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Pather Panchali

Song of the Road

One of the great figures of world cinema, director Satyajit Ray’s work couldn’t be further removed from the gloss and sentimentality of mainstream Indian cinema. The Italian neo-realists and Jean Renoir were major Western influences on Ray’s work, which exhibits a profoundly humanistic world view and a very refined aesthetic sense. Re-released in a restored print, Pather Panchali is the first in Ray’s unforgettable trilogy of films which follow a Bengali boy’s discovery of the eternal verities as his family move from poverty in the village to poverty in the city, and as he grows up indelibly marked by the wounds and joys of death, love and birth.
With its timeless images infused by a lyric wonder the two children gazing in awe at their ancient grandmother sitting under the bamboo tree where she has suddenly and peacefully died, or racing across a field of flowers to capture the magical romance of a passing train Pather Panchali tells a story that has been told in many languages, and presents no problems of understanding. Yet the film isn’t quite as simple as that. At one point a necklace has been stolen, and Apu’s sister Durga, accused of the theft, indignantly protests her innocence. Nearly at the end of the film, as the family prepare to move to the city after Durga’s tragically sudden death, Apu comes upon the necklace in an old pot where Durga had evidently hidden it, and hurls it away into the pond associated with her death. The moment is extraordinarily rich in reverberations, starting from the fact that we have no way of knowing whether Apu’s gesture means he is burying his disillusionment in his adored sister or burying her secret guilt with her. A symbol of the desire of the have-nots to have, of childish innocence, of the imminent flowering to womanhood that was ended by Durga’s death, the necklace becomes a secret transferred to him from her: a secret in which guilt and innocence, justice and injustice, poverty and wealth, her death and his aliveness, all coalesce to provide the intimation that he has taken his first step towards maturity.
India, 1955. English subtitles. Black and white. 115 mins.

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