Pather Panchali • Indian Neorealism

Greenscreening Series #23

February 10, 2023

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Pather Panchali (1955) directed by Satyajit Ray


With the release in 1955 of Satyajit Ray’s debut, Pather Panchali, an eloquent and important new cinematic voice made itself heard all over the world. A depiction of rural Bengali life in a style inspired by Italian neorealism, this naturalistic but poetic evocation of a number of years in the life of a family introduces us to both little Apu and, just as essentially, the women who will help shape him: his independent older sister, Durga; his harried mother, Sarbajaya, who, with her husband away, must hold the family together; and his kindly and mischievous elderly “auntie,” Indir — vivid, multifaceted characters all. With resplendent photography informed by its young protagonist’s perpetual sense of discovery, Pather Panchali, which won an award for Best Human Document at Cannes, is an immersive cinematic experience and a film of elemental power. - Criterion

Find Pather Panchali via Reelgood

*Pather Panchali*

Why Pather Panchali?

"The raw material of the cinema is life itself." - Satyajit Ray, 1948

Italian Neorealism revolutionized cinema in the mid-1940s, and directors from around the world were inspired to pick up a camera and make films that felt authentic about their homes. This was the case with Satyajit Ray and his debut film, Pather Panchali.

By the late 1940s, India had a robust film industry that was second only to Hollywood in terms of the number of films produced. Like Hollywood, Indian cinema had developed a studio system for churning out films; this would later be termed “Bollywood.” Most Bollywood films sought to appeal to everyone in the audience by featuring a combination of musical numbers, comedy, romance, fighting and stunts, and melodramatic plots.

Ray rejected this style of film. Having grown up in an artistic middle class family - both his father and grandfather had been successful writers - he connected more with international cinema. As a young man, he published an essay in an Indian magazine called “What is Wrong with Indian Films?” in which he argued that Indian films failed to break through internationally because indigenous filmmakers weren't developing a distinctly Indian style or iconography. He urged Indian filmmakers to find this in simplicity, as the Italian Neorealists had, by focusing on the basic aspects of Indian life, and accurately reflecting the real habits, speech, dress, and manner of real Indians.

Coming just a few years after Indian independence, it's clear that some of the motivation was to shake off colonialism and forge a national cinematic identity. But also, Ray hoped Indian cinema would become as rich a medium as the other arts:

It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.

Ray followed his own advice.

While working as an illustrator, one of his projects was illustrating a classic Bengali novel, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road), a semi-autobiographical novel, considered one of the quintessential Indian novels.

Ray fell in love with the novel and decided to adapt it into a film. The only problem was, he had no idea how to make films, or how to break into the industry, so the project stalled.

During a long trip abroad in 1950, Ray found his way. His employer sent him to London to work for 6 months. Ray claimed he saw over 100 films while there, which served as his masterclass in filmmaking. One particular film changed his life: upon seeing Bicycle Thieves in London, he left the theater convinced and determined he would become a filmmaker.

The Neorealists gave Ray the playbook he needed to move forward with Pather Panchali. Throw out the rule book and focus on the basics: get a cheap camera, hire some nonprofessional actors, go on location, and tell an authentic story.

*Pather Panchali*

When Ray returned home, he happened to meet director Jean Renoir, who was filming The River in India. Renoir hired Ray as an assistant director and location scout, and helped teach Ray a few of the technical basics of filmmaking; among the most important, Ray studied Renoir's interactions with actors.

Ray gathered a novice crew, a 16mm camera, and began filming in a tiny village in West Bengal. Nobody had any experience; even his cameraman was working on his first film. Everyone learned as they went.

It took Ray three years to make Pather Panchali. He financed the film with his savings, and when that ran out, sold everything to keep shooting. Even then, it wasn't enough, so production stalled about halfway through the film. The West Bengal government stepped in with a grant to finance completion of the film.

*Pather Panchali*

The film was an international success, winning a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, and accolades from critics throughout the West. Many people, including critics, thought the plot-light film was a documentary, and praised it for its realism and its focused on an unseen world and population. Ray's film was also a domestic success, winning Best Picture at the Indian National Film Awards.

Part of the Pather Panchali's success is its anti-style. Ray didn't know how to achieve some of the techniques he had seen during his marathon film study in London. He also wasn't shooting from a traditional script; he kept the story in his head and filmed bits and pieces as they went. In the truest sense, Ray was figuring out how to express what he had in mind, and how to get a crew of nonprofessionals to help him realize his vision. A bit like Orson Welles in the creation of Citizen Kane, Pather Panchali is Ray's filmmaking thesis. But in Ray's case, with the influence of Italian Neorealism, his style is more immersive, patient, and observed than Welles' expressionist and technical celebration of cinema.

Beginning with a sequel to Panther Panchali a third film to round out the Apu Trilogy, Ray's career flourished. He went on to make over 30 more feature films, establishing himself as the preeminent Indian auteur filmmaker. He is primarily remembered more than anything as a humanist, and as a filmmaker who fought against odds and sacrificed greatly in the name of creating authentic, personal art.

Pather Panchali ranked 35th in the 2022 edition of Sight and Sound's Critics Poll, and 22nd in its Directors Poll.

Ray's legacy and influence has been largest outside of India. He inspired countless other filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson, whose film The Darjeeling Limited is basically a love letter to the country and full of visual and auditory homage to Ray’s films.

But Indian mainstream films have still trended in the same direction that Ray criticized in the 1940s. Were the tides of colonialism that fueled the rise of Bollywood too strong? Or did Indian culture assimilate the tropes and style of Bollywood, transforming it into something distinctly Indian? Like the United States' relationship with Hollywood, it's probably a mixture of both. We are what we watch, and we also take away what we bring to a film.

There's a Western critical tendency to praise Ray's Apu Trilogy for its universal themes and the humanity that shines through in spite of cultural differences. These are, after all, characters who live in poverty in rural India at the start of the 20th Century. The spirit behind this praise is the idea that cinema can bridge time, space, and culture. Recently, some scholars have sought to emphasize Ray's essential Indian-ness. After all, his goal was to create a distinctly Indian style of cinema. For these scholars, it's important when watching Ray not to look for lowest common denominators and to ignore the rest. Ray honors and eulogizes a particular Indian culture, the things that he saw and heard when he kept his eyes and ears open. Cinema highlights what connects us, but also what is beautifully different and unique in our various ways of seeing and being. Pather Panchali is an invitation to look, listen, to seek to understand, and to respect.

*Pather Panchali*

What to Watch For

  • Eyes and watching. The first image we get of the young protagonist, Apu, is a close up of his eye. This is echoed by many other shots of Apu observing throughout the film. Ray wants us to be conscious of the act of watching and what it means in everyday life.

  • The music! Ray commissioned the virtuoso sitar player, Ravi Shankar, to compose and perform music for the film. Shankar used traditional ragas as the backbone for the film; ragas carried with them associations with different emotions or elements, so the music provided extra layers of meaning for Indian audiences while also moving against the Bollywood tradition of using popular music. Shankar's soundtrack became one of the most critically acclaimed of all time, and had a direct influence on popular music, as George Harrison became a superfan and began featuring the sitar in his songs.

Learn More About Pather Panchali

Revisiting Pather Panchali Amidst the Migrant Plight by Rolling Stone India

Norman Holland on Pather Panchali

The Apu Trilogy: Behind the Universal by Girish Shambu for Criterion

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