Pather Panchali (1955), dir. Satyajit Ray, starring Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Chunibala Devi
For the most part, I’m allergic to kids–never gotten along with them in real life and don’t always enjoy watching them onscreen. Instead of playing with kids, I fight with them: I made my nephew cry because I refused to stay dead (I was a zombie) and said he’ll never win because I never die. On movie screens, as much as I enjoy The 400 Blows, a big big part of me wants to smack Antoine across the face. L’Enfance Nue has an even more exhausting child. But when I saw Pather Panchali, it was a quiet revelation. Against all my instincts, there’s something lovable, endearing, and innocent about Apu that translates onscreen the way Antoine or Francois doesn’t. Sure, like any other kid, Apu can be disobedient and tiresome–his mother’s face is the dictionary definition of weary. But this movie is uniquely its own thing. It conjures precious memories of my childhood summers spent in the province of Bohol.
Every summer, since I was 3, I remember spending time in Bohol with our household helpers when they go on vacation. I remember taking a ship that leaves from Manila Bay, docks in Cebu before heading to Tagbilaran. From there, we would take a jeepney to Panglao, a small town that is now a popular tourist site. Back in the 1990s, it was barely electrified. Life there was simple. There weren’t asphalt grounds, no cement houses–everyone lived in nipa huts. Yet it was still full of simple joys. I remember watching a kid climb a coconut tree that must have been 25 or 30 feet tall with his bare hands; I remember playing with kids on the beach and stepping on one of those spiky sea urchin that hurt like hell; I remember having to take a flashlight to go use the outside toilet. I remember sleeping under a mosquito net with someone fanning me. It was a simple and romantic time.
Pather Panchali opens to its famous sitar-based score by Ravi Shankar, known to many as the guy who popularized sitar music in the 60s and 70s, but to me he’s famous for being Norah Jones’ father. It’s an innocent tune that opens one of cinema’s greatest movies made by one of its most important figures–Satyajit Ray. The movie is as far as it gets from the Hollywood glamour and cardboard cutout sets. It’s even further away than the Italian realist cinema of Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. It’s set in the developing world of India, in the rural areas of Bengal, made just a decade after India’s independence. The fact that it got made is already a feat of tremendous effort. Satyajit Ray was never a trained director and learned by watching films. He spent years trying to make this movie. That this is his debut feature is astonishing.
But even without knowing all that backdrop, the movie is something to behold. Apu is the son of a priest who lives off of his meager salary while dreaming of being a playwright. His elderly cousin Indir (a fabulous face made for cinema) lives with Apu’s family being a constant pain in the ass to Sarbajaya, Apu’s mom. Apu has an older sister Durga, who cares for him affectionately. The movie revolves around Apu, but it’s filled with vivid characters, such as the elderly Indir, who reminds me of elderly women in the provinces of the Philippines who have long overstayed their welcome. Apu’s mother is a preoccupied and busy lady who frequently spars with Indir, like a daughter-in-law tired of her meddlesome husband’s mother. The camera observes this family with such tenderness as they weather the seasons of their life. Throughout the movie, we encounter simple joys such as witnessing a train roll by or a visiting play, and also terrible sadness, care of bitter poverty and death.
One of the awards that Pather Panchali won is “Best Human Document” from Cannes, something quite condescending of course coming from a Western institution. But if I took that award literally, Pather Panchali certainly deserves it. Scene after scene is brimming with pleasure. The set is littered with cats, surrounded by overgrown grass or trees, and a stone house that’s somewhat falling apart. There’s always kids in and out of the house, sharing simple joys like making a meal together, or chewing on a sugarcane. I love, LOVE seeing people eat–and it’s something you see often in the movie. You can feel the life in the movie and the humility of people who live in it. It’s also a gorgeous movie–full of very expressive shots of the house and setting and the people who live in it. Whether sun-dappled, or indoors with minimal lighting, Ray and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra come up with some of the most gorgeous still frames I’ve seen. This is what I love about the movie–there’s nothing condescending about it–it’s just simple observation. People living full lives even amidst the daily struggles that greet them. Having seen that life myself, what Pather Panchali captures on film is remarkably accurate.
Pather Panchali is a world treasure–one that needs to be seen by everyone. It’s not cuddly like your average family film, and it knows how to really break your heart. To this day, I’m still haunted by Indir’s very sad song that serves to comfort her. It’s testament to Satyajit Ray’s prodigious talent that a movie about daily life in rural India can bring such tremendous joy with its humble style and unassuming characters. I guess it makes sense that this movie endears itself to me–I saw my little self as Apu running around and playing with kids in Bohol, or teasing my sister and rummaging through her stuff. It’s a delicate and simple movie, but like a distant memory, it’s beautiful and warm.