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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema

Pather Panchali (1955): Social Realism Comes to South Asian Cinema


Directed by: Satyajit Ray || Produced by: Government of West Bengal

Screenplay by: Satyajit Ray || Starring: Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Chunibala Devi, Tulsi Chakrabarti

Music by: Ravi Shankar || Cinematography: Subrata Mitra || Edited by: Dulal Dutta || Country: India || Language: Bengali

Running Time: 120 minutes

Indian cinema lovers, particularly those who follow independent and/or South Indian film industries, often lament their national cinema, one of the most prolific in the history of film, is often boiled down to two main components in the public eye: Bollywood and Satyajit Ray. While that’s about as unfair or inaccurate as reducing American cinema to Hollywood and Paul Thomas Anderson, or the national film stables of France down to Jean Renoir and the French New Wave, it still gets the biggest points across to newcomers: To understand regional film movements, you start with the major stereotypes and follow those recommendations to the cinematic genesis points of what has historically been the most influential works from within a particular film culture.

As far as influential classics go, Ray’s Pather Panchali is one of the most recognizable auteur features of world cinema. The entire Apu trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959) of which Pather Panchali (PP, English = “Song of the Little Road) is the first installment, is highly regarded and PP is acknowledged as the Bengali director’s magnum opus. It’s a film that focuses on the daily lives, both the hardships and the pleasures, that the rural poor experience both in spite and because of their poverty. Given it’s subject matter and low-budget cinematography, one can draw connections between PP (and much of Ray’s filmography for that matter) to works of European New Wave filmmakers, most notably Italian neorealist features such as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Italian neorealism trademarks can be seen everywhere in this movie, only differing in the film’s geographic location: The entire film is shot on-location and outdoors, the cast is composed of either non-professional or small-time actors, and the narrative focuses on the plights of the working poor. Collectively, these elements and the impact of PP’s social commentary laid the groundwork for India’s version of a filmic “New Wave” movement, a loose collection of subversive, socially conscious movies and moviemakers that contrasted with India’s commercialized musicals: Parallel Cinema.

Left: Harihar Roy (Kanu Banerjee, right) and Sarbajaya Roy (Karuna Banerjee, left) of the principal family, chide each other. Right: The children catch sight of the train they’ve been dying to see.

The use of long-takes, natural lighting, and eye-level shots achieve maximum cinematic realism. Within each scene, PP feels like cameras were attached to a disembodied phantom that wandered around a local village and followed characters around, recording their daily lives. It is charming in its simplicity and effective at evoking fascination with “small wonders” of everyday rural life, while never descending into overly sentimental territory. The film is also edited in a way that the loose narrative doesn’t progress hastily from beginning to end, which is appropriate for this neorealist-descendant. Many scenes in the film don’t advance any overarching narrative but serve to further emphasize the universal humanist “epiphany of wonder” that’s a running theme throughout, as well as fleshing out character personalities.

Arguably the best scene in the movie is the famous “running to catch the train”-sequence where the children of the family, Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta), catch a glimpse of a train they hear in the countryside. It’s one of those iconic moments of cinematic childhood that’s beautifully composed, and is a fantastic summary of the movie in one sequence.

Films like Pather Panchali appeal to the artsier, more auteur-focused crowd than any blockbuster from the East or West. Panchali has more in common with Italian neorealist and French New Wave films than any Bollywood romance, so that may either perk or quench your interest from the outset. It possesses a style all its own — a down-to-earth, minimalist, charming one — but microbudgeted auteur projects like these are about quieter, intimate moments than anything sung or shouted with passion over song and dance. Either way, if you consider yourself a follower of world cinema — including subversive, reactionary movements like Cinema Novo or Parallel Cinema — this is one of those landmark projects you need to check off your list, and to boot it’s one of the most influential South Asian films ever made, period.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Pather Panchali uses its minimalist Italian influences in all the right ways to paint a picture of the lives of those less well-off in another part of the world. It utilizes natural lighting, outdoor location-photography, and subtle character themes to achieve its cinematic message. Though the narrative is loose and flows in a meandering fashion to its inevitable conclusion, the heartfelt moments of character growth and conflict feel genuine in the most humble, humanist way possible.

However… as is typical with auteur, social realist pictures like this, the plot takes its time and the narrative pacing is slow. For a story this small in scale, the film runs long.


? “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.” — Francois Truffaut 😀

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