The work of the great Indian director, perhaps the first director to put Indian cinema on the world map, is something of a notable gap in my knowledge and experience of film. I'd watched a double bill of the excellent 'Days and Nights in the Forest' and 'Devi' last year, but what's considered his crowning achievement, the Apu Trilogy had so far eluded my attention. Across the next three evenings, time permitting, I'll watch the trilogy in full, starting with 'Pather Panchali', which is every bit as great as the reputation of the film suggests. Bearing the influence of the Italian neo-realists and Renoir, whom Ray assisted on 'The River' (which had been filmed a few years earlier in India), it truly is one of the most staggering debuts that I can think of. It's even more incredible to think that the entire personnel working on the film were complete amateurs and that the film was made over four or five years because funds kept running out (eventually financial assistance from the West Bengal government facilitated its completion). Despite these setbacks, and possibly because of them, Ray was able to create a film that can only be defined as a masterpiece.
Set in a rural Bengal village in the 1920s, Ray shows us the hardships and tragedies faced by one family over the course of several years. This starts with the birth of Apu (Subir Bannerjee), who would go on to become the central character of the trilogy, and the film ends with his naive innocence giving way to a degree of experience and reality hitting home. The family is poor, held together solely by the resilience and strength of the mother (Karuna Bannerjee). The father (Kanu Bannerjee) is a feckless dreamer whose education gives him greater aspirations than he is perhaps entitled to. He wants to be a scholar and a writer but struggles to feed and provide for his family and worries that by harassing his employer for his wages on time he'll lose his job - his naive optimism contrasts sharply with that of his wife who is constantly frustrated by him. Their struggles increase when he leaves the village to find work, leaving his wife alone to cope and care for the family. In the father's absence though, tragedy strikes twice with the deaths of the grandmother (Chunibala Devi) and also the daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta).
A recurring theme within the film is that of respect and social standing; something that seems to have permeated Indian society from the days of colonialism. Durga is caught stealing fruit and accused of stealing her friends' beads, which brings shame upon the family. Neighbours suggest Durga hasn't been brought up well (exacerbated by her absent father) and that she's an accomplished thief. Such is the disgrace this brings upon the family that her mother disciplines her with a sense of cruelty. This scene includes an instance of Ray relying on Ravi Shankar's percussive score taking the place of dialogue - it happens during the scene in which the mother explains to the returning father that their daughter has died. It's as if words aren't necessary; we can judge the mood and situation from mere images and reactions. Furthermore, the father speaks of his education and realising his dreams of becoming a writer which would achieve a sense of respect for them and secure a good marriage for Durga in the process. However this quest for self-respect, built on the naive idealism of the father is responsible for the tragic episodes within the film.
For a director making his first film, Ray is remarkably assured in terms of his handling of images to propel the narrative. The film contains a number of memorable images and scenes which linger in the memory. Reflections in ponds or rain falling into ponds show a keen interest in the elements as symbolism. The film's most celebrated scene contrasts the tradition and backwardness of village life with technology and modernity. Whilst exploring, Apu and Durga see power lines, clearly something they'd never noticed before living in a village where electricity isn't available. Running from one set to the next, they are confronted by the symbol of the increasingly modern age; a steam train, which shows them that there is life outside the village, a life that offers more possibilities and opportunities, a life that ironically Durga's death pushes the family towards (the final scene shows them heartbroken and leaving for the city).
In its evocation of childhood, Ray's film is unsurpassed and comparable with Truffaut's 'Les Quatre Cents Coups' which would follow a few years later. It's scope runs much further than this however, reflecting rural village life with great accuracy and sympathy. Despite its implications of the father being responsible in part for Durga's death - his lack of repairs for the house lead to her pneumonia worsening, and his general carelessness, he is never condemned and eventually shown as doing what he can to support the family. An astonishing achievement - there is no other way to describe it - I hope the two remaining parts of the trilogy maintain this level of quality. 5/5