Friday, November 21, 2014

Pather Panchali (1955)

India, 119 minutes
Director: Satyajit Ray
Writers: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Satyajit Ray
Photography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ravi Shankar
Editor: Dulal Dutta
Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Subir Banerjee, Chunibala Devi, Runki Banerjee

Pather Panchali (translated as "song of the little road") is the first film in director and screenwriter Satyajit Ray's so-called "Apu trilogy." It is explicitly about poverty but that's not the reason it's low-budget—not intentionally. The unadorned footage often feels documentary in style if not purpose. Francois Truffaut reacted badly to it—though it also appears a distinct influence on The 400 Blows—reportedly saying he wasn't interested in seeing movies about "peasants eating with their hands." It is also Ray's first movie, widely honored around the world now (and making a long-term home in the top 100 films on the list of the greatest of all time at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?). But it was made on the fly, while Ray worked a day job in an advertising agency, interrupted as funds ran out.

In 1955, India was largely isolated from Western mainstreams of filmmaking (which still hasn't improved that much), and by the evidence Ray was nearly as isolated from more localized Indian Bollywood mainstreams too. In many ways, the strains bend so far away from one another they meet on the other side. Under the influence of Jean Renoir, whom Ray met, and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali actually preview a lot of the nascent preoccupations and energy of the French New Wave and the heroic era of art film. One key difference: while it may be lighthearted (surprisingly so surprisingly often), Pather Panchali is rarely just whimsical. The stakes are high for these people with mere cling holds on survival. It is shot on basic black and white film stock, the music by Ravi Shankar is used sparingly, and the attention remains raptly focused on the impoverished family at its center.

Apu (Subir Banerjee) is the family's second child and first boy, and he is the common thread in the larger trilogy (which also includes Aparajito and Apur Sansar). But I think Pather Panchali is more about the women in the family and specifically the adolescent daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta). Across the space of this movie she is systematically socialized, her independent spirit continually broken down by the requirements and expectations of her as a girl soon to be a woman. The father (Kanu Bannerjee) is a good-natured scholar and writer who barely earns enough to keep his family in food and shelter—sometimes not even that, in which case they must borrow from their neighbors. He is also gone from the family home for weeks and months at a time, trying to earn money.

The mother (Karuna Bannerjee) is a proud woman who bears the brunt of the responsibility to keep a home and raise the children, a role she bears irritably, embittered by the financial straits in which she finds herself, and by the drudgery of the work. Durga knows that drudgery well enough to know it is the source of her mother's unhappiness. Durga knows instinctively to keep her distance from it, which only makes her mother more ill-natured when she must force Durga to the tasks expected of her. Some of this is the mother's character—her pride torments her at least as much as her poverty. But the realities are manifest. It is painful to see the mother so thoroughly broken and attempting to impose it on Durga, even as the necessity remains apparent.

In that regard it is remarkably a kind of proto-feminist statement without even trying very hard about it. An old woman also moves in the orbit of the family. Played by Chunibala Devi, a woman in her 80s, she's designated an "auntie" but frequently comes into conflict with the mother and moves on to live off of other households temporarily, an impoverished itinerant living inside a much harsher and narrower version of Blanche DuBois's kindness of strangers. The auntie and Durga share a connection, trace elements of an unbowed rebellious spirit, but the ravages on the old woman speak clearly to the fate of that particular little road.

I like Pather Panchali for the unflinching way it takes on the poverty, but even more for the way it refuses to give up on beauty. The outdoor scenes have a wonderful sense of the lines and textures of nature and how we live within them. A fearsome storm occurs at one point near the end. Like so much else here, it is filmed with a warm and quietly observant eye, resting for long stretches on the surface of a pond, or canopies of trees, or children seen running on paths from overhead. Ravi Shankar's music is lively and welcome when it comes, propelling the momentum at strategic points. The events of Pather Panchali haunt long after seeing it. The story's complexities reverberate. Each person in the family is on a path, at different stages. In many ways it's a film about Durga, and in many more affecting ways it's about the father, so infrequently in the frame at all, whose crisis of maturity toward the end is heartrending and unforgettable. Mortally wounded, the family finally picks up and moves on, in one of the most indelible sequences I know, from the great storm on.

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