Around the World: Pather Panchali

delves into India’s film industry with Satyajit Ray’s 1955 classic about an impoverished priest who leaves his village in search of a better life

Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts. 

Image: Sony Pictures

If you were stranded on a desert island from birth with only a collection critical literature on filmmaking, you would never guess that India is home to over 1.3 billion people. Not that its film industry doesn’t have numbers to match; Bollywood produces around 2-3 times the amount of films that Hollywood does per year. But the Western critical tradition, though eager to steadily absorb and canonise films from Eastern Europe and East Asia, seems to have determined that India holds nothing of consequence for contemporary cinema. In a poll of the top 100 films since 2000 carried out by the BBC not a single Indian film made it onto the list. On Sight & Sound’s prestigious ‘Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time’ list – dominated by Americans, Western Europeans, Japanese and Russians – there is only one Indian film: Pather Panchali, directed by Satyajit Ray.

Pather Panchali emerged out of the ‘Parallel Cinema’ movement: a small collection of West Bengali directors who began making powerfully focused and carefully crafted films that were at odds with the mainstream Bollywood formula. Panchali’s plot is relatively simple; the bildungsroman format follows Durga and Apu, an older sister and younger brother born into an impoverished Bengali village community, as they navigate life. As with the Italian neorealist works that inspired it, the film is more about how one sees than what one sees, and at the risk of sounding like a cop-out, it would be hard to describe here the specific story elements without being very reductive. Yet it astonishes in every way a film can. Ray has a direct style that anticipates Les quatre cents coups by four years, a care for cinematography that rivals Kubrick and a tenderness and respect for the gravity of familial concerns that would make Ozu jealous. And they say it was the first time he was ever behind the camera.

There are no Bollywood-esque song and dances; the film is carried along calmly by a sitar soundtrack, composed by Ravi Shankar in his pre-Western phase. There is no hero, no villain, and, as the films ending makes clear, no unquestioned religiosity or political idealism running through the story. It is simply a 2 hour study of life. These are all scant descriptions; there really is no way to paraphrase Pather Panchali. It is its own explanation. The people within are, as Stuart Gilbert once wrote of the characters of Ulysses, not fictitious but “are as they must be” and act “according to…an ineluctable condition of their very existence.” Perhaps embarrassingly for the French auteurs of the nouvelle vague, a film of “peasants eating with their hands” as François Truffaut derided it is one of the greatest examples of social realism and of the camera-stylo. Ray’s camera watches and sketches attentively, rendering its subjects in beautiful detail, beautiful not because embellished but quite the opposite. Accusations of sentimentalism or ‘poverty porn’ against the film are startling for this reason; the attention to detail is not pretentious but extremely well-grounded and respectful, finding the beautiful in the mundane without artificially injecting it. Perhaps critics such as Truffaut or even those from the Indian middle-class simply could not believe or sympathise with the realities of life for the rural poor.

Whatever the reason, history has vindicated the film. Figures from Martin Scorsese to Akira Kurosawa to Wes Anderson have praised or cited Ray or his Apu Trilogy (comprising Pather Panchali, Arapajito and Apu Sansar) as direct influences. It is sad perhaps that Ray’s influence is felt nowadays more outside than inside his native country, but his creation remains one of the best ever put to celluloid and a reminder of the potentiality of cinema everywhere, not just in California.