Made during the mid 1950s, Pather Panchali by Sathyajit Ray heralded a new wave in Indian cinema even when Indian cinema was just starting out. How far the new wave was carried on by other film makers is a different question. But till date, Pather Panchali is an unbeaten classic and here are my 9 reasons why, despite being made almost 70 years ago, it is a parallel to modern cinema. (Not the Bollywood ones; we’re talking about good modern cinema.) Diving in.
- The obvious part – surreal frames in black and white.
Sathyajit Ray’s impeccable skills with creating ethereal frames even amidst such dull & mundane settings has been lauded by cinematographers over and over, and it’s something you’ll appreciate more each time you watch the movie. The vision the man had in terms of delivering aesthetic and deep frames in black and white is beyond his time. Some frames make you want to pause the movie and admire it; that’s how picturesque it gets, but not as per popular beauty standards. I did not realize ‘aesthetic depth’ was even a thing and it could be achieved with a bare minimum supply of resources until I watched Pather Panchali. Film makers of today spend endless money on creating aesthetic setups with modern technology but what Ray accomplished with such modest resources is so much higher than the visions of most of today’s directors.
2. The quest with realism when cinema was all about romanticism
1950s was when cinema in India was still an entertainment concept within a distant utopia for many. Movies were made in small numbers, but the ones that were made drew inspiration from fantasy and romanticism; pretty much why the era was called the Golden era of (Hindi) cinema. Directorial ventures focused on experimenting and wowing the audiences with musicals, dream sequences, love stories and so on.
Ray went revolutionary before being revolutionary was even a thing in the entertainment industry. He told the story of Pather Panchali (the novel) with its pitiful backdrops, unromantic storyline and unconventional characters as they were, with close to no efforts of making the movie unnaturally aesthetic or romantic. And he did it all in vernacular cinema. The love of making the movie and perfecting the art is what is focused upon, as opposed to popularizing it or drawing audience. For 1950s, this was as brave as a film maker could get.
3. Problematic character arcs
Problematic characters that end up with rather unbecoming endings are a trait of realistic cinema. Pather Panchali does not shy away from it. Popular cinema tends to give away happy endings to the characters we root for and penalise the ‘villains’ or anti characters towards the end but nothing of the sort happens here. Good people have their bad sides, sympathy is hardly a thing, and not even the memory of a dead person is protected from a negative light thrown at her personality. In terms of exploring the truest human traits and the twisted psychology of people leading confined lives, Pather Panchali aces the art of problematic character arcs.
4. Brutality in killing off characters
Well, this movie might as well be the Game of Thrones of the context because two of the major characters are mercilessly killed off with minimum consideration for mellowing down the effect of it. The grandmother dies a brutal death starving and unprotected in a sad corner outside the house, a death evidently facilitated by the daughter in law. The sound effect of the thud she falls with when Durga attempts to shake her off her presumed sleep is a part that alarms even the most composed of minds.
Of course, the death of Durga, whom we might mistake for the protagonist throughout the movie is one intense surprise. Ray has left no emotional attachment to his characters hinder his intent to deliver an intense story.
5. Glimpse of the feministic issues movies are made about even today
Ray seems to have caught and captured a glimpse of what futuristic (for back then) movies like The Great Indian Kitchen would be made of. The lady of the household is left behind to deal with the extreme hardships of feeding two mouths and surviving a storm in a rattling house when her husband goes in search of a job. She still sustains a shallow sense of dignity through it all and breaks down when the husband returns with no clue of everything she had to push through in his absence. No, the role of an obedient housewife is not romanticised or depicted to be great. It’s a hell hole that no woman would want to be in. Amazingly, movies are still being made about it.
6. Encyclopedic map of rural Bengal
The land of intellectuals had its gloomy cornerstones and there’s no escaping the reality of it in Pather Panchali. However, the importance they still managed to associate with education and literature, despite the unavailability of resources to pursue them right, is a mirror to the image of Bengal as we know it today. The husband in the story is apparently a writer hailing from a reputable family that has long lost its financial stronghold. The affinity towards the ancestral home keeps him there until he sees there is nothing it has offered him save destitution. Rural Bengal and its populace come alive in the small village surrounding his pitiful abode. It’s easy to connect to and trace throughout the movie. Even with a rather dull story to tell, Ray has managed to ace cinematography to the extent of competing with a modern movie.
7. The idea of a trilogy
Pather Panchali moved on to be the first of the famous ‘Apu trilogy’ by Sathyajit Ray which bookmarks the big book of accomplishments in Indian cinema. Apu, the little boy with hardly any experience or significant role to play in Pather Panchali becomes the central figure around whom the world revolves in the Apu trilogy. Pather Panchali was created and released with so much difficulty, and yet Ray went on to expand it to a series. This is an extraordinary experiment considering the time the trilogy was made in.
8. Impeccable casting
Who would think the problematic character roles would be conveyed to the last minute detail with perfection by people who weren’t even actors. How Ray managed to cast the most appropriate non-actors for such challenging roles such as the grandmother, Durga and Apu is nothing short of amazing.
9. Incredible back story!
Oh, the hardships Ray and his team had to go through to make Pather Panchali a reality. From lack of funds to the lack of talent in the industry to bring his vision to life, Ray has waited three long years to complete and release Pather Panchali. The story of how this movie was made is in itself a movie-worthy one. Adding to it is the fire disaster in which the original reel was lost and has now been recreated and digitized. While the movie plays out a story, it is in itself a legendary tale worthy of being told to all generations of movie makers.