Friday, June 3, 2011

Oh! Calcutta!

Films: Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
Format: DVDs from Fountaindale Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

This task I have set for myself is difficult. There are times when it is difficult because the film in question is one that I don’t want to watch or have difficulty watching. Other times, it’s that once I watch a film, I find that I don’t have a lot to say about it. Such is the case with the first of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road).

This is one of those films that is on the must-see list because of what it represents, not because of the movie itself. Satyajit Ray is one of the truly most important filmmakers in the history of India, and this is his first film as well as that start of the Apu Trilogy. This film represents nothing less than India’s arrival on the world stage of cinema. It is the first time that Indian film became known and discovered worthy of study outside of India. In short, Bollywood and all that it represents began here.

The film focuses on a single poor family in the Bengali region of India. The family is destitute, and it seems like nothing they do can change this. The father of the family, Hari (Kanu Banerjee) works as an accountant, but is so worried about losing his job that he won’t ask for his pay. He’d like to be a scholar and work as a playwright and priest, but there isn’t much work for him, and the money he does get needs to go to food and repaying debts instead of repairing the house, which needs to be fixed before the monsoon season.

Trying to keep the family together is Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), who does her best with what she has. Her husband has his head in the clouds and little real ambition, and her children are, well, children. Additionally, she has to look after Indir (Chunibala Devi) an ancient, wizened relative.

The children are older daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and younger son Apu (Subir Banerjee). They, despite the desperate poverty suffered by the family, enjoy themselves as much as they can. They watch travelling minstrel shows, get candy from a wandering seller, and play. Durga also likes to steal things, most notably fruit from a nearby orchard, much of which she gives to Indir. The thievery seems to stem from many things. First, the orchard once belonged to the family. Second, Durga is constantly hungry thanks to the crushing poverty. Third, evidently Durga sees nothing really wrong with taking what she wants.

This becomes a problem when the necklace of one of Durga’s friends goes missing. The poverty and natural inclination to steal makes Durga the most obvious culprit, and she is accused, but denies the theft. And then it’s dropped, essentially. Work dries up for Hari, but he has a possibility of some employment, and he leaves to pursue it. However, it turned out to be nothing, and he keeps looking for work for months. While he is gone, the family suffers from increasing poverty, which culminates in what becomes inevitable.

What makes a film like Pather Panchali difficult is why it made the list. It’s here for no other reason than because of its importance to Indian cinema and its reception on the world stage. For that reason (and I think that reason alone), the film is noteworthy and worth watching for anyone really serious about film. In actual practice, though, this film is really very dull. Not much happens for long stretches of time. There are plenty of shots of nature, particularly when the monsoon season starts. While beautiful, this is not languid or impressive. It’s just there. I’m certain that this is because Satyajit Ray was still learning the craft of putting a film together and hadn’t really learned tricks like pacing yet. It shows. While certainly masterful in places (Sarbajaya battling against the monsoon, for instance), it also shows the lapses of a brilliant amateur.

Ultimately, this is not a film I can recommend. Anyone truly serious about film should watch it because of its influence, but anyone who watches strictly for entertainment will not find a lot here. It’s slow and the pacing feels like it could be sped up a few miles per hour just so that something happens every now and then.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) picks up not too long after Pather Panchali ends. Now in a new location, the family continues to struggle. Hari continues to look for work, and makes a little money with herbal remedies and reading scriptures. One night, he becomes very ill, and rather than resting the next day, he heads off to try to continue providing for his family. He doesn’t make it all the way back home, leaving Sarbajaya as the sole breadwinner.

She attempts to provide by taking work as a maid, but the family soon moves back closer to the ancestral home. Apu (in this film played initially by Pinaki Sengupta as a child and then as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) asks to be sent to school, in a way to fulfill his father’s dream for him—in Pather Panchali, his intent had been to educate Apu himself. Apu excels at school and earns a scholarship, taking him to Calcutta and away from his mother.

This relationship—Apu and Sarbajaya after the death of Hari is one of the main points of Aparajito. Sarbajaya doesn’t want to let go of her son. She would prefer that he stay in the small village rather than leave for Calcutta while Apu wants only to get away from all of the pain of his life so far and start somewhere new. Sarbajaya eventually gives in and allows him to go.

Once in Calcutta, Apu starts his own life, getting a job ,and thus finding few reasons to return to his mother and finding many excuses to keep him away. As time goes on and Sarbajaya begins to become ill, Apu eventually realizes that he must return home for his mother. It is here that the main crux of the film really occurs. Apu is essentially offered a choice: he can follow in the footsteps of his father or he can attempt to truly create his own life and path. His father’s path is the traditional one, but has held nothing but heartache and poverty for Apu and his family. While the new path may be more exciting, it is also unknown, and would break Apu’s ties with his past.

Like Pather Panchali, Aparajito is a slow film, taking its own time getting from place to place and event to event. However, it also feels much more controlled than Pather Panchali, as if Ray had learned something in the creation of the first film that he carried over into the second.

Combined, these two films make a sort of bildungsroman of Apu. This isn’t immediately obvious, because Apu is a far more secondary character in the first film and becomes central to the narrative only after the death of Hari in the first part of Aparajito. I have not yet seen or located the third film in the trilogy, but I would imagine that Satyajit Ray completes the coming of age and moral growth of Apu. At least that makes a certain sense.

While interesting, the version of Aparajito I found suffers in the subtitles department. The subtitles are simple white text, and frequently the words are completely washed out against the backdrop of the film, making some conversations very difficult to follow. Fortunately, the film itself is not a complex story, and it’s not too tough to figure out from actions and some context what is going on. Sadly, there are times when snips of conversation are lost, and it’s easy to simply assume that nothing important has been missed.

Like Pather Panchali before it, Aparajito is difficult to recommend for anyone watching strictly for entertainment, simply because the film is not extremely entertaining. It is notable, and worth watching, and interesting visually. It’s just painfully slow. Both films are helped tremendously by an excellent soundtrack courtesy of Ravi Shankar.

For what it’s worth, the longer these films continued, the more I became interested in them. I very much want to see the final film in the trilogy, Apur Sansar in the very near future.

Why to watch Pather Panchali: For the same reason some silent films are still worth watching—for the history.
Why not to watch: Much of it is pretty dull.

Why to watch Aparajito: A continuation of the story started in Pather Panchali
Why not to watch: Expect only partial resolution; it’s the middle of a trilogy.


  1. Your assessment of Pather Panchali is 100% in line with most of the 1001 club members. well writ!

  2. Well, it is what it is. It's kind of like a really good painting of something ugly. I admire the artistry and even the skill without really admiring the art itself.

  3. I guess i'm the odd person out in the 1001 club with these films. I really liked them for their story, and despite the slow pacing, I found these beautifully filmed and scored productions very engaging.

    I was also lucky enough to find the first two films on decent quality DVDs - and don't recall having any problems with the subtitles.

    My enjoyment may have also been added to by my ability to watch them in order in the course of a short period of time.

  4. It's not that bad to be the odd man out--I certainly was on Raising Arizona.

  5. Yes, this was boring in parts. It is so passive that I at times wondered if I was watching a documentary and not a feature movie. The lack of uplifting moments also seems like a mistake. Ray is in danger of losing his audience leaving only masochists and ethnographic professionals.

    1. I should probably give this another chance some day.