Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Simple Gifts of “Pather Panchali”

The first time I saw Pather Panchali, it was under unusual circumstances. I was a student in Tokyo, having a wonderful time but missing the chance to see movies that were not standard Hollywood fare. In a basement in Shinjuku I happened upon a tiny movie house that alternated between soft-core porn and the classics of world cinema. That’s where I’d go for my foreign film fix, taking care to choose movies made in the English language. Not that I’m opposed to reading subtitles—but these were in Japanese and therefore not of much help.

 One day, though, I couldn’t resist buying a ticket for the much-acclaimed first feature by the great Indian director, Satyajit Ray. This 1955 film, shot in Bengali using largely amateur actors, would later be near the top of many global “best picture” lists, and would lead to two additional features, making up what’s been called the Apu Trilogy. Pather Panchali (meaning “Song of the Little Road”) boasts gorgeous cinematography and a haunting score by a young sitar player named Ravi Shankar. I couldn’t miss the fact that it was about an impoverished family in rural Bengal, desperately hanging on despite the frequent absences of the man of the house. Though I sat in that basement cinema more than fifty years ago, I have a clear recollection of one of the most dramatic sequences, in which rain pelts the tumbledown shack while a mother – her eyes haunted by worry -- crouches at the bedside of her ailing child.  

 Pather Panchali is a strongly visual film, playing on emotions that are universal. But of course, without the help of language, there was so much nuance that I missed. That’s why I leaped at the chance to see a beautifully restored print in the sumptuous David Geffen Theatre at L.A.’s new Academy Museum. The museum is celebrating, in the first months of its existence, the work it has put into locating and restoring the entire Ray canon. This work is particularly noteworthy since the master prints of the entire Apu Trilogy came close to being destroyed in a warehouse fire.

 There’s no question that Pather Panchali seems long and slow. It is not without humor, but its basic tone is poignant. This is the story of a scholarly father who in another culture might be called a luftmensch: he has his dreams of a better life, but can’t seem to bring them to fruition, which is why he is mostly absent, scrounging in the big city for work. Meanwhile, the mother of the family desperately hangs on. There’s a sprightly daughter with wealthier friends she can’t help envying, and a charming little son, Apu, full of good-hearted mischief. And there’s a whole gallery of other local characters, including the irascible schoolmaster, the always-suspicious neighbor, the ascetic collecting alms, and a wizened old “auntie” who has taken up residence with the family and is not above commandeering what food there is on hand. We see others in this rural environment who can be petty and hard-hearted, but mostly come through when the chips are thoroughly down.

 Ray, with a background in art and advertising, turned to filmmaking after he first saw an Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948) during a trip to London. For those familiar with India’s Bollywood tradition, with its garish colors and non-stop musical numbers, Pather Panchali is a revelation. Shot in rich black & white, it is fully about the poetry of real life. Those quiet shots of waterbugs scooting leisurely across a local pond: daily existence doesn’t get much more beautiful.  



  1. Hi Beverly, thanks for your Thanksgiving email response, it was appreciated AND enlightening, as always. I sure do know Mildred Pierce and some of those strong Bette Davis “seatbelt” roles. Maybe those films helped make my Mom as wonderful as she was. As for this piece-You done sold me kiddo, now I really want to see this flick, no hesitation. I knew of Ray, now I’ll seek him out. Stay Safe Bob. PS The loss of Sondheim is a loss to the movies too, not just the theater, though I don’t have the nerve to watch Depp as The Demon Barber even though it was Stephan’s favorite interpretation. Peace

  2. You're so nice, Bob. And it's terrific that you have such rich memories of your mother. The Ray film is beautiful, but not for every taste. (I think my spouse was relieved when it was over, because it feels very long and slow.) I'd love to get your reaction. And I definitely want to write about the great Sondheim, who is (of course) a great favorite in this household. "Sweeney Todd" is not bad at all, but I didn't know Depp was Sondheim's personal favorite. Something to think about.

  3. Dear Beverly, I have followed your lead and not surprisingly I have been rewarded, Pather Panchali, visually, was the most perfect movie I’ve ever seen, superior to Citizen Kane. Almost every frame contained the whole within it-the characters, their souls, their unlivable circumstances. I had no trouble with the length, it’s hopelessness overwhelmed me though and took a large chunk out of my tear filled heart. When the water closes over the tossed beads and a snake slithers into you “house” it is most certainly time to go. Thanks for your gift of this movie. Bob.

  4. Dear Bob, thanks for some of the nicest kudos I've ever received. You've just given ME a gift too!