This 1955 Bengali film is deceptively simple. There’s a plot, but the plot doesn’t really feel like the point – the point is the simplicity and the realism with which director Satyajit Ray tells his story; every detail is simple, but somehow feels exactly right.
Set in rural Bengal, India, Pather Panchali covers a few years in the life of a poor family; father Harihar (Kanu Banjeree) is an aspiring playwright scratching out a living as a sort of itinerant priest or scribe while mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banjeree – no relation) struggles to keep their dilapidated house going, taking care of their two children daughter Durga and son Apu (Uma Dasgupta and Subir Banjeree, respectively, and Subir is also no relation). Rounding out the household is Indir (Chunibala Devi), an impossibly old cousin of Harihar’s who bugs the snot out of Sarbajaya but charms the kids.
A lot of the film’s action deals with the difference between the kids’ lives and their parents’. Not by calling attention to it, though – more like just….showing it. Sarbajaya is perpetually ground down by the family’s poverty – urging Harihar to please consider taking the family somewhere else where he could find more work, endlessly repairing the house, getting into huge squabbles with Indir when she steals food from Sarbajaya’s kitchen, holding her own against the rich neighbor who implies daughter Durga is a thief. Meanwhile, Durga and Apu are just…being kids. Bugging Dad for money for candy even though Mom said no, sneaking out without doing chores, listening to Indir’s ghost stories, having heated sibling battles when Apu sneaks into Durga’s things, going on hikes to see the train run through the cowfield. Both storylines do come together towards the end, when Harihar is following up on a distant job lead and Durga falls ill, leaving Sarbajaya struggling to take care of her in a crumbling house and with no money.
I’m fretting that I’ve made the film sound simplistic, because it isn’t. Its focus is just on the smaller incidental moments that make up life; lavishing attention on the little details without trying to tie them up neatly. We don’t need to have it spelled out for us that Durga is starting to be aware of the family’s poverty; we just need to linger on the wistful look she gets when she and her other girlfriends are gossiping about one of them getting engaged and talking about her dowry. We don’t need to have Sarbajaya’s love for her kids spelled out; we just see her nagging Apu to get his butt out of bed and get ready for school, but then beaming proudly as Durga helps him brush his hair. Some of the scenes in Pather Panchali aren’t even about the family at all; there’s a sequence towards the end of the film, just before a monsoon, where we watch a group of water bugs flitting across the surface of a nearby pond and occasionally getting pestered by a lurking fish, until we realize some of the dimples in the water are from raindrops. It feels more like a collection of impressions that you only realize make up a full story at the end, or if you stand back and squint.
It’s clear that Satyajit Ray was inspired by the French filmmaker Jean Renoir. In fact, Renoir gave the novice Ray a bit of a pep talk early on; Renoir was in India in 1949 on a location-scouting trip for one of his own films, with Ray serving as his tour guide. As they traveled, Ray talked shop with Renoir, showing him the novel upon which this film is based. Ray was also inspired by the Italian neo-Realists, in particular Bicycle Thieves; Ray’s biggest concern was finding the budget for a more mainstream production, so he was captivated when he saw it was possible to cast non-actors and film on location. The “indie” realism of Pather Panchali makes it one of the earliest examples of the “Parallel Cinema” movement in Indian filmmaking; unlike most mainstream “Bollywood” films, which were lavish affairs tending towards melodrama and with plenty of dance sequences, the Parallel Cinema films were quieter and focused on more serious and often sociopolitical content. But even here, Ray doesn’t club us over the head with the poverty underscoring Pather Panchali. It too is just sort of there, one of the elements that you see if you stand back and squint. Ever-present, but….sometimes fading into the background, because even if you’re poor you can sit for a second and listen to the song Indir is singing to your kids and watch the sun dapple the ground in your yard.