VOD film review: Pather Panchali
Ravi Shankar’s invigorating score10
Katherine McLaughlin | On 13, Jul 2021
Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Chunibala Devi
Where to watch Pather Panchali online in the UK: Amazon Prime
The 1955 feature debut from Satyajit Ray was inspired by the neorealism of European cinema and acclaimed by Western critics for its lyrical depiction of rural life in 1920s India and its radical shift away from the popular mainstream cinema of the time in the country. It is the first film in the Apu Trilogy based on Bibhutibhusan Banerjee’s novels, which was originally a standalone film. Ray continued to chronicle the Bengali boy’s life after Pather Panchali’s international success. The epic coming-of-age drama somewhat divided audiences at its Cannes Film Festival premiere in 1956, but it had its vocal admirers and even scooped up two awards. It’s a film that takes its sweet time in documenting the natural world, poverty and family life, its potency only creeping up on you as it reaches a devastating conclusion.
The film begins even before Apu (Subir Banerjee) is born, when we’re introduced to Durga (Runki Banerjee as a child and Uma Das Gupta as a teen) who is sneakily snatching fruit from private land to feed her mischievous auntie Indir (Chunibala Devi). Durga’s mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) is aghast at her behaviour as the local, more well-off women openly shame the girl. Not long after this encounter, Sarbojaya and her husband Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) welcome a baby boy. The film shifts to a few years later where Apu is of school age, Durga is still rebellious and tensions between auntie and Sarbojaya are running high.
This gorgeous family portrait gives ample screen time to each character in order to convey their personal plights and pleasures. The actors inhabit their roles with convincing realism and Ray, along with regular collaborator and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, infuses barren and lush landscapes with captivating beauty. The tar shehnai, sitar and flute heavy score by Ravi Shankar heightens the melodramatic moments and injects joyful levity to the excitement of youthful discovery.
The sibling relationship between Durga and Apu is a delight to watch, as they taunt and protect one another to the ends of the earth. One of the most memorable sequences shows the two playing in seemingly endless glistening wheat fields, when a train (symbolic of a shift to modernism and a recurrent image in all 3 films) in the distance thrillingly enters the shot. You can tell from Apu’s animated eyes and movements that the promise of the future and urban life excites him. The parents are desperately trying to make ends meet, with unreliable employers sending dad to the city and away from the family home. There’s keen focus on Sarbojaya’s loneliness and frustrations at balancing the household’s food supply, while auntie’s arc offers a confronting reflection on how society treats the elderly.
Ray compellingly and tenderly displays each family member’s reaction to tragedy and changes in fortune, speaking to the cruelty and kindness of humanity with perceptive depth. It’s no wonder this enthralling trilogy is held in such high esteem.
Pather Panchali is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.