Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali (AKA Song of the Little Road)
seen @ Film Forum

Pather Panchali was yet another film I saw for the first time during my video store days in the 90s, when all I knew about it was that it was an Important Movie. I remember liking it, but I never had the inclination to revisit it or any of the other films in the so-called Apu Trilogy - Aparajito and World of Apu. So I was pleased to see that Film Forum was gonna show all three films this month, although this is probably the only one I'll get to see there.

If you've never seen PP, it's a simple family drama, set within rural India. Mother, father, big sister, little brother, elderly aunt; Dad's job takes him away for long stretches; big sister's a bit of a problem child, which makes the neighbors look down on Mom and her parenting skills; Auntie's kinda crazy and a bit of a kleptomaniac; and little brother's just trying to make his way in this world. He is the Apu of the "Apu Trilogy," if it wasn't obvious.

What do we know about the director, Satyajit Ray? Well, the Trilogy accounted for three of his first five feature films, and he went on to make a whole lot more, none of which, I'm afraid, I've heard of, much less seen. At 6' 5", he was a big guy; he was an illustrator and composer in addition to being a writer-director; he was buddies with Akira Kurosawa; and among the many awards he received in his lifetime included the French Legion of Honor.

PP was based on a book and took over five years to shoot, little by little. The West Bengal government gave Ray money to finish it when he ran out of funds at one point. The Prime Minister of India insisted upon it! When PP took off, Ray was able to quit his job working in an ad agency to make movies full time.

Family dramas are often the best way to gain insight into a culture without it coming across like a documentary, and PP is no exception. We see how Indian people from this time period (1955) and this part of the country eat, dress, live, entertain themselves (there's a nice part where Apu watches a live theatrical performance based in what looks like Indian myth), etc. We see what they value, what their hopes and fears are. Dad is a writer, and he wants to make money off of it, but it's a struggle. Mom fears that her aunt is becoming a bad influence on her daughter and a burden on the family in general. It's a different culture, but the problems they have to deal with are not all that different.

And then there's the music. Chances are you know the name Ravi Shankar from the music of the Beatles, especially George Harrison, and the Byrds. Shankar, an internationally acclaimed, Grammy-winning musician, did the music for the entire Trilogy, and he rocks the sitar like you expect him to. It makes such a distinctive sound; you can tell that it's different from a guitar, and Shankar was the Eric Clapton of the sitar. His music gives PP an added dimension, an extra layer of depth. Hear for yourself.

The Forum is stretching the Trilogy out over the month of May. Some of the people in the crowd I saw PP with seemed to think they were gonna see all three movies at once - which I wouldn't have objected to! It would be nice if the Forum could offer a three-for-one deal of some kind, but that probably would be tricky to pull off. I'm just glad I saw this one when I did.


  1. Really must see this. I'm going to visit with my friend Helen tomorrow, and she is an Indian film connoisseur. I'll have to ask her about it and this director.

    1. You'll like it. I'm sure the others in the trilogy are good too, but it's been so long since I last saw them I can't remember what they're like.

  2. Rich, I've never really explored a lot of foreign films. I have my favorites -- The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo trilogy. Your review of PP is intriguing, and I'd like to see it. You are quite right that family stories are the best way to really experience a different culture. Nice article, Rich!

  3. Thanks. I'm planning to write about more classic foreign films this summer, when I revive the Cinematic World Tour feature.


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