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PATHER PANCHALI

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Kanu Banerji, Karuna Banerji, Subir Banerji, Uma Das Gupta, Chunibala Devi
Director: Satyajit Ray
Audio: Bengali mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Columbia Tri-Star
Features: None
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2003

"I had dreams, too, about all the things that I would do."

Film ****

In the annals of film history, exceedingly few feature-film directorial debuts can be unequivocally declared as instant classics.  Even the finest directors frequently require several films under their belt before delivering their first truly great film.  Only a few examples, such as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, or Terrence Malick's Badlands, can be numbered among the rare directorial debut masterpieces.  Any such exclusive list, however, would not be complete without Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali.

Once the premier Indian director, Satyajit Ray is largely forgotten today.  Film students may beg to differ, but Ray is nevertheless virtual unknown to nearly all Western film audiences.  Part of the problem may be that over the course of his thirty-plus year career, he rarely ventured outside the Bengali language, and he often preferred to focus upon themes of cultural or regional interest.  Beyond his native India, Ray's films were not widely seen.  Nonetheless, over the intervening years, enough of his films have been viewed outside of India by movie critics and aspiring directors alike such that he is now generally acknowledged as one of the best and most humanistic directors ever produced from the Eastern hemisphere.

Satyajit Ray did not initially start out in the film industry.  In his early years, Ray worked as an art designer and illustrator for a British advertising firm in Calcutta.  It was during this period that he first came across Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), an autobiographical novel, written by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, about his life in Bengali society.  The story was to leave an indelible impression upon the young Ray.

A few years later, while on a business trip to London, Ray had an opportunity to view Vittorio De Sica's classic The Bicycle Thief.  Inspired by this neorealist film, Ray decided then to direct a film of his own, and following the neorealist model, he would also shoot it on location with non-professional actors.  Ray chose for the subject of his film none other than Pather Panchali, the novel which had so affected him earlier.

Pather Panchali was Satyajit Ray's first earnest attempt at directing, although he had been an avid film buff for years.  To finance the project, Ray sold all his worldly possessions and used the entirety of his regular salary as well.  With the assistance of friends, he gradually shot the film over weekends and holidays.  When Ray ran out of money, he even pawned his wife's jewelry.  When those funds eventually dried up as well, Ray found a savior in the West Bengal government, which loaned him the additional funds necessary to complete his film.

By 1955, Satyajit Ray had finished Pather Panchali, which received its premiere at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.  Hailed immediately as a triumph, Pather Panchali became the first internationally successful Indian film, introducing world audiences to films from India, much as Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon had introduced the world to Japanese cinema several years earlier. 

Even today, nearly a half century after its premiere, Pather Panchali remains a remarkable film.  Filled with exquisite scenes of simplicity and natural beauty, it creates a painterly tapestry of daily existence in a Bengali village.  The story offers a gentle mosaic of domestic scenes in the life of a young boy named Apu, following the hopes and tragedies of his impoverished Brahmin family.  The head of the household is Apu's father, a farmer's aide who has aspirations of someday becoming a successful poet and playwright.  His meander wages are barely enough to support his family.  While the father still dreams of an optimistic future, his mischievous young daughter, Durga, roams the woods and meadows of their countryside home.  She is a free spirit, seeing the world almost as a large playground to explore.  An old, wizened aunt also lives with the family.  Played by Chunibala Devi (a veteran stage actress in her 80's and the only professional member of the cast), she appears so fragile and slow-moving that a light breeze might well topple her.  The aunt encourages Durga's wild ways, much to the dismay of Durga's mother, who is left the only one to face the reality of the family's poverty.  She worries about finances or repairs for the home, clothing and food for the children, even the family's reputation amongst the closely-knit community.  Her actions at times seem harsh, belying her loneliness (her husband is frequently absent from home for months on end) and frustration at a life of personal, unfulfilled aspirations.  In a way, the mother is the central, tragic character of the film, perhaps the woman that her carefree daughter may one day become.

For the most part, though, the film focuses upon the life of this Bengali family as seen through a child's perspective.  Pather Panchali begins just prior to Apu's birth, so initially, that child is Durga.  Soon after Apu's birth, the experiences of both Durga and Apu provide the drama for the film as the children explore their vast world in wide-eyed innocence.  In Apu's home and village, life is a seemingly mundane parade of slow days, only occasionally punctuated by a community event, such as a local play sponsored by the village elders or the arranged marriage of a young girl.  Otherwise, the children play in the woods and the meadows of their home, perhaps wandering a vast field to follow the distant wail of a train whistle or perhaps tracing the footfalls of a traveling candy merchant in hopes of a free taste of his treats.

That is really all there is to the film's simple plot.  It follows the days from Apu's birth until the family's eventual relocation to the city of Benares, offering many glimpses into the minutiae of traditional Bengali village life.  Interspersed with these scenes of everyday life are often images of the surrounding natural world.  Pather Panchali is at times amusing, at times sad, but it is always a wonder to behold.  Lovingly photographed, the film's images alternate between pensive close-ups of the characters to beautiful shots of the unspoiled scenery, from the dance of water bugs amongst the water lilies of a pond, to the gently waving grasses of the vast open fields, to the deluging rains of an approaching monsoon.  Often, these images will linger with the haunting, native score by Ravi Shankar drifting in the background.  The tone is at once poetic and enthralling, with minimal dialogue to disrupt the enchantment.

Pather Panchali concludes on a somewhat poignant note, although its story is only a small portion of the autobiographical novel upon which the film is based.  On two occasions in the prevailing years, Ray would return to the novel to adapt further chapters for the cinema.  The first was Aparajito (1956), covering Apu's years in schooling in Benares.  This was followed by 1959's The World of Apu, chronicling Apu's marriage and the birth of his own son, thereby completing Apu's transformation of childhood into fatherhood.  Collectively, these films comprise what has become known as the "Apu" Trilogy, arguably among the finest films ever to arise from India.  In fact, Pather Panchali was recently named by Sight & Sound Magazine as one of the greatest films ever made, a truly remarkable honor for the first film by an inexperienced director!

Very near the end of his life, Satyajit Ray would receive an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar as well.  It was presented to him by Audrey Hepburn during the Academy Awards ceremony in 1992.  In his charming acceptance speech (delivered across the globe from Calcutta), Ray summed up the entirety of his previous Hollywood experience in the following words:

"As a small schoolboy, I was terribly interested in cinema, became a film buff, wrote to Deanna Durbin, got a reply, was delighted.  Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn't get a reply.  Then I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn't reply either.  Well, there you are."

Video **

This is always such a painful category for silent films or old, international films.

Pather Panchali is presented in its original black & white, full-screen (1.33:1) format.  Regrettably, Columbia-Tristar has made a less-than-stellar effort at restoring this classic film.  To be frank, the condition of this print is not very good.  It appears very old and is heavily worn, a fact not aided by the typically poor preservation of films in India at the time of Pather Panchali's release.  The picture is undermined by water stains, scratches, cuts, and a plethora of dust and debris.  The frame also occasionally wobbles.  Although the transfer itself is generally decent, it does struggle from time to time with the numerous scenes of overwhelmingly detailed foliage and flora.

The good news is - the image is bright and contrast levels are pleasantly sharp.  The picture quality does improve further into the film.  Subtitles are large, and printed white-on-black, rendering them easily legible.  The bad news is - the subtitles are burned right onto the film itself, so they cannot be turned off.  Since most people do not understand Bengali, this is not necessarily bad, but nevertheless it does represent some laziness on Columbia Tri-Star's part.

Overall, this is probably about the best that one may hope for Pather Panchali.  Perhaps someday, this classic film will receive a proper restoration effort, but until then, this DVD offers the most accessible introduction to this fine classic film.

Audio * 1/2

Satyajit Ray made most of his films in the Bengali dialect, including Pather Panchali.  The audio track is monophonic, with an audio quality that is generally thin with a narrow dynamic range.  There is also a significant amount of background hiss and pops on the audio track.  In general, this film sounds quite old, probably a reflection of the primitive recording state of the Indian cinema at the time.

One bright point, however, is the musical score by Ravi Shankar.  It uses authentic native instruments to complement the gentle tone of the story, and in that regard, is probably one of the finer marriages of sight and sound on celluloid.  A great deal of the poetic beauty of the film is derived from the lilting, Indian music that accompanies Ray's many scenes of Bengali village life.

Features (zero stars)

While I am thrilled that this wonderful film has finally arrived on DVD, I am disappointed that the DVD does not include any extra features.  I understand that the market for this film is probably very small, but at the very least, the DVD could have included a trailer for the film as well as for Aparajito or The World of Apu.  Even a Satyajit Ray filmography would have been nice!

Summary:

Pather Panchali is one of the brightest gems of world cinema and also one of cinema's finest directorial debuts.  Satyajit Ray would create many memorable films over his subsequent career, but he achieved his greatest artistic triumph in the "Apu" Trilogy, of which Pather Panchali was the first film.  This Columbia-Tristar DVD showcases a worn-looking print, but nevertheless, for viewers interested in international cinema, this film is very highly recommended!