“Go ask him for money”
The story behind Satyajit Ray‘s debut film পথের পাঁচালী [Pather Panchali] [Song of the Little Road] is one you cannot separate from the work itself. It’s an underdog tale full of hardship and financial woe—incidents that dragged production along for three years before finally bringing India to the world in its neorealism style (after all, Ray helped scout Calcutta locations for Jean Renoir‘s The River and loved Vittorio De Sica‘s Bicycle Thieves). Money plays a huge part in both stories, especially the film’s plot based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay‘s titular coming-of-age novel about a family clinging to luck as an avenue towards salvation. Much like priest, patriarch, and would-be poet/playwright Harihar Ray (Kanu Bannerjee), Ray the filmmaker would ultimately need assistance outside of his home via MoMA to acquire the necessary funds for completion. The result became an international success still lauded today.
Tiny details like how many of the cast and crew were inexperienced or amateurs (it’s hard to believe cinematographer Subrata Mitra had never operated a camera), Ray working on an abridged edition of the novel for Signet Press a decade earlier as a graphic designer, and his script actually being visual storyboards are amazing. The fact our seeing it in crisp 4K glory thanks to the Criterion Collection after a 1993 nitrate fire burned the original negatives is a miracle and testament to archival technology and cinephiles’ hunger to deem the massive undertaking worthwhile. Discovering it to be the amazing cinema verite entry with authentic emotion and uncensored tragedy that the hype reveres it to be almost becomes a cherry on top. Pather Panchali doesn’t just document life; it showcases the struggle to survive.
It’s interesting that despite being the first installment of The Apu Trilogy, Apu (Subir Banerjee) is actually one of its more minor characters. He serves mainly as our entry into this world, an observer too young to be a singular voice above a pawn moved around by his father Harihar, mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), and sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) to keep his innocence intact. It’s the latter girl who becomes the lead—if you’re someone who needs a star beyond the environment and circumstances themselves. Durga is a free spirit who steals fruit from the orchard her parents lost to settle a relative’s debt, feeding her equally mischievous old Auntie (Chunibala Devi) and basking in her success. We watch her glide through her poverty, scheming, laughing, and trying to stay under the radar of Mom’s wrath.
That last part’s easier said than done considering Durga is hardly a master thief. She’s more or less caught every single time she wanders onto her neighbor’s land. Maybe not red-handed, but all know exactly what’s she’s done. So coming home to relieve herself of the bounty into Auntie’s hands means it’s only a matter of time before her mother’s severe expression and tough love arrive. Sarbojaya isn’t being specifically hard on her daughter either. She throws Auntie out more than once for being a moocher, has superhuman hearing to chastise her husband each time he acquiesces to the children asking for sweets money, and has no trouble confidently standing up to anyone at her door with unfounded accusations. She’s the pragmatist amongst a family of dreamers, the steady center keeping them strong.
She has to be since Harihar often leaves for work months at a time with the sort of patience in his employers to eventually pay his salary that he risks starving the kids in the process. It seems, however, that whenever their heels touch the cliff’s edge of a chasm ready to consume them whole, luck somehow finds a way to provide the money to make things work. Neither the Rays nor we can know that each fateful act is merely a Band-Aid prolonging the inevitable. But this is life—we all prioritize before discovering that the thing we didn’t need right away was actually the crucial foundation for the rest. Sometimes the realization hurts the pocketbook and other times it can once more be ignored. On rare occasions it cripples you to the bone.
You’d be right to guess Pather Panchali works towards just such devastation because it must. The old idiom about hitting rock bottom before rising is often a prophetic truth. And when the conditions confronting you are as depicted here, it’s tough to imagine happy endings. This goes back to my saying the film is about the struggle to survive—to overcome, dust off, and move forward. Tragedy’s unavoidable so who you are becomes a direct result of what you do in response. You can be sure the Rays are made of the type of mettle necessary to conquer hardships faced simply because they’re still able to laugh when the rice bowl is empty. Sarbojaya and Harihar’s strength helps shield Apu and Durga from shouldering any burden of responsibility so they can remain kids as long as possible.
These moments of joy cutting through existential crisis are magical. To see Sarbojaya’s scowl in the background while Apu animatedly waves his hand to warn off his sister at the edge of the screen is to see one or both as a mirror reflecting you. Moving from Apu’s glee affixing a foil crown on his head to Durga’s anger at realizing his materials were stolen from her toy box to the playful danger of their sibling chase to the unfettered exhilaration of a train’s passing that washes away everything but the moment is inherently resonate and beyond plot. It’s a slice of life sequence delivering on a level deeper than its grander cause and effect. Our lives aren’t meticulously written and sometimes a romp in the fields says infinitely more than what came before or after.
Ray’s graphic artist eye also keenly finds the right moments for Mitra’s camera to settle upon flapping lily or the banging of a door ready to buckle underneath a storm. His film is a series of small moments that add up to actual lives. The naturalism of each performance—trained and untrained alike—constructs a bona fide family onscreen that goes through both minutiae and cataclysm as we would. The former delivers frustration and the latter abject sorrow, but on the other side of each lies a hopeful future in the hands of a God delivering what they believe is measured to their capabilities. There’s something profoundly beautiful to this sense of piety I can’t imagine and it gets them through their worst nightmares. Regret isn’t in their vocabulary. Life goes on and we merely ride along.
 Subir Banerjee as Apu
 Subir Banerjee as Apu, Uma Das Gupta as Durga (Apu’s sister)
 Uma Das Gupta as Durga (Apu’s sister)
courtesy of Janus Films