India 1955 : Satyajit Ray : 115 mins

Time hasn’t been especially kind to the first Indian film widely seen outside the subcontinent. Even allowing for the industry’s technical limitations, the culture gap, and the fact that it was Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali is too long, too stilted, too reliant on sentimental shots of wide-eyed children strenuously observing their world in a way real-life kids never do. They’re Apu (Subir Banerji, aka Bandopadhaya) and his older sister Durga (Das Gupta), growing up dirt-poor in rural India — the film is apparently set in 1915, but there’s no way of deducing this from what were shown, just as the title, while evocative, is never explained. Times is hard for the Devi family: the mother (Karuna Banerji) must cope on her own while her ambitious but talentless husband (Kanu Banerji) roams far and wide in search of a job. In his absence, there’s a catastrophic storm that all but ruins their rickety house. Tragedy strikes, then strikes again.

To modern audiences, much of Panchali will now be chiefly of anthropological, not dramatic interest. It takes a while to get going, and for the audience to adjust to the steady pace of rural life. Even so, things bog down during an especially dull stretch half way through, when only Ravi Shankar’s energetic score keeps us interested. Again and again, Ray resorts to his two default shots: Mrs Devi looking world-weary, or Apu gazing in rapt contemplation. It’s not the actors’ fault — Karuna Banerji in particular creates a compelling, convincing portrait of a woman at the end of her tether: in the second half, she really comes into her own, and the whole film takes off.

There’s a lot more going on: previously cardboardy characters reveal a more sympathetic side as push comes to tragic shove, and Ray spreads his wings by indulging in some striking experimental shots: an extended series of semi-abstract images showing insects skittering across the surface of water. He deftly brings in the concept of escape, in the form of the force-of-nature trains that thunder through the village, their sound resonating in the distance at regular intervals. There are some strikingly poetic compositions when the monsoon finally hits the village — during which comes a truly astonishing scene in which Mrs Devi nurses her poorly daughter, shielding her from a wind that rattles the makeshift doors and windows like a relentless, malevolent intruder.

25th November, 2001
(seen Nov-11-01, Cineside, Newcastle)

by Neil Young