30 Oct 2019

Fifty best films: Pather Panchali

From Widescreen, 3:45 pm on 30 October 2019

The only film from India in Sight & Sound’s survey of the top 50 films of all time is Pather Panchali from 1955.

Subir Bannerjee as Apu in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Pather Panchali (1955)

Subir Bannerjee as Apu in Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Pather Panchali (1955) Photo: Umbrella

Of all the filmmakers with pictures in the so-called ‘canon’, India’s Satyajit Ray is the one that I am most fond of and – at the same time – have found the hardest to actually see. Perhaps these two facts are connected.

I once emailed Bill Gosden, then the well-respected director of the International Film Festival, to request a Ray retrospective as I knew that many of his films were getting Scorsese-inspired restorations but the fashion for old movies was waning at the festival during that period. Ah well, maybe the new guy will lend me an ear?

Pather Panchali is Ray’s only entry in the Sight & Sound Top 50 and it was his first film, released in 1955 after an abbreviated three years of filming. Ray was a graphic designer by trade who had spent time in London and watched over 100 films while he was there, being especially taken with the Italian neo-realism exemplified by Bicycle Thieves (coming up later in this series). He believed that Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1929 classic Bengali novel about a young boy growing up impoverished in a remote village would be perfect for that kind of grounded and realistic treatment but he struggled to raise the financing – grounded and realistic never being a popular characteristic of Indian cinema.

Director Satyajit Ray on location for Pather Panchali.

Director Satyajit Ray on location for Pather Panchali. Photo: Trigon

Eventually, after selling his gramophone record collection, he had enough money to commence and he found his Apu (Subir Bannerjee) in the local neighbourhood. He soon ran out of money, though, and had to pause filming for a year until the influence of the great director John Huston (who had seen some of the footage while location scouting in India) recommended that he be supported.

Apu is a small boy of about 7 or 8, living with his family in a rural Bengali village before World War 1. His father is a priest but dreams of becoming a poet and leaves the village to follow that dream – big city poet was a more lucrative career than country priest in those days. Without his income, the family struggles and a feud with a neighbour over a ‘stolen’ necklace only makes things worse. Tragedy ensues and the family is forced to leave the village.

The whole story is told through Apu’s eyes and what beautiful, soulful, sensitive eyes they are. Pather Panchali is the archetype of the cinema ‘coming-of-age’ story as our hero learns how the world works – usually before they are ready.

Uma Das Gupta as the doomed Durga in Pather Panchali.

Uma Das Gupta as the doomed Durga in Pather Panchali. Photo: Umbrella

Other notable features of the film are the soundtrack by India’s master musician Ravi Shankar – his first film score and music that would help introduce him to western audiences and eventually The Beatles – and the luminous blank and white cinematography by Subrata Mitra. This cinematography was almost lost when the negative was thought to be lost in a fire but a global search for replacement materials and a painstaking 2015 restoration means we can now see Pather Panchali – and its two sequels – in close to the best format imaginable.

Pather Panchali is available on DVD at the finest rental libraries and – at least in Wellington – is on the Kanopy streaming service. Also, if you have the correctly set up Blu-ray player and can play discs from all regions, there’s a magnificent Criterion Blu-ray of the whole series.

The first time Sight & Sound produced their list of the greatest films of all time Pather Panchali ranked at #11 (but that was 1962). Since then it has dropped to #79 (1982), risen to #6 (1992) and dropped again to #22 (2002), showing that in the world of cinema fashions change just like everywhere else. Currently it is equal #41 (with next week’s entry, Rossellini’s Journey to Italy).

Dan Slevin is working his way through the 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Top 50 Films of all time, from 50 to 1. The Sight & Sound Top 50 project is intended to encourage more attention to the greatest films of the past – in the same way we still read old books and listen to old music we should be appreciating old movies. He is hoping to complete the project before Sight & Sound update the list once more – 2022.

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