Pather Panchali (1950)

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First time with Satyajit Ray.

Though this is the beginning of the fabled Apu Trilogy, PP is really the story of three women. Sarbajaya’s life is dominated by routine activity – I wrote this about La Terra Trema:

Recalled Philip Fisher’s use of the term “manual” in ‘The Failure of Habit’: ie. “that part of any realistic novel or memoir independent of the line of action, suspense, and adventure, that part that documents how lives are lived as a means to celebrate or denounce styles of life.” Associates habit (repetition, behaviour) with ‘manual’ production, but in LTT the town’s habits both force Antonio’s hand and suppress his neighbours: the distinction is thus obliterated

S’s labours provide the structural “manual” imagery that grounds Ray’s realism. But she also exists at the emotional centre of PP. She is like Atlas holding the world of the family together; the pressure of her daughter Durga’s irrepressible thievery and her elderly cousin Indir’s mischievous encouragement weigh down on her shoulders as their actions are attributed to her failure to maintain a proper home. There is a LTT showdown in her yard, with accusatory neighbours scattering her daughter’s possessions, red with accusations; this point creates a fundamental split as she wordlessly punishes D but only after defending her publicly. One of the most touching scenes is a dusky soliloquy where S recalls her unrealised dreams, persuasively asserts that her kind-hearted but naïve husband Harihar cannot, on some level, comprehend her stress and fear.

I steals the first half of PP for me. She is an amazing shape, bent and bowed like an ancient tree. She’s cast out again and again by her cousin, chucking kittens around on departure, first returning for the birth of Apu, united in shot with D. Her death connects her to D too, and also to S. There is a haunting thread of images that connects S’s wistful soliloquy, I singing about death outside under the night sky, S quiet on the same step as someone somewhere sings the same song after I has expired in the forest. On her last visit she is again denied a bed; simply requesting water, she gives most of it to an old plant near her habitual seat. Her roots are immovable.

D is where we begin. She is generous and inquisitive (love the shot from inside the pot as she reaches in); she usually occupies the films most intimate moments, as when she shares secret food with Apu, or during the turmoil of her fever. This is gripping: the wind howls outside like a wolf at the door, fluttering makeshift curtains and slamming windows; S keeps wary watch as if D were a sacred flame (there is a candle that flickers and moves beneath a rocking statuette of Ganesh). Her death sprawls across the film’s most powerful scenes: a monsoon heralded by quiet drums and D praying for maturity; chanting under leafy cover with A, asking the rain to leave; the deathbed; H’s return with gifts that culminate in an unbearable truth.

Apu is not at the centre but at the fringes. His round, glowing eyes take everything in like an infant (as a child he is introduced in the morning through just his eye under a blanket). We see him watching drama, music, children playing. We see his imagination in a mirror. We race behind him to catch up with a train that disappears into the countryside.

There is almost always a warmth to PP that does raise the question of poverty and happiness. Some have complained that Ray romanticises hardship. We feel sympathy for every single character at some point, but the almost irredeemable neighbour’s confession gives a clue: “Staying in one place makes you mean; it’s done that to me.” The beauty of the film is in the family’s ability to find happiness not inside but in spite of their condition – fundamentally it celebrates only childhood, while it examines what happens to childhood as a constituent part of us as we grow older.

You have to watch films like this every now and again. PP is a glowing world with a score by Ravi Shankar like a tumbling stream or a breathless sprint through a field, but it also has an unabashed sentimentality which is infused, as by Ray’s heroes, into scenes of documentary realism. They should keep a few copies of this in a nuclear bunker somewhere, or ship it out into space on a probe.

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