Subir Banerjee (Apu) in ‘Pather Panchali’ – Wikimedia
You never know how and when a piece of art, a film here, is going to touch the soft grounds of delight and beauty. And how it will come to be loved by people for opening that hidden, special place in their heart. ‘Pather Panchali’, or ‘The Song of the Little Road’ is one such heart opener. It was the first film made by the Indian director Satyajit Ray. It describes the life of a poor family in a village of rural Bengal, with its many struggles. You feel the occasional pinches of hunger, the cruelty, the thwarted expectations, the jealousies, the losses, intertwined with moments of peace, quietness, and insouciance. Days spent between the simple joys of life and the tragedy of death.
What is it that makes a movie conducive to feeling in ourself that flavour of beauty? Often, such movies are slow, meditative, and as a result can bring a feeling of boredom in ourself. The craving in ourself for experiences that either fulfils our inner sense of lack, or covers it up, is not being quenched. And the mind quickly jumps in and understands it as the film being not good, not interesting. But this judgment may have nothing to do with the film, and everything with our own self’s tendencies and structure.
Art has the possibility and the function to gently bringing us down to the raw and simple experience of being, below the noise, cravings and conditionings of our puny mind. And the quality of the joy that is then experienced, the nature of this lovely peace that we can glimpse, is more appealing than any pleasure or excitement that we can get with more conventional movies. This quality is then remembered as something unique, and the film is felt to have a different or special glow. This is what a true piece of art can bring. And that unforgettable flavour doesn’t belong to the movie, but to your own shining self that the work of art, in its humility, has revealed in yourself.
Pather Panchali does bring that unforgettable flavour. It is a movie whose main theme is, as the author Darius Cooper wrote, the “epiphany of wonder“. This is because the children are at the centre of it. As the movie starts, we are introduced to the little girl Durga, who will quickly grow to teenage life, and her younger brother Apu. They live between a worried and resentful mother, and an often absent father who repeatedly fails at bringing regular wages to his family. We also meet the family relative Indir, an old, bent, toothless woman who lives with them. She has a child-like demeanour, but is always making mischief and drawing to herself the mother’s bitter resentment. Life in the village is unfolding, slow in pace. As Ray explained: “The cinematic material dictated a style to me, a very slow rhythm determined by nature, the landscape, the country.”
‘Pather Panchali’ – Amazon.com
The film shows very well how childhood is a time when life is still experienced in its fathomless mystery and vitality. Everyday’s wanderings follow the secrecy of paths, and the song of the little road. For what is more important than experiencing this simple childlike joy of being? This is the meaning hidden behind our childhood’s love for playing. And play was our very means to express that quality of being again and again, in every possible situations and settings. This was where our excitement sprang from. Tasting the world around us, crawling on the forest bed, climbing trees, feeling our presence in this immense theatre of life, from which we had not yet completely extracted ourself. Everything was an excuse for deploying our curiosity. Just for the exultation, rapture, or beatitude of it. This was all that mattered and we would never shy away from it. This is what the film reveals in countless little ways.
Many a scene in Pather Panchali is calling us to remember this pristine quality of being when we simply looked at the world with children’s eyes. Everything, the light, the perfect framing, the elegance, and the excellent choice of camera moves, all concur to make a very sane and well-balanced movie. There is a subtle grace pervading the film. And this is also emphasised by a highly conducive, original music composed by Ravi Shankar, based on Indian classical ragas. There is a light and simple returning theme melody that expresses perfectly the spirit of the film. The scenes are enhanced, in turn, by the exhilarating arpeggios of a sitar, the playfulness of a drum, the plaintive or meditative notes of a flute, or the heartbreaking cry of a tar shehnai violin.
There are beautiful, unforgettable scenes inserted in the film. One of sheer love and intimacy when everybody in the family is quietly sitting during an evening of peaceful togetherness on the veranda. Another one later on, when the old auntie Indir is sitting in the courtyard at night, singing a deeply moving song. “Those who came before are gone. I am left behind, a penniless beggar. Day draws to its close, night’s mantle descends. Row me across to the other side.” There is this sheer epiphanic moment, after a fight and its subsequent chase, when Durga and Apu find they have drifted into a place remote and unknown. Wandering among tall fluffy reeds, they discover a strange peace and silence around them; they experience the sound of the wind, and the sudden coming of a train. This ‘thing’ they had so often heard about but never yet seen with their eyes.
Remember, we were never children. When we recall old childhood memories, we only remember that we were being ’us’, or simply only ‘being’. We don’t ever remember being children. We were little adults, in the same way that we are now, in many ways, grown up children. But the grown up part of our present child-like innocence, is all that we have accumulated, and that has thwarted us. The beliefs and illusions of being this or that. All that we need to put aside or see through, in order to reveal in ourself the pure being that we are and always have been. And this pure being has qualities that we find in small children in enormous quantity.
Maybe this is what we love so much in children. They remind us of a nature in us that is always present but forgotten. This child-like innocence and joy contained in just being; this period when we have not yet been asked to be a thinking person or entity, and have the leisure to simply swim, again and again, in the simple bliss of just being alive. For we were, as we are now, the eternal and pure knowing of our own being. The last scene of the movie shows the whole family travelling in a bullock cart. Under the cart hangs the swaying light of a lantern. A peaceful reminder of the eternal light of being that is sitting quietly in all of us.
Film by Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)
Text by Alain Joly
‘Panther Panchali’ (1955) – Directed by Satyajit Ray
Based on the novel ‘Pather Panchali’ by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay
Original music by Ravi Shankar – Cinematography by Subrata Mitra
(With actors Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Chunibala Devi…)
Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was an Indian film director, writer, illustrator and music composer. He directed 28 feature films during the course of his career, such as ‘The Apu Trilogy’ (which includes ‘Pather Panchali’), ‘The Music Room’, ’The Chess Players’, or ‘Charulata’. He also made shorts and documentaries. He received many international awards, including in Cannes and Venice festivals. Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa said: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” He died in his home city Calcutta in 1992.
The film ‘Pather Panchali’ is available here on YouTube, in a colourised version…
Listen to Ravi Shankar’s original Theme Music from ‘Pather Panchali’ on YouTube…
– ‘Pather Panchali: Song of the Road’ – by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay – (Penguin Modern Classics)
– ‘Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye’ – by Andrew Robinson – (I.B. Tauris)
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