Douglas Messerli


In 2000 or even earlier poet and typographer Guy Bennett gave me, as a present, tapes of three Satyajit Ray films, Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Jalsaghar. I had long been wanting to see these films, about which I had read. But, for some reason, I delayed more than three years in viewing them. Then, in 2003, I decided one afternoon to watch Pather Panchali – now one of my favorite films.

Pather Panchali (originally released in 1955) begins with Durga – daughter of Sarbojaya and Harikhar – stealing a guava from the orchard that once belonged to the family but has now been sold to a neighbor. Hari, the father, is a poet and dreamer who cannot support his family properly. Accordingly, Sarbojaya is left – as is the apparent fate of poorer Bengali women – to care for the daughter, cook the food, and look after the old aunt, Indir, while pregnant with a child. The task is an onerous one, resulting in her frustration and anger which she vents upon both the aunt and daughter.

The film begins slowly, with overly long focuses on the orchard between the house and the neighbors. But it quickly takes shape with the birth of Apu, a male child, and our first view of Hari, a man of such gentleness and kindness that one simultaneously recognizes these qualities as both the sources of his failure as a bread-winner and his strengths as a father and lover. Our first view of Apu is one large eye, peeking through a blanket, and his eyes become the center of focus as the surrounding events of the small Bengali village unfold. One critic (Robin Wood) has observed the viewer does not see the film from the child's view but rather from a point of view that makes him or her party to the child's perceptions and reactions to what together they witness.

What we are shown may at first seem ordinary and incidental; as Ray himself noted, the novel on which the movie was based determined that it would have a rambling effect. "Life in a Bengali village does ramble." The noted French film direction François Truffaut walked out of the film after the first two reels, declaring the film "insipid" and observing he was not interested in Indian peasants. Indeed, at times too much attention is given to children simply coming and going down the wooded path. But, as the film progresses, we are drawn into the minor events: the appearance of a candy seller, a performance of a traveling theatrical company, the eternal bickering between neighbors, and the slow fading of dreams for mother, daughter and aunt. The women of Pather Panchali, clearly, are the unfortunates. While the entire family dotes (along with the audience, I might add) on the male child, Apu, his sister Durga is expected to help the mother in her housekeeping chores; a girlfriend of her own age is soon to be married. The aunt, so wizened she can barely walk, is sent packing to another relative. Only Hari and Apu seem to remain apart from the mistey of everyday life. Apu is being taught to read and write, while Durga, the petty thief of the orchard, is now accused of having stolen her friend's necklace and is punished by being locked outside the gates of the house.

It is quite justifiable that, when Apu steals tinsel from his sister's toy box in order to make himself over as a King he has seen in the local theatrical, she is outraged and strikes him. The girl escapes the house in anger, with the beloved Apu following, and thus Ray introduces a scene that is one of the most beautiful in film history. Wandering the fields about, the children stand in stark contrast to the rows of power lines that criss-cross the countryside, and the surrounding patches of white, fluffy kaash flowers are the antithesis of the dark, fast-moving train that awes and overwhelms the two. The filmmaking here is stunning as Ray pulls the camera across the tracks so that the train blacks out landscape and children; we see them only in the small space of light between the carriage and tracks. The train and all its associations of travel, speed, commodity, and culture immediately portrays everything the children's world is not, and suddenly the separation between brother and sister vanishes. They turn toward home, only to discover their aunt a short distance from their doorstep, dead.

Ultimately, Hari must leave the small town to find employment elsewhere. But as time passes without his return, Sarbojaya is left ever more impoverished. She must sell the family's plates. The village returns to everyday life: Druga's girlfriend is married with much pomp and circumstance and, in surely one of the most abstract scenes in narrative film, spring returns in all its natural beauty. Dragonflies dart across the pond, reeds reflect into the water like a Hans Hartung painting. Once again, however, the beauty of the natural prefaces the destruction of the surrounding figures.

In a ceremonial-like prayer, Druga dreams of a future husband; but in dawdling she is caught with Apu in a rain storm. Throughout the film she has been described as feverish, and now she truly catches fever which, throughout the night of howling wind and rain, her mother attempts to cool. But the fever she has caught is also a symbolic one: the fever of a young girl in love with living. There is no hope for such a being; in the poverty-stricken world wherein she is trapped, she can only be destroyed – just has her mother has spiritually died.

Upon Druga's death, Sarbojaya is so grief-stricken that, like Brecht's Mother Courage, she cannot express her pain. It is only upon the long overdue return of Hari, who begins by describing the petty gifts he has brought the family, that the tears commence. And the awfulness of events is fully understood by family and audience alike.

The family determines to move to Benarares, and as they pack their few possessions, Apu reaches for two unused bowls on a high shelf, where he discovers the missing necklace. Ray brilliantly demonstrates the wisdom the child has earned by having him secretly throw the evidence into a nearby stand of water. The last frame reminds one almost of the flight of Mary, Joseph, and child into Egypt. A new world awaits.

May 20, 2003, Los Angeles

©2003 by Douglas Messerli