In the rural Bengal village of Nischindipur, Harihar Roy does whatever he can to provide for his family. He lives with his wife, daughter, and an elderly cousin – Sarbajaya, Durga, and Indir. Indir and Sarbajaya cannot stand one another, though Durga has a fondness for the former, often stealing fruit from a wealthy neighbor’s orchid for her. Harihar is especially determined to find work because his wife is pregnant with their second child. When he is born, they name him Apurba – or Apu.
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is an adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel of the same name. Translating to “Song of the Little Road” in English, it is a famous bildungsroman. This is a German term coined in 1819 by philologist Karl Morgenstern. The word is a portmanteau of “bildung” and “roman”, which translate to education and novel respectively. However, a work with this descriptor is not, strictly speaking, an educational tool. It is, instead, a term used to describe a very specific kind of coming-of-age story. While most coming-of-age stories focus on a single life-changing event with the possibility of an epilogue that takes place in the distant future, a bildungsroman details the physical and mental growth of its protagonist, following them from youth to adulthood. Accordingly, as the first installment in what is frequently called the Apu trilogy, Pather Panchali deals with the protagonist’s childhood.
It is somewhat difficult to parse the plot of Pather Panchali because one could argue it doesn’t really have one to speak of. The biggest driving force is Harihar attempting to find good work, but this primarily occurs off-screen. Satyajit Ray was famously inspired by Italian neorealism – a film movement characterized by focusing on the poor and working class. These kinds of films were shot on location using non-professional actors. The lack of a strong narrative was intentional on director Mr. Ray’s part. He took note of the rambling nature of the novel, believing it lent the narrative therein a feeling of authenticity. This is because he felt life in a poor Bengali village does tend to ramble. As such, Pather Panchali is a slice-of-life story in the purest sense of the term. All of life’s small triumphs, personal tragedies, and downright bizarre stories everyone has growing up are shown in this work. Even when the family visits a theater, the actors deliver hammy performances that culminate in a sword fight with zero choreography – not unlike what you would encounter in a small-town stage production.
With little in the way of a plot, the most remarkable thing about Mr. Ray’s adaptation is that it doesn’t come across as directionless. This is very much a film carried by the cast’s performances, and you really get a sense of just how destitute the Roys are. Durga is certainly not a bad person, but with very little money to her family’s name, she is forced to steal again and again just so Indir can survive. It’s to the point where one neighbor accuses her of stealing a valuable necklace. She also has an interesting dynamic with her little brother, Apu. He manages to annoy her by messing up her paper collection, yet they’re shown to be amiable to each other when push comes to shove. One day, as they’re wandering a large field, she shows him something he has never seen before: a train. This scene ties into what I particularly enjoy about Pather Panchali; it has the power to make completely ordinary situations intriguing to watch. Watching someone who had grown up in a poor village his entire life utterly fascinated by something as simple as a train really makes the viewer begin to notice the beauty found in everyday life.
The Roy family is quite a bit different from most families you see in fiction. As a film that depicts everyday life as it is, the relationship between each family member is not portrayed in an idyllic fashion. There are plenty of petty squabbles and shouting matches between them – especially whenever Indir and Sarbajaya interact with each other. Then again, they’re not completely dysfunctional either. Even if it’s not explicitly stated by the narrative, you do get a sense that they are there for each other. When Indir is found dead by Durga and Apu, Harihar becomes even more determined than ever to find a good job, traveling to the city to this end.
What is perhaps the most admirable aspect of Mr. Ray’s adaptation is that it does not shy away from depicting how unexpectedly cruel life can be. During a monsoon season, Durga plays in the downpour for an excessively long time, causing her to develop a fever. The Roys cannot obtain any medical care due to limited availability, and the fever worsens until she eventually dies. Harihar returns, telling his family that he found success in the city, but is heartbroken when he hears the news. This prompts the family to leave their ancestral home, and as they begin packing, Apu discovers the very necklace Durga had denied stealing. To prevent his sister from being remembered as a liar and a thief, he throws it into a pond. With these acts, the young Apu has left behind his childhood.
Pather Panchali succeeds both as an exemplarily arthouse film and as a wonderful slice-of-life feature. Part of what makes the medium of film so fascinating is that it captures scenes in the moment. In very few films is this more apparent than Pather Panchali. You get a brief glimpse of life in a poor Bengali village in the 1910s. There is much beauty to be found in the rustic backdrop of Nischindipur, and is definitely worth observing for yourself. Although the lack of a central plot may be off-putting to some, it is incredible watching these character arcs unfold.
Final Score: 7/10