in Criterion Month

Pather Panchali (1955)

There’s this anime movie, Grave of the Fireflies, that is in a highly unusual class of cinema. Everyone who sees it loves that movie, but almost nobody would list it among their favorite films of all time – in fact, many people claim they could only stand to watch it once. I’ve only seen it once. People have such a visceral reaction to that depiction of poverty, childhood, and tragedy, that it feels like its made its complete impact by the first time the credits roll. What if I told you there was another movie that falls into the same category, but as soon as I was done watching it, I was eager to watch it again? That movie is Pather Panchali.

Pather Panchali is a 1955 Bengali film written and directed by Satyajit Ray and based on a novel of the same name. It is the first movie in the celebrated Apu trilogy, which follows a young boy named Apu from his adolescence into adulthood. That said, this first movie is as much about Apu’s family as it is him, the film actually begins before Apu was even born.

In a small village lives Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) and her daughter, Durga (Uma Dasgupta), along with their elderly aunt (Chunibala Devi). They live in the ancestral home of the patriarch of the family, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), a priest who spends much time traveling to make money for the family. The home has fallen into disrepair as the family struggles to make ends meet, a shame that hits Sarbajaya the hardest, as she grows frustrated with her daughter and the aunt. When Apu (Subir Banerjee) is born, Harihar resolves to make things better – he’ll become a successful playwright, provide for Apu’s education, and make sure everyone is well-fed and happy.

The film follows the good times and bad times that follow. Pather Panchali roughly translates to “Song of the Little Road” and dedicates much of its runtime to capturing the feeling of growing up in rural Bengal in the 1920s. I compared it to Grave of the Fireflies above because the obvious connection of a brother and sister struggling through tragedy, but another film I was reminded of was Boyhood, in that it takes the time to show the little, seemingly inconsequential moments that end up defining childhood.

I wasn’t sure I was totally onboard with Pather Panchali through the first half, it’s really hard to watch a movie that so many include among the greatest of all time and not be let down. But lo and behold, when things finally got better for the family, I was thrilled. And then when times got leaner and tragedies began to strike the family, I was moved. The mother, Sarbajaya, is such an amazing character, so frustrated with her situation but resolved that it can’t really change. And the relationship between Durga and Apu is such relatable depiction of how siblings antagonize and support each other.

This film was shot on a shoestring budget by a bunch of first-timers. It was produced by the Bengali government after Satyajit Ray was able to get the rights to the novel for free by contacting the author’s widow. Ray’s script was more of a collection of drawings and notes, but his adaption made several key changes that belie his terrific cinematic instincts. Cinematographer Subrata Mitra had never used a camera before, and yet the framing of this movie constantly calls attention to itself – you can always see exactly what you’re meant to, despite this being filmed on location using natural light. It took years to shoot the film because they would have to go on hiatus whenever the production ran out of money, Ray would go back to his job as a graphic designer and several people even pawned their property just to keep the film happening.

Ray found his entry into the film world when he helped Jean Renoir scout locations for his film The River. He gained his resolve after seeing Bicycle Thieves in London, deciding that a realistic film could be shot on location with amateur actors. The international success of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon was what made him believe Pather Panchali could find an audience abroad. I guess what I’m saying is that this is the ultimate Criterion Month film, let us celebrate its greatness.