[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?”