Blog Directory CineVerse: The vision of a master through the eyes of a child

The vision of a master through the eyes of a child

Monday, March 29, 2021

Directorial debuts can be hit or miss for aspiring filmmakers. But Satyajit Ray hit one out of the park in his first at-bat with Pather Panchali (1955), one of the most moving and well-crafted humanist statements in motion picture history—one that transcends any language and quickly established Ray as a creative giant of world cinema. The CineVerse faithful studied this masterwork in-depth last week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion), arriving at the following conclusions:

A few quick facts about the movie

  • The title is translated as “song of the little road.”
  • This was the first in the Apu trilogy, three films centered around the character of Apu and his family. Film #2 is Aparajito (1956), and the third installment is The World of Apu (1959).
  • This was director Satyajit Ray’s first movie; in fact, Ray had never directed anything before this, and he worked without a true screenplay.
  • The film was made on a bare-bones budget, the cameraman had never photographed a movie before this one, the composer/musical performer Ravi Shankar was not yet internationally known, the child actors had never been tested for their roles, and most of the cast were nonprofessional actors.
  • Despite these challenges, the film took the cinematic world by storm, garnering praise across the globe, winning awards, and putting India on the map as an artistic filmmaking force. It was the first Indian movie screened for Western viewers.
  • Before Pather Panchali, India had a prolific film industry, but most movies were musical romances and by-the-numbers populist entertainment; this was one of the first serious art films released in the country.
  • Before long, Ray was being compared to giants of world cinema like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini.

What’s unique, different, or memorable about Pather Panchali as a film?

  • It’s clearly influenced by Italian neorealism, which was characterized by movies often featuring inexperienced actors, shot in real locations instead of fabricated soundstages, and depicting the struggles and triumphs of common people. The filmmakers employed naturalistic lighting, extended takes, eye-level compositions, and other approaches to lend authenticity and realism to the movie.
  • Pather Panchali often looks and plays like a documentary film; the story is more an interconnected series of vignettes and slice-of-life moments instead of a traditional three-act plot.
  • The movie is imbued with lyrical qualities and features astounding visual poetry, including powerful images of nature, the community’s natural environment, and moments of silence that dramatically punctuate what the characters are experiencing.
  • Ray and his team play on universal themes that audiences from different cultures can relate to and take to heart, even though Westerners may be socioculturally dissociated from the way of life, practices, traditions, and milieu of the world these characters inhabit.
  • Does the film disappoint in any way due to its lack of plot, slow pacing, or long runtime?
  • Instead of focusing on a structured story, subplots, action, comedy, or romance, Pather Panchali is an intimate portrayal of a family facing challenges as well as the joys of juvenile discovery.
  • It strips away narrative convention and predictable plot devices to instead tell a simple tale – one adapted from a popular Bengali novel –which makes us identify with and care for this family all the more.

Important themes in the film

  • The circle of life, which can affect old and young alike. We witness the birth of Apu, the decline and death of his aunt Indir, and the growth and tragic death of his sister Durga. While there is a clear contrast between youth and old age, there is also an intrinsic kinship in how they appreciate simple pleasures and manage to smile and laugh, despite adversity.
  • Joy and sadness: Happiness can be found in even the most mundane of circumstances, and tragedy can occur when it’s least expected.
  • Being a witness to the wonder of the world. Interestingly, Apu as a young boy isn’t introduced to the movie until nearly halfway through. He serves as more of a peripheral observer, soaking in experiences and visions, until the very end of the story when he intervenes and hides evidence of his sister’s theft of the necklace, thus preserving her assumed innocence. His innate curiosity and sincere awe of the world around us reminds viewers of the innocence of childhood and the “epiphany of wonder,” a term used by some film scholars to describe this movie.
  • The impending transition from a less sophisticated Third World to a place of changing customs and revolutionary technology. The father remarks that, despite advice from the village elders to remain in their ancestral home, it’s time to move on after all the hardship his family has endured.
  • The universality of the human condition and human experience.
  • The power of nature and the inevitability of fate, which can be more potent than faith and God. When the nighttime monsoon arrives, we see a shot of Ganesh, a Hindu deity who is thought to bring luck and protect households; yet, the storm blows out the candle and the image fades to darkness.
  • Dreams dashed, dreams delayed.

How do you interpret the famous train discovery scene? What themes, ideas, and emotions do you think the filmmakers were trying to express here?

  • Debatably, it symbolizes progress, hope in a better life, the contrast of old and new, adventure/mystery, and that there is a road out of Apu’s familiar, everyday environment – a journey that will be explored in the subsequent two movies.
  • The inevitable arrival of technology and industrial transition in a poor country.
  • It may also serve as a foreshadowing of doom and the tragic events to come later in the film,
  • Although this culture is far removed and perhaps harder to understand for many Westerners, why do we care about the characters and their situations?
  • We can identify with their fears and family dynamics: struggling for money, fighting between spouses, rebellious children, caring for an elder relative, etc.
  • The film’s simplicity generates a sense of foreboding—that something big or catastrophic is bound to happen to get our attention and shake the world of these characters.

Does Pather Panchali remind you of any other films?

  • Bicycle Thieves
  • The 400 Blows, Angela’s Ashes, and other stories told from a child’s point of view
  • Nanook of the North
  • The Grapes of Wrath

Other films directed by Satyajit Ray

  • Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), the remaining films in the Apu Trilogy
  • The Music Room
  • The Big City
  • Charulata

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