I remember telling someone how excited I was for the Criterion release of this film and its two sequels. I remember telling this person that these films were Indian and their remark: “Like Bollywood?” they asked. “Well, not exactly,” I said. Ray’s film has a visceral and raw quality which begs a comparison to the Italian Neo-realist movement. This is a movie made in the streets and in the dirt. It lives and breathes and moves. Pather Panchali, “Song of the Little Road,” is a gift to us from the realm of cinema. But, on a more important note, is the miracle that this film and its sequels even still exist.
Without going into too much detail: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, one year for the Academy Awards, was going to honor Satyajit Ray and wished to have elements of his films for safekeeping. During transit they were held briefly at the British Film Institute and there was a devastating fire at that time which destroyed many films. The negatives of the “Apu Trilogy” were severely burned and were essentially ruined. The Academy, however, felt that the prints and negatives were worth keeping. At the time nothing could be done, but maybe — just maybe — one day they could be saved. Fast forward many years and a partnership between The Academy, Janus Films, and The Criterion Collection forms with the sole purpose of saving these films. They succeeded.
I would never imagine that these films had at one time been reduced to “hockey pucks” of celluloid. Yet the films were rehydrated, had new sprocket holes created, and then were meticulously pieced back together and restored to visual splendor. Yet so much has already been written regarding the history and restoration of the films. I need to change gears and talk about the film itself, and yet I have this perfect opportunity to talk about film preservation and restoration. What do I do? I suppose, for the purpose of brevity, I shall save the topic of film preservation for later.
This film, which is typically touted as one of the most famous of Indian Cinema, is centered around a small Bengali family. The pivotal character within this group is Apu, a young boy curious about everything he comes in contact with. Around him is an ever escalating battle between his ultra-traditional mother, Sarbajaya, and rebellious older sister, Durga. Meanwhile, Apu’s father, Harihar, is in and out of the family as he attempts to find work by which he can support his family. The father is presented as a bit aloof and detached, meanwhile the mother is stern and somewhat cold; especially toward her daughter, Durga. Apu, however, is simply there watching the family dynamic go on around him.
The cinematography, beautifully restored to a nearly pristine state, is stunning. The exposure is always rock solid and paints the landscapes, jungles, and homes in beautiful shades of grey and black. Satyajit Ray, originally an illustrator and artist, brings with him an incredible eye for the moving image. The way he and cinematographer Subrata Mitra photograph faces is especially beautiful. The camera is almost always moving, and when it doesn’t it’s because Ray and Mitra intends their image to be a painting: a photograph. Which makes perfect sense when you discover the secret that Subrata Mitra was a photography before he was a cinematographer. The jobs are very different, of course, and require different skills, and yet Mitra seems as though he were made for operating a motion picture camera.
From the start this movie feels as though it is not about Apu, but rather those around him. This can be a bit strange when one begins to watch a trilogy of films called “The Apu Trilogy.” It isn’t. When you’re a kid life very rarely seems to be about you, at least where others are concerned. At the age Apu is (probably 6 or 7?) he isn’t particularly involved in life, but rather just gets to watch it. It makes sense, then, that the film is about his family rather than him. It works and it makes sense. It also paves the way for the next two films in the trilogy.
Pather Panchali is at turns heart-breaking, funny, and always beautiful. It’s shocking when one learns that this was Satyajit Ray’s first film. He had apparently written one other film, Chinnamul (1950, dir. Nemai Ghosh), but had never directed a movie before this one. It has to be one of the best “first films” ever made. With this feature film Satyajit Ray burst onto the international scene of cinema, and announced himself as one of its greatest artists.