Saturday, 28 June 2014

PATHER PANCHALI (Song of the Little Road) - Review By Greg Klymkiw #1 of The Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray

Uma Dasgupta plays the sweet, saintly & sadly doomed Durga.

Little Durga & Auntie: Birds of a Feather.
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road (1955) dir. Satyajit Ray *****
Starring: Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Runki Banerjee, Chunibala Devi, Tulsi Chakraborty

Review By Greg Klymkiw

From childhood to adolescence, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta respectively) has always adored Auntie (Chunibala Devi), but to everyone else, especially Durga's mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), the wizened, hobbling, hunched-over old "hag" is not only an annoyance, but a burden. Auntie's feisty, impish and individualistic nature has been a particular thorn in Mom's side as she believes the old woman's been a bad influence upon her first-born. On the surface, Auntie has always adhered to her Old World "place" as a woman in Bengali society, but deep down her spirit has always been modern - ahead of its time, really.

If Auntie can do anything for Durga's future, it's to impart a sense of wonder and adventure within the child (Auntie's a spirited storyteller), but to also encourage her happy, willing young charge to properly utilize her smarts - the kind that allow a woman a depth of understanding in a patriarchal world and to use every bit of cunning at her disposal.

However, the sword on this, cuts two ways.

Pather Panchali begins with the child Durga brazenly (and clearly for the umpteenth time) stealing fruit from the orchards belonging to the neighbours, who are blood relatives of the nastiest kind and as it turns out, have swindled the orchard from Durga's father Harihar (Subir Banerjee). Even at her young age, this isn't lost on Durga, but also, she's a child and as such, their home is surrounded with more than enough fruit for everybody. Most importantly, Durga doesn't steal the fruit for herself, but to give it to Auntie. Lord knows, this pays off in spades for the old gal since the kid is happily plying her with juicy mangoes, a far cry from the spartan slop served up at the deeply impoverished family dinner table. It also irks Mom to no end since she's concerned that Durga's thieving will reflect badly on the family and her upbringing.

For me, Satyajit Roy has always delivered movies with exceptionally varied female characters. Yes, all his characters have depth, but there's something so unique and compelling about his sensitivity towards women. In many ways, he might well be the Neo-Realist Indian equivalent to the great George Cukor in that respect.

Pather Panchali is the first film in a trilogy that focuses upon a male character called Apu and is based on a classical Indian novel rooted in the country's strong tradition of "coming-of-age" stories. In spite of this and a slight shift in the film's perspective when the character of Apu is finally born, it's always been Durga's character who I've been especially drawn to - possibly because Apu (Subir Banerjee), though always compelling to keep one's eye on is, in many ways a very reactive, witness-like presence in the tale, whereas Durga is so vibrant and active.

It's Durga's promise as a human being, as a beautiful, intelligent young woman that, in spite of so many alternately heartbreaking and joyous moments in the film (and threads in the story), is what finally seems the most poignant and tragic of all. For all her chicanery, Durga seems almost saint-like in wanting to use her wiles to assist others. At the same time, she has a curiosity in the ways of the world that suggest how much she desires to maintain her individuality. So many girls of her age have already been in serious training to satisfy their husbands-to-be. She delights in their happiness at attaining these skills, but has virtually no interest in acquiring them herself.

Durga also understands fully the desire of her little brother to see a train, a miracle of the modern world that seems so far removed from their little village. The train, of course, represents flight as well as progress and one of the most magical sequences ever committed to film is an odyssey Durga takes little Apu on to see the train. The train, alas, takes a strange backseat to the journey itself and later in the film, there's a moment where Durga promises Apu a better, more proper opportunity to see the train. (And never, EVER, will a big sister's promise to her little brother be as deeply and passionately moving as this one proves to be.)

Ray's film clearly threw the Indian film industry for a loop. This was no epic melodrama with song and dance routines set against mythical backdrops of the past and relegated to larger-than-life studio sets and backlots. Pather Panchali was born from two major influences - the first being Ray's acquaintanceship with Jean Renoir during the shooting of the French auteur's The River in India and the other being Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (aka The Bicycle Thief). Ray was convinced more than ever that movies could be made in India that pulsated with the life of the country itself and as such, could utilize actual locations and even rely upon amateur actors. Though most of Ray's principal actors in Pather Panchali had a good taste of stage acting prior to their appearance in his film, screen success had eluded them and his supporting performers and even the lead role of Apu were played by "real" people.

The movie has the feeling of being loose and episodic, but beneath this "veneer" of Neo-Realist movie-making was a narrative as strong and solid as one would ever want. It's as if Ray used real life to instigate his film's story beats and though this was completely new for Indian Cinema, it was certainly a rare property in any films of its time (and most certainly in ours). Ray proves meticulous in his compositions and with his cinematographer Subrata Mitra he goes above and beyond the call of duty. Every shot feels utterly exquisite, yet never indulgent. Whether capturing simple dramatic beats, dialogue sequences or dramatic action, the camera calls attention to the salient details within the frame as opposed to itself. Even in the poetic and cerebral sequences, everything feels as if it's in service to the narrative and thematic elements. Ray, of course, wisely selected Ravi Shankar to compose the stunning musical score (one of the very best in movie history) and while it serves to underscore everything it needs to, Shankar goes delectably mad during the poetic sequences - so much so that one either gets completely lost in the ethereal qualities of the imagery or, better yet (as exemplified during a montage of insects dancing across the water) one feels compelled to leap up from one's seat and engage in some manner of dervish-like gymnastics.

One astonishing moment where the film seems to literally meander from the narrative is when Apu watches an Indian brass band, adorned in Colonial fineries, ever-so spirited, yet hilariously out of tune as they blast out a goofy, but heartfelt rendition of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". Here, the camera leaves the scene and we're afforded a beautiful montage delivering a variety of life (and lives) pulsating around them. This is no mere indulgence, but rather an extraordinary reflection upon the lives of all the people living near our family and as such, a reiteration of what affects them societally, culturally and emotionally, yet doing so to give us a sense that what the family is going through, is as profoundly disappointing and frustrating to so many in this impoverished country.

Throughout the film one senses that Ray is probably most entranced with Durga's character also. If anything, she feels closer to someone who'd be a worthy on-screen surrogate for the filmmaker. It certainly wouldn't be her father Harihar, a man of of letters and intelligence with a desire to be a great writer, but reduced to taking vaguely menial and/or administrative positions to support his family. We're constantly frustrated with this kindly man who is so obviously lacking in real motivation and gumption. His choice to locate the family in his ancestral home in the country instead of raising them in the city is one reason why they all live in such dire poverty, but even worse, why Harihar has wasted his gifts due to his endless procrastination. When he finally admits to his wife Sarbajaya that he gave up on all his dreams, we believe it.

A sequence which Ray handles exquisitely is a conversation between the husband and wife. Sarbajaya attempts to analyze where things went wrong, but to also provide a very solid, intelligent and well-reasoned plan for the family to leave this life of poverty and isolation behind. All Harihar can do is resort to the self-pity of it being too late to make dreams come true that he had abandoned a long time ago.

There's a moment and a manner in which Ray trains his camera on Sarbajaya that's so simple and yet so breathtaking. It's maybe the first time in the film where we see this "traditional" wife display the very vision that her own daughter and even Auntie have had.

"I had dreams, too," Sarbajaya declares. For the first time in the film we genuinely understand her attitudes towards both her daughter and Auntie. It's also a point in the narrative where she displays a shift in how she views her extraordinary daughter. Alas, as things turn out, it comes too late.

This, in fact, might be an especially poignant subtext to the entire film - making the right decisions at the wrong time, all of which seem to resonate with a powerhouse force - especially when characters begin to realize how huge an impact their decisions have had upon them and their family. Needless to say, there is heartache and tragedy to befall the family, but it's their own choice to make the concerted effort to move on. Moving on might be their only salvation and one that so many lives in this world will experience and acknowledge. Never, however, will they face and acknowledge this notion of life itself with the same force Ray delivers on film.

Auntie, of course, knows all about moving on. She sits alone one clear, starry night and sings about her death:

"Those who came after have already gone. Leaving me behind, the poorest of beggars. Night's mantle descends. Row me across to the other side. Oh, hurry, Lord of the Crossings."

It's the other side that not only offers rest to the weary, but hopefully, there's another other side in life, in the here and now - one that can offer contentment beyond eternal rest, but one that rather provides new beginnings. It's the least we can look forward to, strive for and to live out our small and seemingly inconsequential lives as we too embark upon that "little road".

Pather Panchali is presented with a RESTORED 35mm (yes, REAL FILM) PRINT at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 3, 2014 at 6:30pm as part of the TIFF Cinematheque series "The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray". This might be your only chance to see this masterpiece the way it was meant to be seen, so get your tickets NOW and GO. Visit the TIFF website for further details by clicking HERE.


*BUYERS PLEASE NOTE* (Canadian Amazon) has a relatively cruddy collection of Satyajit Ray product and generally shitty prices. has a huge selection of materials (including music and books) and decent prices. Amazon.UK has a GREAT selection of Satyajit Ray movies from a very cool company called Artificial Eye (second these days only to the Criterion Collection). Any decent Chinatown sells region-free Blu-Ray and DVD players for peanuts. Just get one (or several - they can be that cheap) and don't be afraid of ordering from foreign regions. The fucking film companies should just merge the formats into one acceptable delivery method worldwide. Besides, you can order anything you want from any country anyway.