema, bows down in admiration over a filmmaker, one has to pay attention. For to be deprived of the sun and the moon means having no light or direction, day and night. The fact is that one does not really need the endorsement of a genius to recognise another genius. Satyajit Ray’s films are slow like learning curves; apparently simple, but definitively not simple-minded; fully humanistic. His films are like life itself: hard to pinpoint its meaning.
In a remote Indian village in Bengal there is a poor family struggling to feed its members. Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) is a priest and earns a meagre salary. Hi wife, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee) resents the presence of her husband’s old cousin Indir (Chunibala Devi), as another mouth to feed. Their daughter Durga (Uma Dasgupta) is spirited and mischievous up to the birth of her brother Apu (Subir Bandopadhyay). By the time Apu is around five or six, brother and sister share a strong bond. They play, learn and face death together. When Durga dies after getting soaked wet, the whole family collapses in a stupor of sadness. Eventually, they leave their village for the city.
Pather Panchali [The Song of the Little Road] forces a profound melancholy upon ourselves. The film is certainly sad; the loss of a child or a sibling (especially one as young as Durga) must feel like a punch in the gut of anyone. To endure what Apu’s family does – extreme poverty, on the verge of destitution; neighbours who look down on them; the father slaving himself for the sake of a miserly salary and then, at the end, the death of Indir and Durga – and remains sane (and relatively content) is indeed proof of the human spirit. As it is part of the human condition the fact that we as a species allow our fellow men, women and children to live under such shameful deprivation.
..The Complexity of Simple Lives.
Ray’s debut masterpiece asks us to identify and sympathise with characters who are specific to a certain culture, who live in conditions of extreme deprivation, and who, despite the hardships, show such joie de vivre almost foreign to most of us. However, its themes are universal – it is impossible not to recognise the sentiments and situations almost every human being encounters in their lives. The greatest hurdle for many people attempting to appreciate the film, who have been raised by conventional western narrative approaches, is the leisurely pace of the film. It is deadly obvious (isn’t it?) that the purpose of the slow tempo is to mirror village life in 1950s India.
There is so much tragedy in their lives that their joys are justifiably more intense. Living within societies that provide a comfortable lifestyle, we often overlook the most obvious of clichés. And that is, when water and food and shelter and clothing and love are satisfied we lose some of our ability to critically understand the value of added pleasures. Therefore, an ordinary and insignificant peach increases Indir’s happiness several degrees more than a new car would to someone used to get one every three years. For this reason alone, this film is a wonderful masterwork, capable of showing sentiments that are almost lost to western audiences. Gaining an insight onto such primeval sensations surely enriches our lives.
The complex relationship between Apu’s mother and her husband’s elderly cousin is symbolic of the film’s approach towards its storytelling. In fact, every interaction between characters is so nuanced and ambiguous that the traditional dichotomy of good versus bad is absolutely irrelevant here. Apu’s mother is doing her best to keep the family afloat; she cares for her children; she is reasonable with the available resources; she loves her husband. She is the real hero of the story. And yet, her cruelty towards Indir does not sit well with this heroic status. After all, she is a fully flawed human being.
The universal appeal of the story is undeniable – it deals with such essential human needs. All the sacrifices Apu’s parents are enduring are identical to the ones made by every mother and father around the world over the centuries. It is the most noble and natural instinct to want to protect your offspring and to want to see your children thrive. However, it also is an urge supported by ungrateful reactions. Eventually, when the children become wise and mature adults, then the parents might feel all have been justified. All unrewardingly heroic…
How many will ask the frivolous question of what importance is this dead Japanese guy’s opinion on the art of filmmaking? How many will dismiss (at their own peril) this other Indian guy’s films for they are in black and white? Satyajit Ray’s films in general and his Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959)) in particular are masterpieces of humanistic latitude and might have that quality of works of art that are superlative only to people who already agree on such premise. Unfortunately, to the unconverted no amount of praise on the movies will convince them of their supreme magnitude to the history of the medium.