Pather Panchali (Ray, 1955)

The beginning installment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy only gets better the second time around. Pather Panchali focuses on it’s young hero’s childhood heartaches and joys with a sublime and lyrical eye. Ray does not begin with Apu, but brilliantly sets up the family before he’s born. We see older sister Durga stealing fruit from a neighbor, pregnant mother Sarbojaya dealing with poverty, hunger, and social pressures, and husband Hari often absent working to make ends meet. Then Apu is born, a glorious family occasion shared with Auntie Indir and the rest of the community. Ray then shifts years ahead, Durga a young woman and Apu a young boy. Brother and sister play, discover, and fight with each other, go to school, all without much care to the turning tides of adult worries shared by mother and father. In one particularly stunning sequence, Apu and Durga fight over tinsel, then run through the tall grass of the Indian countryside chasing each other, finally ending up witnessing a tower locomotive passing by with life-changing force. The whimsey of childhood is confronted by the seriousness of adulthood, the prime theme circling through Ray’s vision. Apu, while aware of the changing nature of his family structure, has little to do with it’s direct development because of his age. His family exists as a sum of it’s parts, and Apu’s role is small but crucially important. His parents, while conflicted over a number of difficult situations, never lose sight of the most important element of family, which remains survival. Ray’s camera roams through the thick underbrush and over the stone temples, immediately cementing his focus as Apu’s POV. This simplicity in scope does not mean simple in nature or theme, and Pather Panchali devotes itself to establishing Apu’s complex realization of self and family. It’s one of the greatest films on loyalty, both to your roots and to memories of childhood. Pather Panchali also marks a masterful beginning to what many think is the most important trilogy of all time.

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