As I dig through the last few movies on the TIFF essential 100 list, I am having trouble obtaining copies of some of the more elusive titles, particularly Region 1 DVD copies. This was the case with Pather Panchali, until I obtained a surprisingly cheap copy on Amazon a few weeks ago. I found out quite quickly into watching the film why the copy was so cheap. It was clearly a rip from a television recording that was of rather bad quality and displayed a bug in the right corner of the film the entire time. Furthermore, the subtitling for the film was terrible and often would simply remain on the screen until the next piece of dialogue occurred. You would assume that this combination of issues would make the film all but unwatchable, but the sheer magnitude of the film, combined with Satyajit Ray's honest filmmaking allowed me to become mesmerized by the film regardless. While it certainly helps to see the acclaimed Bengalese director's films in high-definition (The Music Room). Viewing this film recently verified that it is equally important that his films be seen in general, for he is perhaps the most overlooked director to ever live, if only second to Jean Vigo.
Pather Panchali, in contrast to The Music Room, focuses on a poverty stricken family attempting to exist in a rural portion of the Bengalese countryside sometime in the 1920's. Although he does not arrive for the first portion of the film, much of the narratives focus is no that of the family's youngest Child Apu, who very much in the form of Truffaut, would become the subject of a trilogy of films for Ray. Apu, along with his rather precocious sister, Durga exist as a sort of other within their own town, living off little to no food as their preacher father wastes their money on extravagances and alcohol. As such, the burden of the family rest uncomfortably on Apu's mother who is rarely shown in a moment of happiness and is instead forced to punish her children for constant theft while also pushing away a leeching aunt-in-law who constantly whines and consumes the families resources. Most of the film centers on the mothers struggles, while Apu and Durga look on with confusion and a lack of understanding as to why they have so little and their neighbors seem to have so much. At one point, it appears as though Apu's dad has finally found steady employment only to disappear for months while their residence falls to shambles. Apu's mother has all but given up hope, until she receives a letter from her husband explaining that he will return home with a large amount of money, which will assuredly fix their strife. Tragically, his return is a day too late as a terrible monsoon destroys their house and kills his only daughter in the process. There is a considerable amount of mourning before the family agrees to move into the city, Apu finds a necklace that belonged to Durga as they are leaving, one which he clearly intends to keep in his possession as a memory of her, it is to be assumed that the family is moving into prosperity, if only in a technological sense.
This excellent bit of cinema won the "Best Human Document" award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. While this may seem like a rather unusual award for a low-budget narrative film, it is fair to note that it is the only film in the festivals history to receive such an award. Through his inclusion in this festival, Ray managed to become a name amongst the film world and create an acknowledgement for Indian filmmaking on a global scale. However, it is difficult to pinpoint precisely what about the film would have led juries to create such a category for the film. I would be so bold to suggest that it is quite possible that Pather Panchali is one of, if not, the best documents of human existence ever. While the film is certainly narrative in its composition, it depicts a reality so earnestly and intimately that you have trouble remembering that it is fictional. So much of the film is mundane, whether it be Apu's brief moments at school, or the way the camera lingers on the mother's chores indefinitely. If the film were just this it may not have been received so well, but what Pather Panchali does is to take the mundane moments in life while also sprinkling in those moments of enlightenment that hit us throughout our lives, particularly evident in the moment when the children see a train for the first time, or when they are caught a storm under a tree (probably one of the most beautiful moments i have ever seen in cinema). Like The Music Room, Ray's debut work reminds viewers that life is about existing and eventually dying and our interactions on each occasion matter more than we care to believe. It is learning to hear and acknowledge those around you that assures your brief existence is somewhat enjoyable. Perhaps, Pather Panchali then is not so much a Human Document, but a guideline to society about how to exist in a meaningful harmony with those around us.
I want to tell you so desperately to purchase this film, but tragically few good copies exist. Should you be fortunate enough to own a laser disc player, then maybe you can get a decent looking copy. If not just wait patiently for a rerelese in HD...I hear Criterion has one deep in the works.