Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Pather Panchali (1955)

Sangen om Vejen
I am back from yet another trip, this time back good ol’ Denmark, and the movie I brought for this voyage was “Pather Panchali”.

When I think of Indian movies I think of Bollywood. Something with a lot of formation dancing, a romantic story that is far-fetched at best, some divine intervention and a number of illogical and certainly foreign plot moves that just leaves me baffled. In short I am not a fan of Bollywood. The prospect of an old Indian movie as the next item on the List was therefore not exactly something that excited me, in fact dread may be a much better descriptor for my mental state going into “Pather Panchali”.

Imagine my surprise when I realized this has nothing to do with Bollywood and could hardly be less Indian in terms of style. At least not the India I know and (dis)like.

Wikipedia tells that the director, Satyajit Ray, was very inspired by European filmmaking, particularly the Italian school of neorealism and I can believe that. Had somebody told me this had been made by De Sica or Rossellini I would bought that without blinking. “Panther Panchali” has the feel of a documentary where the camera simply follow an Indian family and somebody lost the track with the narrator. A subtitle of the film could very well be “Life and Death in Rural India”.

As in Italian Neorealism we are as close to reality as possible and it pulls no punches in describing the conditions out there in the villages and the hardships people go through. Although we follow a particular family and their tragedy (again Italian Neorealism…) the generalization is never far away. Nothing here is uncommon and it has happened countless times before and since. As such the political agenda is quite obvious with the difference that in India you do not need to use propaganda, you just describe reality, which in itself is a departure from Bollywood.

The story itself is almost ridiculously simply because there is hardly anything you would call a progressing plot. We simply follow a family. The mother Sarbajaya Roy (Karuna Banerjee) is the glue that keeps the family together. She is constantly concerned with the financial state of the family (for good reason) and hovering over their daughter Durga (Runki Banerjee / Uma Dasgupta) who is a free spirit poorly fitted for the strictness of female life in rural India. The father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is their only source of income, but he is even more of a dreamer than their daughter. He is sort of intellectual and perform religious rites and do accounting while he dreams of writing plays, but it is difficult for him to keep a job and get paid for those he does get. Income is therefore an uncertainty and throughout the movie it dwindles into nothing when Harihar travels for an extended period to find work.

In the beginning of the movie they get a little boy, Apu (Subir Banerjee) whom both parents dote on, usually at the expense of their daughter. This is a fixture throughout the movie. Another one is an old woman who wanders around and usually stays with the family. She is the only one to dote on Durga, but the mother repeatedly send her on her way. That continues till she eventually dies.

“Panther Panchali” has a lot to offer as a documentary and its topic makes it political, but as entertainment it is thin. I do get strangely fascinated by watching this very different Indian life unfold and it is difficult not to feel sorry for the family, but with a running time of over two hours it is very passive and frankly a bit dull. It helps to chop it up in parts, but you could be fairly certain that the next segment would be much like the past segment, except that the family would be a bit poorer and the troubles would be piling up some more.

A question I kept asking myself was who are the good guys and who are the bad ones? The absent father who is miserable at bringing home funds, but keeps at his airy plans? The mother who is so frustrated with Durga that she likely pushed her to her death as she did the old woman? Or Durga who actually did steal and wanders off instead of working? Well, I believe none of them. Everybody are behaving more or less like normal people would with the strengths and weaknesses we all have. Their downfall were due to structural problems in India, cultural and economic, and that again brings it back to politics.

Conclusively I would say that I was very happy this was not Bollywood and that as a document this is an excellent movie. As entertainment this is dull and tragic with very little relief. I doubt I would be watching it again but for anybody with in interest in India this may deserve a viewing.


  1. Actually, all the Indian films I've seen from the 50s and 60s are very much about misery in every way it can be experienced. It wasn't until the 70s that things seemed to start to change with crime movies, then into the 80s and 90s they finally started to get what people think of today when they hear the term "Bollywood" - lighthearted romance. There are many modern Indian films that don't fit into that formula, though, just as there any many American films that are not "Hollywood". Black, Rang De Basanti, and Gangs of Wassypur are three that readily come to mind

    Ray's movies actually aren't quite as filled with misery as other choices on this list. You have some more coming from him, including the second and third films in the Apu trilogy.

    1. That is very interesting information, Chip. I had no idea. I thought the "Bollywood formula" was historically entrenched and that Ray's problems with funding was because his movie had none of these elements. I guess I read that too fast.
      Although his recipie is utterly depressing I do prefer it to the Bollywood staple, but that may be my inability to cope with that particular culture. I have travelled a lot in the east, but my visit to India was not a highlight.

    2. There are songs in movies all the way back to the 50s at least, so if it's only the presence of singing that makes a movie Bollywood to you, then you will run into them much sooner. However, if it's the singing combined with a light romantic story then that's more the modern films.

  2. I've seen at least one Bollywood film dating from the late 40's/early 50's and think there are plenty more though they may not peak until laer.

    We are going to have to disagree on Pather Panchali. I find it tragic but never dull. Some of the images - the children seeing their first train, Durga washing her hair in the rain - have stuck with me forever. Ray worked with Jean Renoir on The River and he is seen as an influence as well.

    1. Well, I hope you noticed that I was not entirely negative. There are a lot of positvies to get from the movie. The images are one one element. For me it works a lot better as a documentary because it is incredibly informative, especially for someone not familiar with rural India, but I did find it dull. the story itself could be cooked down to half an hour and while the filler in between can be facinating to watch it is still filler. Of course it does not help that I am not a big fan of India. I simply do not understand that country and my single visit there did not exactly encourage me for more.

  3. Yeah, I'm with Chip on this. Early Indian cinema is about human misery, and you've got a few coming up that are a good, long wallow in degradation.

    You liked this a lot more than I did. I should probably revisit it someday and give it another chance.

    1. A part of me liked it, another part was bored out of my skull. It is an intering watch, but for me only once.