Often revered as the greatest Indian filmmaker of them all, Satyajit Ray is a director I am was greatly ingnorant about. Some fellow film fans at Filmspotting decided to embark on a marathon of the director's work, I happily joined along.
Pathar Panchali (or, Song of the Road)is the first chapter in what is known as the Apu Trilogy. Panchalie is set in a rural area of Bengal sometime in the 1920s and tells the story of a family's life in the forest. Life is, to put in bluntly, rough. Money is hard to come by as is good fortune. A mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee), and a father, Harihar Ray (Kanu Bannerjee) struggle to earn a living for not only themselves, but for their two young children, Apu (Subir Bannerjee) and his elder sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), as well.
Director Ray paints a thoughtful portrait with this film. What struck me was that this portrait performed several great tasks at once. First and foremost we have the privilege of seeing the life of this family. While the film does posses a narrative, its true strength lies in the depiction of how these people interact amongst themselves and with neighbours and more distant relatives. The story is dominated by quiet, insightful chapters into their lives. Rather than pounding the movie with dramatic beats, it gives a lot of room for these characters to breath. Understandably this makes for a slow pace, but because of the rich, layered qualities of each individual moment, the movie rarely, if ever, feels as if it drags. By the end of the film, the viewer has come to know many of these people rather intimately.
Sarbajya is half pessimist, half realist. She toils day in and day out to cook and clean. In an important sense, she is the commander in chief of the household. The family's social and economic status frustrates her, but she certainly isn't one to ask for handouts. Even when things are at their lowest for the family, she steadfastly refuses any economic aid. It's an admirable trait in the sense that she does toil and sweat so much, has her familt not earned any good fortune? She couldn't possibly give in to easy help after investing to much effort. Harihar, the father, is quite different. He is ever the optimist, a playwrite, with a grin on his face far more often than a frown. For whatever reason, he remains hopeful and positive in attitude. Durga, the elder sister, is mischievous and sneeky. 'Spoiled' by her Auntie (another colourful in her own right), Durga has grown into some nasty habits, most notably theft. She steals her friend's collor of beads and steals fruit from the neighbour's garden (which angers her mother to the upmost degree). In a life of stark poverty, Durga has adopted some nefarious qualities. In a world where no one possesses very much, she wants more than she arguably should. Interestingly, the one family member I had the most difficulty understanding was the man of the hour, Apu. His first appearance in the story is at about the 20 minute mark, and even then he is merely a new born. He is more an observer, a spectator of the proceedings than an active participant. The movie gives a few glimpse into his psyche, but by the end of the film, I wasn't yet sure who Apu was. Will he take after his mother? His father? God forbid, his sister? Given that this is the first chapter in the Apu Trilogy, I take it that it functions as the setup. I'm expecting more of Apu in the sequel.
The second great task director Ray's portrait accomplishes is the depiction of this world. Where they live, what the ecosystem is like, what the living conditions are, what the possibilities for advancement are, and the pressures that each of these indivdual factors add to the people who live in this world. The film pays a lot of attention to the details of their habitat and its surroundings. The paths the children take through the forest, the heat that they suffer during the day, the terrible storms that said heat generates, the existence of more modern technology for the region in the forms of either the locomotive or electricity wires, etc. Pathar Pachali is a captivating, historical look into this corner of the globe. By the end I felt as if I had been privy to a intimate look into a land very foreign to me.
The movie is filled with memorable scenes. The terrifying storm at night late in the movie, Durga and Apu's search for the lost calf which leads them to witness the passing of a train for the first time in their lives, the mother's discovery that Durga has stolen from her friend, the brief moments of prayer, almost anytime Auntie is on screen... Pathar Panchali is immensely watchable for the great character moments and for how it depicts this very specific culture and lifestyle.