• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:July 11, 2021

Pather Panchali: The Rural Roys

patherpanchali“Pather Panchali”, written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, was first published in India in 1928 as a serial, the following year as a novel. 14 years later, Satyajit Ray was working as an illustrator and the novel became one of his projects. Apparently, Ray was smitten enough to contemplate a future for it as a movie and himself as a filmmaker. His first attempt came in the late 1940s, as his country gained independence and was split into two new nations, India and Pakistan.

A few years later, he finally obtained permission from the author’s widow to film the novel. However, this movie, widely regarded as one of the great classics, came close to never being finished.

The story takes place in rural Bengal in the 1920s. We are introduced to the Roys, a poor family in a small village. Dad Harihar (Kanu Banerji) finds it very hard to earn a living there and begins to look elsewhere for work, which means that he’ll have to leave his family for periods. Mom Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerji) does the heavy lifting at home, providing not only for two children, Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and Apu (Subir Banerji), but also for Indir (Chunibala Devi), an old aunt. The relationship between Sarbajaya and Indir is not good, especially as the old woman encourages Durga to keep stealing fruit from a neighbor. Life for Apu and his sister has its moments though; naturally, there’s sibling rivalry, but they have lots of fun together as well.

Inspired by Neorealism
This may all sound very idyllic, and there’s some sense of nostalgia in how the children are portrayed, but make no mistake ā€“ both the novel and Ray’s film make sure that we understand the plight of the poor. The family’s problems are addressed from all angles and it forms a whole ā€“ minor issues, like a girl stealing fruit, and major ones, like a man failing to support his family financially and dreaming of a different life.

The director was inspired by Italian Neorealism and Bicycle Thieves (1948) above all, a film that grippingly portrays the relationship between a poor man and his young son. Ray also chose to film his story in natural settings, working hard to create a feeling of genuineness. However, there was never a budget to begin with and eventually the project ran into such financial difficulties that the government of West Bengal had to intervene and grant Ray a loan, mistakenly believing that the director was making a positive documentary. Thankfully, John Huston had an opportunity to see what the freshman filmmaker had done and provided further means to finish Ray’s work. A degree of patience is needed at first as the director introduces us to the family; much of it has an episodic feel. But we’re soon fully involved in their lives, enjoying the beauty and dangers of the Bengal landscape as captured by cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and suffering with the people in their darkest hours.

Strong performances, especially by Karuna Banerji as the mother; Subir Banerji is such a charmer as young Apu. Ravi Shankar’s music is easily accessible to Western audiences years before The Beatles helped turn him into a worldwide celebrity.

Satyajit Ray’s first film is peaceful and moving. An art-house hit in the 1950s, Pather Panchali still had its critics. Perhaps the toughest of them, FranƧois Truffaut, reportedly had this to say: “I donā€™t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands”. Well, in all honesty, that may be one’s initial impression. But if that doesn’t change over the course of the film, it’s possible that you may not have a heart.

Pather PanchaliĀ 1955-India. 112 min. B/W.Ā Written and directed byĀ Satyajit Ray.Ā Novel:Ā Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.Ā Cinematography:Ā Subrata Mitra.Ā Music:Ā Ravi Shankar.Ā Cast:Ā Kanu Banerji (Harihar Roy), Karuna Banerji (Sarbajaya Roy), Subir Banerji (Apurba “Apu” Roy), Uma Das Gupta (Durga Roy), Runki Banerji, Chunibala Devi.

Trivia:Ā Followed by two sequels, starting with Aparajito (1956).

Last word: “I certainly discovered rural life while making ‘Pather Panchali’. There’s no question of that. I’d been city-born, city-bred, so I didn’t know the village firsthand. While hunting locations in rural areas, and, after finding the village and spending some time there, I began to understand. Talking to people, reacting to moods, to the landscape, to the sights and sounds ā€“ all this helped. But it’s not just people who have been brought up in villages who can make films about village life. An outside view is also able to penetrate.” (Ray, Cineaste Magazine)

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