Out of the Past: ‘Pather Panchali’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

The camera looks up at a rooftop and balcony where we see an Indian woman, clearly upper-class from her dress, intently examining a piece of pottery. She calls out, “Who’s there?” and then looks up, off screen right. Cut to a longer shot, tracking backwards right to follow her as she walks toward something that is not within the image. “Look at her!” the woman exclaims, and addresses a long tirade on theft to another woman on the roof.

The important thing about this opening minute-or-so of Pather Panchali is that it is not like the openings of most Western narrative films. The subject of the woman’s monologue turns out to be a little girl who steals guavas from the orchard (unseen) near the house. About four minutes into the film we see (without knowing their relationship) the girl’s mother in a totally silent, forest shot. The mother’s position is in turn elucidated during a shot which introduces yet another unnamed but later-to-be-significant character: the mother’s best friend. After about 20 minutes of film, we have the complete explanation of the information conveyed in the film’s first two shots, central to which is the fact that the little girl’s family used to own the orchard. The film takes that long to answer fully its first verbal message: “Who’s there?”

It’s not surprising that one’s first reaction to a Satyajit Ray film (and to Asian cinema in general) is that little happens in terms of plot. The exposition of Ray’s film begins with something only minimally related to it—the woman examining pottery—and takes much longer than we would normally think necessary to fill us in on the complete situation which opens the story. Most narrative films pose questions of the sort: “What is going to happen?” Conflict is set up to make us wonder how and when it will be resolved. Not so here: virtually the entire film fits into the category we would normally label ‘exposition.’ So what is going on? Pather Panchali is a hard movie to appreciate because it denies our normal notions of cause-and-effect. It’s rather banal to speak of Ray’s films as “cinematic poetry,” but in a sense they are indeed just that: what matters is not the sequence of events, but how the film moves between them.

Viewed in this way, the manner in which the film pushes large chunks of action and information outside the image and often totally outside our sphere of knowledge is amazingly consistent. Apu’s father leaves the village to seek work, and logically this forms the central conflict for the family: can they survive economically? Yet the film remains fixed on the family home as it is progressively destroyed, through physical ruin and through death; the offscreen action is explained only with the father’s return, and then is revealed to have had no effect on events depicted in the film. Actions and events are always slipping out of our grasp in this manner, to be explained later. In fact, this constant delaying action practiced in the work accounts for much of the power of its conclusion. The fate of Apu and his parents, like everything else, is pushed beyond the limits of the film, and their uncertainty is our own. .

If Ray’s film resolutely denies cause-and-effect (for there is no evidence that the father’s quest has any but a symbolic value, or that anything can stave off the progressive weakening of the family’s economic status), it is to substitute a different kind of construction. One of the most satisfying aspects of Pather Panchali is the frequent occurrence of passages of filmed description: of rain, Apu’s preparations for school, the forest, and so on. In each instance, Ray has set and timed these by Ravi Shankar’s music (or perhaps vice-versa, but the effect is the same). Unlike many Western uses of the device-as in The Graduate, Malle’s Frantic, and many others-these passages have more function than merely to slow down the chain of events or to frustrate the audience’s desire for knowledge.

Knowledge is not the point here, for the movement of the film is not towards an explanation or working out of conflict, but towards what I would term a sort of “horizontal” progression. Titles are important. The translation of Pather Panchal is Song of the Road; the entire film is constructed like a road. In the first sequence we get a systematic division of space:

House / Well and Orchard / Family Home

This is the way that first sequence moves, and this is also the economic history of the family: expelled from the richer quarter of the village, then stripped of its orchard, and finally expelled completely to the missing on the right (figuratively speaking) of the Family Home, which will turn out to be the holy city of Benares.

Within the journey, life is day-to-day rhythm, ritual gestures conceivable only through the notion that the journey itself will repeat, has already been repeated an infinite number of times in the story of mankind. The road is destiny, and both camera-spectator and fictional/real characters move along it with the same steady pulse.

PATHER PANCHALI (1954)
Screenplay and direction: Satyajit Ray, after the novel by Bibhuti Bannerji. Cinematography: Subrata Mitra. Music composed and played by Ravi Shankar.
The players: Kanu Banerji, Karuna Banerji, Subir Banerji, Uma Das Gupta.

Copyright © 1976 Alan Williams