Pather Panchali inaugurates Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy. This first installment introduces us to Apu, an innocent, sensitive Bengali boy born into a poor family, who, not long into his young life, must deal with issues of death, grief, dislocation, yearning and heartbreak. As the trilogy goes, it builds in narrative power. Pather Panchali is concerned mainly with the travails of Apu’s family, in particular his relationship with his sister, Durga — pretty, resourceful, and who slowly climbs out of her tomboy shell and comes of age in the course of the story. The second installment of the trilogy, Aparajito portrays Apu’s budding adolescence, and his curiosity about the wide world as it conflicts head-on with his duties to his mother and family after the death of his father. The most emotionally magisterial of the three, The World of Apu shows Ray in a form so sublime few in the history of cinema have ever equalled it. I’ll talk more about it separately, in the World of Apu section.
I’m glad I took in a recent screening of Pather Panchali at L.A.’s American Cinematheque, because it re-confirmed to me what a genius Ray was. I recall watching Panchali on tape (after I’d seen a 16mm print in college), and thinking it was somewhat slow and unfocused. But, as is so often the case in experiencing Ray’s movies, the problem is one of immersion and resistance: If you’re not going to allow yourself to flow along to his cinema’s gentle but majestic currents, you’ll be left dead in the water or twiddling your thumbs on the shore. Thankfully, I gave myself in this time.
First time out of the gate, the then-novice filmmaker Ray already wields a sure and steady directorial hand. The performances are at once naturalistic, in the Neo-realist vein, and stylized in that Soviet-Eisenstein way. Ray’s imagery, as photographed by Subrata Mitra, has a pure poetic beauty whose rhythms he modulates precisely. He paces his sequences out slowly and surely, then ramps up their emotional wattage, using sound, music and composition in raw, genuine, expressive ways. Ravi Shankar’s music score throughout the trilogy is sweet, simple, and devastating.
There is no room in Ray’s cinema, especially this trilogy, for flashy razzle-dazzle or twists of irony. His concerns are humanist and his art transcends both the medium and even the moment in which you’re experiencing it. The effect of his work goes deeper and stays with you for a lifetime. It’s something to go back to, nourish yourself with every now and then in your life.
There is a faith in the art form here, a pure, loving, embracing faith that really restores my own faith in movies. Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, they all made great movies. But none of them made movies quite like Ray. Unfortunately, due to weaker distribution links in the West, he does not share their awesome reputation here in America. The Apu movies are small, exquisite gems whose emotional power will knock you out and haunt you long after you’ve seen them. That no other filmmaker has ever achieved anything of their power is testament enough to Ray’s quiet greatness.
Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Written by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Runki Banerjee