For twenty whole years of my life I lived in ignorance without having seen the sun or the moon, but today I have finally seen the Ray and I feel holy and blessed now. Akira Kurusawa, the man behind Japanese classics like Rashomon and Ran, rightly said years ago that living in a world without having seen a Satyajit Ray movie is similar to living without having seen the sun or the moon; almost every movie I’ve seen feels down after living in Ray’s world. It is a momentous experience to see the debut work of the late Bengali director Pather Panchali, one that deeply impacts the core of your soul in a way that makes you feel afterwards as if you have lived two lives: one before you saw Pather Panchali and another. later. He accomplishes the remarkable feat of invoking his senses to a higher state of consciousness; The experience of seeing Pather Panchali is similar to reading The War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy or The Portrait of a Young Artist by James Joyce or some of the best achievements of William Blake or Emily Dickinson, or seeing the iconic twist of Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice. The feeling is so powerful that it took me more than an hour to return to my original state; the hardest part for me was returning the DVD to the movie rental store because I knew the true value of what I was holding. May God bless the guy who recognized the value of Pather Panchali years ago and preserved the original prints so that today’s world can have a chance to be transported to the precious little magical world of Apu, the protagonist of the film.
This little world is black and white to the outer eye, but the film is so richly shot and composed that it colors our minds with the most exquisite palette. The opening credits, which no one who can’t read Bengali would understand, still captures the spirit of Pather Panchali through Ravi Shankar’s playful, whimsical and yearning tabla rhythms and sitar strums; only Michael Danna could mesmerize us in 2012’s Life of Pi with an equally evocative score. Ray’s world opens up not with Apu or his sister Durga, but with the film’s most antagonistic character, the spiteful neighbor of the Apu family who adores the early morning tulsi plant. Satyajit follows her when she realizes that Durga, Apu’s unborn sister, is stealing fruits from her yard. Durga runs through the woods to her shanty house and hands the fruits to her senescent great-aunt, Indir Thakrun, after saving milk for her three kittens. Ray then cuts to the neighbor who scolds Durga and curses her family for raising a thief; In an excellently composed sequence, Ray is able to capture her seamlessly, the lady listening on the balcony of the adjoining house listening to her and Durga’s pregnant mother, Sarbajaya, and her empathic friend collecting water from the well behind the house of the neighbor, within earshot of the woman bitter spiel. Sarbajaya confronts her daughter for stealing fruits and then reprimands Indir Thakrun for encouraging Durga’s bad behavior. Indir Thakrun leaves the house temporarily, frustrated by Sarbajaya’s complaints, but returns soon when Sarbajaya gives birth to Apu.
A couple of dissolutions take us a few years ahead and now we see Apu as an innocent boy who goes to school and has more affection for his sister Durga. His family can barely meet his basic needs, with Apu’s mild-mannered father, Harihar Roy, too lax to ask his employer for his fair share; neither is he capable of much as a playwright. This situation makes it especially difficult for Sarbajaya to handle household needs, as she herself does not like begging others for money or any other help; therefore, she is even harsher on Indir Thakrun, who sometimes, like Durga, tends to take food from Sarbajaya’s kitchen without permission. There are two sequences at different points in the movie that include Harihar and Sarbajaya; They both maintain the same posture in the sequences, but while in the first sequence, Harihar gives Sarbajaya a more optimistic image to appease her, in the second he sounds less enthusiastic while Sarbajaya seems more concerned about her future. Apu is still too young to be affected by family problems and we only see him enjoying his childhood days with Durga and her friends. Durga is a great support to everyone, including her mother, who reacts violently towards Durga when the same neighbor at first accuses Durga of stealing her daughter’s bead necklace. Family problems persist after Harihar travels to the nearby city to find work and tragedies follow one after another; The only hope of the family, as Harihar said in his letters to Sarbajaya after leaving, is to leave everything in the hands of the Grace of God, keeping in mind that everything is going to be better.
For Satyajit Ray, every image and every sound, both on and off the screen, is important. It is his prowess as a cinematic visionary that conveys the film so well that it baffles you to know that it is his first film. I read one of his books, a compilation of his essays and theories on the film, and he mentions how his inexperienced crew hadn’t even operated a camera before filming Pather Panchali, so the first half was a bit choppy in editing. I have no idea what you are talking about here because in my eyes, each image was seamlessly stitched together. For me, I was not capturing images but creating images on film; It’s hard to express how beautifully it captures Sarbajaya’s gradual collapse on film without using superlatives. And his cool image is complemented by the background score by Ravi Shankar, which includes the sound of bells ringing during a joyous sequence with a candy man and also during some of the haunting moments; It reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant poem The Bells. Pather Panchali shines and Satyajit is the Ray of Light.