Ranking: #5/111

Director: Satyajit Ray (India)

Genre: Social Drama

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is, for me, the most compelling and moving depiction of poverty I’ve seen on the Big Screen. The fact that this was Satyajit Ray’s first ever film, probably makes it the most significant debut feature since Citizen Kane itself. As an independent filmmaker, Ray achieved a huge breakthrough with very limited resources. Instead of a screenplay, the film was shot from the director’s notes on the novel upon which the story is based, and from his drawings in the storyboard. The difference for the Indian master filmmaker is that many of his later movies, especially Jalsaghar (The Music Room), Devi (The Goddess) and Charulata (The Lonely Wife) are just as artistically expressive as Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), whereas Welles’s later films probably never reached the level of artistic excellence achieved in Citizen Kane.

The Criterion Collection describes the film in a low-key way as “a depiction of rural Bengali life in a style inspired by Italian Neo Realism.” As in Neo Realist films, Ray’s debut movie was shot mostly with available natural light and on-location. He pushed the boundaries of Neo Realism by focusing on the economic struggles of the lower class, the dispossessed, rather than the working-class characters depicted in the Italian school. At the same time, he deepens the humanism of his story by portraying vivid portraits of poverty-stricken people.

Ray, formerly an illustrator, has explained that he went into filmmaking after seeing Da Sica’s classical work of Neo Realism, Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). But he takes great pains to make this an authentic Bengalese work of art. The music by Indian sitarist and composer, Ravi Shankar, who was born to a Bengali Brahmin family, adds an authentic tone to the world of village life Ray recreates with a powerful sensuous immediacy that is almost tactile. The simple, subsistence way of life is represented with honesty and dignity.  At times, Shankar’s music is the very voice of India’s sorrow.

It is the first film in the famous Apu trilogy, following the coming of age of the central character, Apu, who is only a small boy in Pather Panchali. In trilogy’s first film, we follow the ups and downs in the childhood of Apu and his older sister, Durga. His mother Sarbajaya, conveys the worry and anxiety of being virtually penniless, just as Katie Nolan, played by Dorothy McGuire, did so plausibly in Elia Kazan’s 1945 American drama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. By conveying the full spectrum of emotions a mother can go through when money is scarce and her children need food, clothing, medicine and an education, the mothers in these two movies ultimately steal the show, despite outstanding performances by the whole cast in both films.

Apu’s father is an unemployed aspiring writer and, like the father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Johnny Nolan, is a little too dreamy-minded and impractical, while never actually bringing in anywhere near enough money to cover the costs of raising their small family. In fact, he cannot even pay off his debts. Their run-down house needs repairs but there is no money for them. Their dwelling is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. Sarbajaya states that “it’s like living in the jungle” as they are exposed to the elements.

Ray captures the struggles of this dirt-poor Bengali family with tenderness, humanity and pathos. There is an intimacy to the camera work, as if the camera is an observer, or even a participant, in the community life. Shot in shades of grey, rather than in austere blacks and whites, it is almost a style of poetic social realism. For example, we see the images of dragon flies on the lake and they seem to represent the fragility of the times in rural India.

With his rich kind of realism, he conveys the grinding poverty of the village just by recording the textures of their daily lives, providing a realistic, “slice of life” social portrait.  I found the character of the wizened old Aunt, Indir, who is virtually bent double with osteoporosis, to be memorable. A penniless beggar, she seems to embody poverty in every pore of her body, exuding, nonetheless, a toughness gained from long years of hardship. When Apu’s father gives Indir a shawl, it makes Sarbajaya angry. There isn’t enough money to go round. She becomes a nagging, unhappy woman, worn down by her struggles. Her anguish is compounded when she doesn’t hear from her husband, who left to look for work, for five months. At one point, she throws her daughter Durga out of the home for stealing a necklace. Later, Sarbajaya is forced to pawn some old silverware as she has next to nothing to live on. Ray makes poverty palpable and visceral.

The sound of the steam train in the distance seems to represent the progress that is leaving the traditional village, with its lack of resources and prospects, behind, reinforcing the sense of their marginalisation. The train is the harbinger of change; big change. Durga sees the electricity pylons crossing the countryside and hears their strange humming and buzzing.  The villagers are passively watching progress from afar. Like the train, it will pass them by. Living in rags, they are in a poverty trap.

Ray is sketching a dying way of life. That’s part of the historic uniqueness of the film. But the film is much more than social commentary. Like Kurosawa and Kazan, he keeps the human drama of his story going.  And the director’s touch is always delicate, thoughtful, measured.

One day, the children come across the dead Aunt Indir in the woods. It is a sad scene to behold. She is homeless. She is dispossessed. And she died alone outside.

Just as sad is when Durga catches cold in the first rains of the monsoon season after she danced in the rain.  A storm then threatens their meagre house. It is a fearful night with lots of damage done to the property. The dwelling is now wrecked and there is flooding. Durga dies. Her mother is gutted, feeling spiritually lifeless. The grieving family reach their lowest point. Their lives seem to be cursed. When the husband finally returns, he comes home to devastation and wreckage. A famished cow stands listlessly in the backyard.

Now the train in the distance sounds like a taunt. Their property in ruins, they decide to move away to Benares after living for three generations in the village. It is painful to leave their ancestral home. Just as they are about to leave, they spot the necklace Durga stole. In a symbolic act, Apu tosses it into the nearby pond. It is as if they all want to get rid of all the past shame of their lives. At the end, a snake slithers into the abandoned home. Everything seems to have come to nothing.

They leave the village on an ox-cart, their future unsure. Somehow, despite all the sadness of their recent roubles, there are some happy memories of childhood Apu is leaving behind, such as running and playing freely together in the woods and fields, chasing after the sweets seller and watching folk theatre performed by a travelling troupe.

The fragility of the life led by this family in the ruins of a decaying Bengali village, embodied in a story which is full of spontaneity and compassion, must have touched millions of viewers since the film was first released almost seventy years ago. In all of cinema, not to mention in all forms of art, we’d be hard pressed to find a more real and more plausible portrait of the stresses and strains of human poverty. Viewing the film provides a deep human experience.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is a treasure of world cinema.