Review by Ed Nguyen
Kanu Banerji, Karuna Banerji, Subir Banerji, Uma Das Gupta, Chunibala Devi
Director: Satyajit Ray
Audio: Bengali mono
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Columbia Tri-Star
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2003
had dreams, too, about all the things that I would do."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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."
is always such a painful category for silent films or old, international films.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!