Reviewing ‘Pather Panchali’ Legendary Indian Director Satyajit Ray’s Masterpiece

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For twenty whole years of my life I lived in ignorance without having seen the sun or the moon but today I have finally seen the Ray and I feel holy and blessed now. Akira Kurusawa, the man behind Japanese classics like Rashomon and Ran rightly said years ago that living in a world without having seen a Satyajit Ray film is similar to living without having seen the sun or moon; almost every film I’ve watched feels effete after living in Ray’s world. It is a transcending experience watching the late Bengali director’s debut effort Pather Panchali, one that deeply impacts the very core of your soul in a way that makes you feel afterwards as though you’ve lived two lives – one before having watched Pather Panchali and one after. It achieves the remarkable feat of invoking your senses to a higher state of consciousness; the experience watching Pather Panchali is similar to reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or James Joyce’s Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man or some of William Blake’s or Emily Dickinson’s finest achievements, or watching Meryl Streep’s iconic turn as Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice. The feeling is so powerful that it took me more than an hour to get back to my original state; the hardest part for me was to return the DVD to the movie rental store because I knew the true worth of what I was holding. May god bless the guy who recognized Pather Panchali’s worth years ago and preserved the original prints so the world today can have a chance to be transported to the precious little magical world of Apu, the film’s protagonist.

This little world is black and white to the outer eye, but the film is so richly filmed and composed that it colors our mind with the most exquisite palette. The opening credits, which wouldn’t be understood by anyone who can’t read Bengali, still captures the spirit of Pather Panchali though Ravi Shankar’s playful, whimsical and yearning tabla beats and sitar strums; only Michael Danna could hypnotize us in 2012’s Life of Pi with a similarly evocative score. Ray’s world opens not with Apu or his sister Durga but with the film’s most antagonistic character, the rancorous neighbor of Apu’s family who’s worshipping the tulsi plant early in the morning. Satyajit follows her as she notices Durga, the still-unborn Apu’s sister, stealing fruits from her courtyard. Durga runs along the woods to her shanty home and hands the fruits to her senescent grandaunt Indir Thakrun after keeping milk for her three little cats. Ray then cuts back to the nagging neighbor who is berating Durga and cursing her family for raising a thief; in an excellently composed sequence, Ray is able to seamlessly capture her, the lady listening in the next house balcony listening to her and Durga’s pregnant mother Sarbajaya and her empathic friend collecting water from the well behind the neighbor’s house, well within earshot of the woman’s bitter rant. Sarbajaya confronts her daughter for stealing fruits and then berates Indir Thakrun for encouraging Durga’s bad behavior. Indir Thakrun leaves the house temporarily, frustrated by Sarbajaya’s nagging, but returns soon as Sarbajaya gives birth to Apu.

A couple of dissolves then takes us some years ahead and we see Apu now as an innocent school-going kid who’s most fond of his sister Durga. His family is barely able to fulfill their basic needs, with Apu’s soft-mannered father Harihar Roy being too lax about asking his dues from his employer; he is neither able to make much as a playwright. This situation makes it especially tough for Sarbajaya to manage the household needs as she herself doesn’t like begging others for monetary or any other help; she therefore is all the more harsh on Indir Thakrun, who sometimes like Durga is wont to taking food items from Sarbajaya’s kitchen without permission. There are two sequences at different points in the film which include Harihar and Sarbajaya; both retain the same posture in the sequences but while in the first sequence, Harihar gives a more optimistic image to Sarbajaya to pacify her, in the second he sounds less enthusiastic while Sarbajaya looks more worried for their future. Apu is still too young to be affected by the family problems and we only see him enjoying his childhood days with Durga and his friends. Durga is extremely supportive of everybody including her mother, who reacts violently towards Durga when same neighbor in the beginning accuses Durga of stealing her daughter’s beaded necklace. The family’s problems persist after Harihar travels to nearby city to find work and tragedies strike one after the other; the family’s only hope, as told by Harihar in his letters to Sarbajaya after leaving, is to leave everything to God’s Grace keeping in mind that everything happens for the better.

To Satyajit Ray, every image and every sound, both on-screen and off-screen matter. It’s his craftsmanship as a movie visionary that segues the film so well that you are bemused to hear that it’s his debut film. I’ve read one of his books, a compilation of his essays and theories on film, and he mentions how his inexperienced crew hadn’t even operated a camera before filming Pather Panchali and so the first half was a little choppy in editing. I don’t have any clue what he’s talking here because to my eyes, every image was seamlessly stitched together. To me he didn’t capture images but rather created images on film; it’s difficult to express just how wonderfully he captures Sarbajaya’s gradual breakdown in the film without using superlatives. And his genius picture is complemented by Ravi Shankar’s background score, which includes sound of bells that ring during a cheerful sequence with a candy man and also during some of the haunting moments; it reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant poem The Bells. Pather Panchali is scintillating, and Satyajit is the Ray of Light.