Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Pather Panchali (1955)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #43 (tied with Some Like It Hot, Gertrud, Pierrot le Fou, Play Time, and Close-Up)

There's a tendency in film history to focus on the medium's development through European, American, and (to a lesser extent) Japanese filmmakers. In some ways, this is a practical development: the earliest prominent films came from France and the United States, and the study of film and filmmaking grew most significantly in those regions as well. But the fact of the matter is that Europe and North America were not the only parts of the world with burgeoning film industries and filmmaking traditions. By the 1930s, films could be found, in some stage of development, in just about every corner of the globe. By the time renowned Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray had made his film debut with Pather Panchali, India had already developed a strong film industry, and Ray was a crucial part of an alternative movement in Indian cinema.


Pather Panchali follows an impoverished Bengali family trying to make ends meet in their remote village. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a local priest with dreams of becoming a poet. His wife, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), struggles to take care of the family: daughter Durga (Runki Banerjee as a child, Uma Dasgupta as a teenager), son Apu (Subir Banerjee), and Harihar's elderly cousin Indir (Chunibala Devi). Durga is frequently in trouble for stealing fruit from a nearby orchid, and one day is accused of stealing a wealthy neighbor's bracelet. As the family's financial situation grows more dire, Apu finds wonder in the world around him, even as heartbreak looms large over his family.

At the time, Pather Panchali was a wholly unique work in the traditions of Indian cinema, especially in Bengali-language cinema. It wasn't the beginning of a new movement, but it came to represent one on the international stage, with Ray as the new figurehead for its international success.

More after the jump.


For the purposes of this essay, Indian cinema can be broken down into two distinct movements. The first involves the glossy, high-profile films known as "masala films," called such for the way they blend genres such as musicals, comedies, dramas, and thrillers. Though the term "masala film" entered the lexicon in the 1970s, the concept had existed decades before, especially in Hindi-language cinema. These films are what most Western audiences know as "Bollywood" films: epic musicals with large-scale dance productions and a mix of comedy, drama, romance, or action. Within India, these films are the most popular, the Indian equivalent to Hollywood films.

But, as in American cinema, an alternative movement arose that ran counter to the aesthetics of "masala films." This became known as Indian Parallel Cinema, and the hallmarks of this movement share a fair number of commonalities with Italian Neorealism and essentially pre-date the French New Wave. The films in Parallel Cinema are marked by the use of amateur actors and plots based around poverty and lower-class citizens presented in a realistic way. Many of these films utilized on-location shooting and natural lighting, as well as children as protagonists. Most importantly, however,  these films rejected the glossy musical numbers and production values of "masala films." Parallel Cinema initially arose mostly in Bengali-language cinema, but has since spread throughout India.

Ray's film was truly the work of amateurs. Only Kanu Banerjee had film acting experience; Karuna Banerjee and Dasgupta had limited theatrical experience, Devi was a retired theatre actress, and Subir Banerjee had never acted before (though the three main actors all share the surname Banerjee, they were not related). Ray had never directed a film before; he only received the inspiration to after a screening of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) and an encounter with French filmmaker Jean Renoir. Most of the crew for Pather Panchali had never worked on a film before either. Ray's cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, had never even operated a camera before. The film's composer, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, was still in the nascent stages of his career.


What sets Pather Panchali as a major work in the genre, however, is how it utilizes these elements of inexperience to gain a perspective that comes close to being "authentic." Ray is able to capture not just the harsh realities of living in poverty, but also the wonder of the world as seen through the eyes of a child. The film is based on a classic bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) by Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, which places Apu directly at the center of the story. Ray attaches the film to Apu's perspective for much of its running time, allowing the audience to see the world the way that he sees it. The most famous example of this involves Apu and Durga rushing to catch a glimpse of a nearby train. This is the first time either has ever actually seen the train, and Ray's camera gazes upon with the same fascination that they have. Similarly, a later scene of Durga playing in the rain during monsoon season is treated as a lyrical dance, with both Apu and the camera looking on in wonder at the beauty of what they're witnessing.

Ray came under fire from some critics, including Marxist filmmaker/critic Mrinal Sen, for the film, with these critics claiming that the film glorified poverty. Yet Ray subverts this idea within the film. In each of the aforementioned scenes, the sense of wonder is almost immediately followed by the encroachment of death. As the kids run off to see the train, Indir stumbles and dies, with the children finding her body upon their return. This is presumably Apu's (and likely Durga's) first encounter with death, and it deflates the elation from the previous moment. Later, after dancing in the rain, Durga comes down with an illness, which soon results in her premature death as well. Here, Apu experiences an even greater loss: Durga was a maternal figure, a sister, and a friend all in one. It's Durga's death that inspires the family to leave the village, hoping for better fortunes in the city.

Rather than glorifying poverty, Ray's message seems abundantly humanist: even in the worst of circumstances, there can be wonder, curiosity, and happiness. It's for this reason that Ray emerged on the international scene as a powerful voice in world cinema. As the film made the international rounds, critics and filmmakers alike took notice. His follow-up film, Aparajito (1956), became an even bigger hit, and the capper to his so-called "Apu Trilogy," Apur Sansar (1959), cemented his status as a major talent. As a result, Parallel Cinema flourished on the international scene, leading directly into the Indian New Wave of the 1960s. It all started with a group of novices in Bengal, driven only by a passion for film.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)

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