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Pather Panchali (1955)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

Outwardly a reassuringly peaceful reflection of one Brahman family, Pather Panchali calmly demonstrates the fragility of this serene illusion. Set in the early years of this century, in a Bengali village far off the main cultural artery, we learn of the shockingly destitute Ray family. The head of the clan, Harihar Ray (Kanu Banerji), dreams of becoming a feted writer and poet. Yet to put food in the mouths of his children, Harihar must set aside this fantasy; he works as bookkeeper for a local landlord. As Harihar slaves for a pittance, occasionally moonlighting to carry out religious ceremonies, his wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerji) struggles by. With two rambunctious kids, it's an endless chore.

In some respects it's fortunate that Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi), an old and wizened aunt, shares their run-down compound. She bonds wonderfully with Durga (Uma Das Gupta), Sarbojaya's daughter, and tries not to get in the way. That friction exists between Indir and Sarbojaya is perhaps unavoidable, given the circumstances, though still unfortunate. Both antagonise each other, especially where the kids are involved. The youngest, Sarbojaya's son Apu (Subir Banerji), is always careering around and exploring, when not in school. It's a wild streak that he's picked up from Durga, who lacks the influence of school as a behaviour modifier. Unless press-ganged by her mother, Durga's favourite pastime is to scrump fruit from their neighbour's garden; it's a recipe for trouble.

The first film to be directed by the now internationally respected director Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali is a change of pace for most viewers. Its essence lies entirely in the domain of the Ray family; the incidents from which their lives are composed form the tapestry of the story. Thus Ray starts at the beginning, with the birth of Apu, and takes us by the hand through the delights and tribulations of the following years. In following this line, a less sure director might exaggerate or embellish, creating a wild ride of emotion. Not Ray. Such is his confidence in the unadorned characters, he trusts that we will wish to invest in them. At the other extreme, however, such an approach could be numbing, a tedious exposition. While Ray tacks close to this line, he never crosses it; his feel for the material and gift for story-telling serve to deliver a happy outcome.

For all of Ray's talent, however, there is perhaps an even more amazing side to Pather Panchali -- the acting. So divorced is this film from the usual cinematic conjuring tricks that an unusually heavy burden falls upon the cast. They must set their character's roots, imbue them with distinct personality and make vivid the dynamics of their interactions; in short, they must be utterly natural without ennui. A tough assignment for a professional cast, let alone Ray's amateur one. Disregarding this consideration, the ensemble acting in Pather Panchali is superb, with it there are scarce words to describe the quiet power invoked. The way in which the actors work off of each other, reacting with emotion rather than thought, is a wonder to behold. There is never the slightest doubt that we are privy to a real family.

This cohesion is especially impressive where little Durga and Apu are concerned. Both kids act in a delightfully unselfconscious and unsentimental manner, larking around and running after interesting people. They behave just like "real" children, bundles of excited, selfish and devious energy. The crowning aspect here is the powerful bond of affection that exists between them, drawing Durga and Apu close; this is where Pather Panchali ventures towards the magical and evades the miserable. When Durga and Apu are happy, sharing a memory, the clouds lift and the entire family celebrates. These instants of happiness may be fleeting but they are no less essential for that.

It's interesting to note that while the film resides in a society where boys are prized over girls, women dominate Ray's vision. Though Harihar is the unquestioned head of the family, his absence ensures that Sarbojaya wields the power. She cements them together, against the blows of existence, while all Harihar does is earn too-little money and waste it on tobacco. In some respects he is similar to Indir, a part of the family but not quite in the inner circle. Luckily Indir has presence, a cranky and cunning spirit, to make up for her physical failings. Without this how else could she tolerate being abandoned to fend for herself? Of course, in a wider sense, this is just what happens to Sarbojaya and the children when Harihar leaves; as the funds slowly drain away they slide further into poverty, despair and misfortune. Karuna Banerji shoulders this transition almost alone; her performance of desperation and hope has astonishing clarity for such depth.

When Ray depicts this bleak conclusion, he resists the urge to force a single scene, emotion or moment. The sharp edges of tension, surprise and terror that tear through the fabric of Pather Panchali grow naturally from within the story. Events happen, then the consequences; destiny, good or bad, comes to be inescapable. What makes Pather Panchali more than just a lyrical work of fiction is that Ray addresses universal concerns; how families deal with random catastrophe, how people unwittingly hurt one another, how parents love their children unconditionally. Yet as insightful as Ray is to the reality of rural India, a place of little opportunity, there's a distance between audience and cast. For viewers suckled on the primary emotion of Western cinema, Ray's undemonstrative and muted approach can fail to make an impact. Combined with Ray's extensive use of symbolism, some of which is sure to go over foreign heads, Pather Panchali may seem less than the sum of its critical acclaim.


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