Combustible Celluloid
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With: Subir Banerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Kanu Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Chunibala Devi, Runki Banerjee, Reba Devi, Aparna Devi
Written by: Satyajit Ray, Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, based on a novel by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee
Directed by: Satyajit Ray
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Bengali, with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 08/26/1955

Pather Panchali (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Indian Giver

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some films take a while to sink in, and others hit big immediately and then age badly, but Pather Panchali (or, roughly translated, "Song of the Road") was an "instant classic" that still plays well to this day. It dropped like a bomb on the huge, rigid Indian film industry, which preferred -- and still prefers -- romances and musicals with decidedly non-realistic settings. Like the Neo-Realist classics from postwar Italy (Open City, Bicycle Thieves) and the late 1960s, early 1970s Hollywood films (Easy Rider, M*A*S*H), it brought to cinema a new kind of realism that audiences were thirsty for. Certainly escapism has its place, but there's only so often, and so far, one can escape. At some point, one must face one's self. And if you recognize a little of yourself in Apu, then the film has done its job.

That's the most remarkable thing about Pather Panchali: the fact that it connected -- and still connects -- with international audiences rather than just Indian audiences. Ray found a kind of universal simplicity and beauty in his images of rural youth. Like Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows a few years later, nearly anyone who remembered their own childhood could relate to the emotions of these characters, if not the setting. Pather Panchali was based on a novel written in the 1920s, but Ray changed a good deal of it, understanding that the rhythms of novels and cinema were two very different things.

It begins in a small village where a priest, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee), and his wife, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), struggle to raise their daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and young son Apu (Subir Bannerjee) as well as an ancient aunt (Chunibala Devi). The family is never very far away from starving, given the fact that the impractical father is a poet. Ray probably sided with this character, since he made the film with practically no money and no connections. He had never so much as directed a frame of film before. Even the film's composer, the now-internationally famous Ravi Shankar, was an unknown, working more for the passion of it than anything else.

Using 16mm black-and-white film, non-professional actors and guerrilla filmmaking techniques, Ray created a world where the unpredictable rhythms of real life danced on celluloid. The toothless old aunt gums away at fruit, a monkey jumps on an unsuspecting woman trying to get water, and a flock of birds take flight at the moment of death. Durga dances in the rain, Apu finds some stolen beads, and puppies and kittens play in the dirt yard. The film specifically concentrates on the "circle of life," the constant ebb and flow of decay with rebirth, the emergence of wonderful things juxtaposed with the loss of other wonderful things.

The strength of the Pather Panchali footage earned Ray and his crew enough money to complete the film and then shoot the second and third parts, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), which chronicle the family's move to Calcutta, the loss of Apu's parents and Apu's life as a young man and a poverty-stricken student looking for romance. In 2003, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released all three films on fairly shoddy DVDs (they were virtually the same transfers as the previous, VHS releases and with no extras), which have since gone out of print. For some, the trilogy itself has come to surpass any of the individual entries, but Pather Panchali, given the spirit in which it was made, still commands the most respect. In the 2002 Sight and Sound magazine poll, Pather Panchali by itself received more votes than the trilogy combined.

I think it's the film's independent spirit that makes it so endearing; it gains in strength once you read a little about Ray and just what went into the film's making. The film can certainly be off-putting to a new viewer since it relies more on rhythm than on plot, and shots of mosquitoes skittering over a pond may make some audience members restless. It's the type of film that requires surrender, an acknowledgement that life has its ups and downs. In fact, we are helpless when presented with a monsoon, and there's nothing much we can do to stave off death, but what's important is that we continue to try and to live.

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