PATHER PANCHALI directed by Satyajit Ray (India, 1955)

Satyajit Ray‘s remarkable debut, based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, is set in the 1920s but doesn’t have the feel of being a historical film.

Poverty has such a levelling quality that it doesn’t follow the dictates of fashion and tends to have similar characteristics in any era. Daily life is determined by preoccupations of where the next meal is coming from and about how to afford other necessities like clothing and essential household repairs.

This is the main focus of Ray’s humane and moving film as we follow the fading fortunes of a husband, wife, two young children and an ageing aunt. Although the English title is ‘Song Of The Little Road‘, the only travel sequence is near the very end, the rest of the film is centred on a tiny village of Nischindipur in Bengal.

If this had been made in Hollywood, or Bollywood for that matter, the producers would have insisted on the presentation of these lives as being on a journey and finding resources to overcome their hardships. Ray refuses to take this easy option.

He was partly inspired by lyricism of Italian Neo-realism  where the essence is on creating a poetic tension, rather than on seeking some reassuring, yet ultimately false, optimism.

Pather Panchali  is the first, and most highly regarded, of The Apu Trilogy, which follows the life of the couple’s youngest son.

satyajit-ray-headerWe see the mother desperately trying to keep a sense of dignity yet being regarded as a bad parent for not having greater control over her daughter, Durga. We first encounter this young girl as she is stealing fruit from the neighbouring garden, an act motivated by need rather than rebellion.

Meanwhile, the husband clings to a pipe dream of making money by writing plays or stories and struggles to make an income by other means. His lengthy absence, as he leaves to seek employment elsewhere, means that the family’s plight goes from bad to worse. Despite this, there is still some humour, mainly from the cunning and unconventional old Aunt who has no qualms about accepting and enjoying the stolen fruit.

The home is impoverished and close to collapse but it is surrounded by a natural ‘playground’ of real beauty. The scenes of the children exploring the woods, fields and streams are the most magical. Ravi Shankar’s evocative music is another of the film’s strengths but Ray knew when to let the sounds of their surroundings take precedence.

This is evident in a breathtaking scene when the two children get their first glimpse of a train, something they have heard about but never witnessed. The comments on You Tube rightly praise this for the poignant grace with which the sequence unfolds and one includes the quote  “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” , a piece of wisdom of  unknown origin that some attribute to Kurt Vonnegut.  Whoever said it, it does seem particularly apt thought with regard to the childhood experience we see here: