Pather Panchali is an unusual movie for the average American viewer and, as even as a little more keen than the average American viewer, it was an unusual movie for me. The pacing is undoubtedly slow and while I normally enjoy films that are described as slow, I found myself wishing it moved a little faster. Then again, that would defeat the most intriguing aspect of the film, which is depicting life, poverty, and everyday joys and sorrows in stark realism.
Pather Panchali, like Jean Renoir’s The River is set in and was shot on location in India. Director Satyajit Ray met Renoir when he traveled to India to shoot The River. Ray was inspired by Renoir's independent filmmaking, and Renoir encouraged him to make the film. There are similarities between the two movies, but also some very important differences. Visually, Pather Panchali is not as striking, and while The River was filmed in English, depicting the story of Europeans in India, Pather Panchali was filmed entirely in the director’s native Bengali which means there is a refreshing lack of colonialism in it.
Pather Panchali focuses on a family struggling in poverty in a small village. The mother, Sarbajaya, is trying to keep her family fed, clothed and healthy with a husband who is not very driven to make money. The pre-teen daughter, Durga, and her younger brother Apu are touched by this poverty but have the kind of resilience that the childhood innocence bears. The very elderly aunt pops in and out, driving Sarbajaya beyond annoyance to cruelty. But the characters are so well-crafted that even though they all have faults, I felt that I understood their actions and loved them regardless, just as one might in a real family. When tragedy strikes near the end of film, the remaining family decides to move away from their ancestral home. There are painful memories that leave them unhappy, and they hope to find better luck in their lives elsewhere.
There isn’t much else to the plot, but somehow it is enthralling. The family loves, fights, and endures. Sometimes it’s beautiful, and sometimes it’s ugly and uncomfortable to watch. In that way, Ray does a fantastic job with making it very much like real life which also makes the movie a little exhausting. If you want a movie to help you unwind and forget your troubles after a long, difficult day, this movie probably isn’t going to do it. But it is a film that reminds us that there can be beauty and joy in even difficult situations, and it’s a testament to both the fragility and resilience of human nature. It is the kind of movie that one doesn’t easily forget. I know I won’t.