Pather Panchali

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray (based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay)
Stars: Kanu Bannerjee (Harihar Ray), Karuna Bannerjee (Sarbojaya Ray), Chunibala Devi (Indir Thakrun), Uma Das Gupta (Durga), Subir Banerjee (Apu), Runki Banerjee (Little Durga), Reba Devi (Seja Thakrun), Aparna Devi (Nilmoni’s wife), Tulsi Chakraborty (Prasanna, school teacher), Haren Banerjee (Chinibas, Sweet-seller)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1955
Country: India
Pather Panchali Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Pather PanchaliOn any short list of great films about childhood, Satyajit Ray’s directorial debut Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) will invariably rank near the top. As one of the first Indian films produced outside the Hindi-language commercial industry located in Bombay, Ray modeled the modestly scaled production aesthetically and thematically on Italian neorealism (he had seen and been deeply affected by Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves a few years earlier). Ray first worked as a commercial writer and illustrator of children’s books, so it is not surprising that he was drawn to adapt the first half of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s popular 1929 novel about life in a small, rural village in Bengal that is told largely through the eyes of two children (Ray knew the book well, as he had been assigned to create new illustrations for an abridged version in the mid-1940s). Bandyopadhyay and Ray seemed destined to connect, as the description of Bandyopadhyay in the Encyclopedia of Indian Literature could double as a description of Ray: “known for his power of observation, his profound love of nature, his comprehension of simple men and women including children in particular, and his acute sensibility.”

Just as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) opened the figurative gates of Japanese cinema to the West, Pather Panchali was largely responsible for introducing the rest of the world to Indian cinema (which, at the time, was the largest producer of films in the world). The film was a significant critical hit, and it was awarded Best Human Document at the Cannes Film Festival (it was only the second Indian film to play there, the first being Bimal Roy’s Two Acres of Land in 1953). However, it is often overlooked that the film’s also had a powerful, eye-opening impact within India itself, where commercial cinema rarely if ever focused on the Bengali region or characters living in poverty (most Indian films were musicals and melodramas). It was literally one of the first films to depict that aspect of Indian life and invest heavily in the psychological realism of such characters. It was also unique in its stripped down, neorealist aesthetic, an approach that Ray had advocated in “What is Wrong With Indian Cinema?,” an essay he wrote in 1948: “It is only in a drastic simplification of style and content that hope for the Indian cinema resides,” he wrote, which is precisely what he set out to do in Pather Panchali.

The film is set entirely in Nischindipur, a small, remote village in Bengal (in keeping with neorealism, the film was shot on location in an actual village named Boral Village). The story centers on the impoverished Ray family: The father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee), works as a pujari (priest), but dreams of being a scholar and playwright, while the mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), maintains their crumbling ancestral home as best she can and tends to their two children: a daughter, Durga (Uma Das Gupta), and a son, Apu (Subir Banerjee). When the film opens, Apu is yet to be born and Durga (then played by Runki Banerjee) is still a young child. The Ray family also takes in Indir (Chunibala Devi), Harihar’s elderly, crippled cousin who Sarbojaya constantly blames for being a burden on the family and their meager resources.

As with the novel, there is a wonderfully rambling quality to Pather Panchali as it tracks the daily routines, setbacks, and victories of life in a rural village while also taking time to pause and absorb the lyrical beauty of the nature surrounding them. Issues of finance are a constant, as Sarbojaya struggles to keep everyone in the family fed (food being the primary signifier of wealth here) while Harihar eeks out a living, sometimes travelling for months at a time to find work. There are tensions between the family and some of the other villagers, including the wealthy landowner who accuses Durga of stealing fruit from her orchard, conveniently ignoring the fact that the orchard once belonged to the Ray family.

Pather Panchali is not a film of explicit social critique, but it is always there in the subtext, especially in the way Ray frames the world of rural poverty and the desperation many of its characters feel in both staying alive and maintaining some sense of dignity (for this reason I cannot fathom how anyone could accuse Ray of “romanticizing” poverty). Apu, whose growth into a man was depicted in two subsequent films, Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), is largely an observer here: a bright, wide-eyed, largely silent little boy who displays a devious sense of humor and streak of independence that is bested only by Durga, who seems to have an intuitive understanding of her status as an outsider and exploits it by refusing to adhere to others’ rules.

Like the so-called “children’s films” of Yasujiro Ozu (particularly 1959’s Good Morning), Pather Panchali uses the world of children to view the adult world from one remove, thus allowing us to better recognize its various failings and hypocrisies. The only adult character who remains resolutely steadfast and largely blameless is Indir. Her status as a “cripple” who is unable to contribute to conventional adult life effectively isolates her with the children, which is why she is so predisposed to taking their side in disputes with their parents. Sarbojaya can be downright cruel at times, especially in her treatment of Indir, while Harihar is a distracted dreamer whose focus on his own actualization as a scholar and writer often come at his family’s expense. There are also numerous secondary characters in the village, including the landowner and the abusive schoolteacher/grocer, who represent various moral failings.

However, the critical aspect of Pather Panchali regularly takes a backseat to the film’s simple charms, which seem so effortless that it is difficult to believe that Ray was making his directorial debut. He had spent significant time planning the film, and there were numerous setbacks and delays during production due to financial constraints. At one point he had to hawk his wife’s jewelry to pay for a few more days of shooting, and he eventually had to pause production for almost a year when they ran out of money, a problem that was eventually solved when the West Bengal state government funded the film’s completion as a “community development project.”

Shot in a stark black and white with compositions and camera movements that are elegant and unassuming, Pather Panchali easily stands with the best of the Italian neorealist films that inspired it. The film has a heartfelt quality that emerges from Ray’s humanistic treatment of his characters, warts and all. As Pauline Kael wrote, “I think that Ray, like Kurosawa, is one of the great new film masters, and that his simplicity is a simplicity arrived at, achieved, a master’s distillation of experience.” For Kael, Ray’s art was “art which seeks to illuminate experience and help us feel.” Thus, Pather Panchali is simple, but not a simplistic, and it is hardly a romanticized paean to childhood, although there are moments of great beauty that remind us how wonderful the world can be when it is stripped of the weight of social responsibility. Ray handles the moments of beauty and moments of tragedy with a deft touch. The specter of death is always haunting the edges of the frame, and it makes it presence known twice in the film. Ray stages grief and tragedy with great emotional power, never so much as when one character learns of another character’s death at a moment of personal elation and pride, thus bringing into direct conflict the film’s careful, lyrical balance between the joyful and the tragic.

Pather Panchali Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Apu Trilogy Criterion Collection Box SetPather Panchali is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s “The Apu Trilogy” boxset, which also includes Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). It is available on both Blu-ray (SRP $99.95) and DVD (SRP $99.95).
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • Bengali Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio recordings from 1958 of director Satyajit Ray reading his essay “A Long Time on the Little Road” and in conversation with film historian Gideon Bachmann
  • Video interviews with actor Soumitra Chatterjee
  • Video interview with actor Shampa Srivastava
  • Video interview with actor Sharmila Tagore
  • Video interview with camera assistant Soumendu Roy
  • Video interview with film writer Ujjal Chakraborty
  • “Making The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray’s Epic Debut,” a new video essay by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson
  • The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look,” a new program featuring filmmaker, producer, and teacher Mamoun Hassan
  • Excerpts from the 2003 documentary The Song of the Little Road, featuring composer Ravi Shankar
  • The Creative Person: “Satyajit Ray,” a 1967 half-hour documentary by James Beveridge, featuring interviews with Ray, several of his actors, members of his creative team, and film critic Chidananda Das Gupta
  • Footage of Ray receiving an honorary Oscar in 1992
  • New programs on the restorations by filmmaker :: kogonada
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu, as well as a selection of Ray’s storyboards for Pather Panchali
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$99.95 (boxset)
    Release DateNovember 17, 2015

    VIDEO
    In her 1967 essay “Movies on Television,” which happened to be her debut essay in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael lamented how the availability of movies on television, with its low resolution and tiny screens, was diminishing the movie past. She noted how, on television, certain movies lose “much of what made them worth looking at,” a specific example of which was “the lyricism of Satyajit Ray.” Well, if Kael had lived long enough to see Criterion’s new 4K digital restorations of “The Apu Trilogy,” which was undertaken in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, she might retract her statement since every nuance of Ray’s lyricism in these beautiful films is fully preserved in these 1080p transfers.

    The restoration of the three Apu films has been a massive endeavor years in the making. Back in 1993, the original camera negatives for all three films were sent to an archive in London where restoration was to begin. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the archive and all three films suffered serious fire damage, with Apur Sansar being completely destroyed. When Criterion initiated the restoration of the films, they started with the burned remnants of the negatives, which the restoration experts at L’Immagine Ritrovata were able to salvage by rehydrating the celluloid and physically repairing by elements that could be salvaged by hand. In the end, after hundreds of hours of manual labor, 40% of Pather Panchali’s negative and 60% of Aparajito’s negative could be used for wet-gate scanning. The damaged portions were replaced after an exhaustive search of the world’s archives turned up high-quality fine-grain masters and duplicate negatives. In the case of Apur Sansar, the entire film was scanned from a fine-grain master and a duplicate negative.

    Criterion’s Blu-rays present the three films in new 4K scans from the restored elements, which were then given additional digital restoration over an 8-month period to remove dirt, damage, and audio artifacts. Given that these films were almost lost completely, it is pretty much miraculous how good they look, with a consistency of presentation that erases any evidence of how pieced-together they really are. Granted, they don’t look perfect, and to expect perfection is simply obtuse. Most signs of age and wear have been removed, although there are still the occasional hairlines and a few shots with significant scratching. The images are beautifully rendered in terms of contrast and grayscale, with outstanding detail that will amaze those who have become accustomed to seeing the films in low-resolution transfers from old, worn elements (comparisons to the previously available DVDs doesn’t even seem fair). The sound has been cleaned up substantially, even though there is a slight auditory hiss, especially in Pather Panchali, though it is hardly distracting. Each film in the trilogy improves in terms of technical quality, as Ray worked with increasingly bigger budgets and from a position of greater experience, but they all look fantastic, especially when you know all that they have been through.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    Given the monumental nature of this release, it is not surprising that Criterion went all out in terms of the supplements, loading up the three-disc box-set with several hours of material that contextualize the films historically, culturally, and aesthetically. Ray, who passed away in 1992, is present in several supplements. There is an audio recording from 1958 of him reading his essay “A Long Time on the Little Road,” which documents the production of Pather Panchali, and a recording of him in conversation with film historian Gideon Bachmann. Ray also appears in a 1967 episode of the PBS half-hour documentary series The Creative Person by documentarian James Beveridge, who traveled to Calcutta to interview Ray, several of his actors, members of his creative team, and film critic Chidananda Das Gupta. We also get footage of him receiving the honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992, just a few weeks before he died (he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony, so he appeared via video from his hospital bed). There are also several new video interviews with his collaborators, including actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Shampa Srivastava, and Sharmila Tagore and camera assistant Soumendu Roy, as well as excerpts from the 2003 documentary The Song of the Little Road that feature composer Ravi Shankar, who scored all three films. For a critical and historical look at the films, we have a new interview with film writer Ujjal Chakraborty; “Making The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray’s Epic Debut,” a new video essay by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson; and “The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look,” a new program featuring filmmaker, producer, and teacher Mamoun Hassan. Finally, there is a new program on the restoration of the three films by filmmaker :: kogonada (included is both a short version, used to promote the trilogy’s theatrical release in 2015, and a longer version exclusive to the Criterion box-set), and a thick insert booklet featuring essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu, as well as a selection of Ray’s storyboards for Pather Panchali.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)




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