Satyajit Ray’s 1955 “Song of the little road” is a quiet picture of little big events within a rural Bengali family, where the little happenings of childhood occur, and form that most profound event of any life: growing up. The film is part of a trilogy, the Apu trilogy; but I haven’t (yet) seen the other two films. Still, you can of course see Pather Panchali independently. I hadn’t yet seen anything like it before.
It’s a sort of haiku, those short Japanese poems famous for their purity and density. As one watches it, one is struck by the timelessness, the unfathomable simplicity and emptiness of what is shown. The impression is that the action is “so long ago”, in a time when everything was young, when life was poignant and still, like the lilies on a puddle reflecting the grey sky. The grown-ups are in their fretful world, an old aunt is stuggling in hers, and the children with their eyes wide open observe this world:
There is Durga, the startling woman-child, and Apu her wide-eyed little brother, 11 and 5, perhaps. A frequent silence surrounds their lives, which is filled with humour and games. And nature is all around, vaguely threatening, and yet familiar, and playground-like. As one inspired commentator puts it: “Pather Panchali" turns everyday childhood occurrences into wondrous events, whether it is brother and sister crossing the fields filled with white feathery rushes to see a train in the distance, a pursuit of the candy man, a Hindu feast, the wonders of the natural world, an ancient aunt telling bedtime stories to children.” (erwan_ticheler from Amsterdam, link).
This “ancient aunt” is a creation of her own. She’s played by “80-year-old Chunibala Devi, a retired theatre performer who relished coming back into the limelight after 30 years of obscurity” (Link) Physically, she’s an old blind bird, a witch, a harpy. But in fact she’s a friendly old crackpot, which can never harm anyone. Doubled-up, her hair strangely cropped short, as if punished for some ancient collaboration with the enemy, her mumblings full of humour and dignity (“can’t an old woman have her own whims?”), she is admitted at the house, and needs only the bare minimum. But even that is sometimes a strain.
As opposed to the worried mother, she’s the spirit of the poor household, the element of permanence and liberation from want.. She shares with the children an essential simplicity. Gleefully happy when she’s given stolen fruit that unlike everybody else she doesn’t scold Durga for having pilfered, she knows from lifelong experience that the poor have a right to the fruit of the Earth, wherever they are. But the household is so poor that one day she is sent away, again, and must gather her pauper’s belongings, to seek refuge in another house. We watch her shuffle away with her carpet under her arm, a wizened old hag with her holed-out eye-sockets, and we understand that her hosts have lost their god. When she comes back, it’s to die. And one of the most stunning scenes of the film is when she gently falls on the side, and her head bumps against the ground, with the sound of an empty hazelnut. And as she lies there, in front of Durga’s stare, she’s nothing more than a little bird’s corpse, ever so light, ever so free.
There is something difficult and painful in Pather Panchali; I think it’s the poverty, the stricken life that these people are forced to live and that we are forced to witness. One would like to help them, to give them something, but all we can do is receive Apu’s wide stare, and accept his mother’s anger and tired grief. We cannot change Durga’s thieving and lying habits, which poverty has ingrained in her. We cannot keep the husband and father close to his wife. If he goes away, in his carefree way, we understand that he too is the victim of forces beyond their (and our) reach. One must bear that poverty all along the film. It is there in the broken-down house, the scarce food, the angry neighbour, the gaunt faces of the dwellers, the doomed mother’s concern, the squalor of the yard, the relentless desire of children to eat, all the time. And of course, Durga’s tragedy, her death so young because she stayed out in the rain and caught a simple cold… And finally, the mother’s wail when she can no longer hide the truth from the father, who finally comes back with a little money after six months’ absence, but too late. His little family’s lives were too fragile to wait for him.
Yet there is something immensely joyful and serene in Ray’s film. I think it’s because of the children, the world of childhood, its innocence, its charm, its connection with nature. I enjoyed especially those scenes where the children in the woods, in the fields, on the country roads, with nature so much part of them, a nature that they know intimately, immediately. Another reviewer on Imdb writes:
“The film's structure seems to embody this duality between realism and the figurative. The first half is nearer to social realism, setting out the social hierarchies, introducing characters and their social or family role, defining them against other people, their home and nature. It is full of rich characterisation, even comedy, and full of set-pieces that reveal character and society.
The second half, however, becomes more abstract, even mystical. There is less reliance on words as characters go through strange rites where the emphasis is on observation or action. The nature that had been encroaching on civilisation spills over in these sequences, with stunning montages that recall Dovzhenko. The whole film feels slower, more meaningful and monumental (and sometimes duller). My favourite sequences are in this half, the discovery of the road and railway, the possibility of another life; the silent roaming through a beautiful, dwarfing landscape that recalls the mysticism of the Archers' 'A Canterbury Tale'. (Alice Liddel (-firstname.lastname@example.org) from Dublin, link)
Indeed the delicate (and at the same time powerful) portrayal of childhood, and the feeling of timelessness, of natural eternity which it evokes, the fact that this eternity is nevertheless steeped in death and loss, the mystery of pain and poverty, all this so powerfully (yet simply) brought to our observation that one wonders: where has Ray “seen” all of it? How has he guessed at all that? All the more so as the film was his first! He has painted childhood, the way Sri Aurobindo evokes it: “After all, what is God? An eternal Child playing an eternal game in the eternal garden.” (link). Those of you who have seen the film, wouldn’t you say that we witness that mystical activity of an invisible godhead, present in the various characters, the fretful mother, the wily children, the old aunt, the dreaming father? I love the title of the film: Pather Panchali, Song of the little road: even if I don’t know why Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (who wrote the book that Ray has used) has chosen this title, for me it is full of the lightness, the gravity and the grace that the film and its music (Ravi Shankar) contain. In Apu’s eyes, I see that little song, in Durga’s revolt and sensuality, in the old aunt’s empty eyes and humourous remarks, and in the simple games of life shown as on the first day of Creation.