The Path Panchali and thoughts on Satyajit Ray’s place in film history
It’s been said that all you need to do in order to get sympathy from your audience is put animals, old people, or little kids in your movie. When I watch the first five minutes of Satyajit Ray’s 1958 directorial debut, Pather Panchali, this is the line recalled by the cynical little commentator located in my cortex – the film takes no time in giving us a fleet of mewling kittens, a wide-eyed little girl, and a catty if frail old lady. By the time five minutes have passed, however, something amazing happens: I am sufficiently captivated by these particular kittens, this particular little girl, and this particular old lady that my sarcastic id shuts the hell up.
The film continues to lead me along a rocky path in rural 1920s India, overgrown with the brambles of life’s most organic trials: poverty, illness, jealousy, and inclement weather. The Ray family has lost its guava orchard to some cousins as the result of a brother’s debt, and Durga Ray’s mother must constantly scold her daughter for taking a little of the fruit that should be hers. There is a surprisingly hilarious and touching camaraderie between Durga and her great aunt Indir, who always share the fruit that Durga steals. The movie moves me unquestionably – I laugh, I cry, I shudder – but as I watch it I remain perplexed as to the source of its prestige (a quick Wikipedia search before seeing Pather told me that the film is on the best movies ever list for The New York Times and several others). Sure this film is moving, but isn’t it too simple, too elementary, too basic for all this glory? My complex modern commentator has somehow found its voice again. The rest of me wants the silence back.
To regain the quiet, I consider that in this film, the most simple of problems grow to be at least as dark as the complex poisons that modern life concocts. Somehow, though, Satyajit Ray can counter all the darkness of Pather with pure lights. Ray has a unique ability to show us these joys unfettered despite life’s thousand natural shocks. Aunt Indir’s smile is toothless, and the inspiration for about a million wrinkles, but at the same time I have never seen an image more purely beautiful or eloquent in my life. Even my inner smartass begins to see why this movie has been slated in filmic circles as a timeless classic. The voice becomes sedate again, and I find myself hoping that the change is permanent.
-Morgan H. Green