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New films from Kurosawa, Bergman, Hitchcock, De Sica and Louis Malle caused anticipation to run high at the1956 Cannes Film Festival. But the biggest stir was caused by the festival's quietest film, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955). Its profoundly moving evocation of an impoverished family in a 1920s Bengali village put India - and Ray - on the world cinema map. Today the stories of Ray's struggle to raise the $3000 it cost to make the film seem almost comical. Ray, a novelist, graphic artist and composer who worked in advertising, pawned everything he could, was encouraged by Jean Renoir - in India to film The River (1951), for which Ray helped scout locations - and got money from the West Bengali government to make what they thought would be an upbeat documentary about road-building (the film's English title is The Song of the Little Road).
Not everyone sang its praises. Indian politicians grumbled at its unsparing depiction of poverty. In America, some were unsympathetic to its unhurried tempo and omission of Hollywood's usual tropes. But those moved by its simplicity and purity took it into their hearts. It invariably shows up on lists of great films. Taken from a Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, it leaves no doubt that Ray (1921-1992) was on the same humanistic wavelength as the great Renoir, or that he was transformed by an immersion in Italian neorealist film during an extended stay in Europe. And yet Pather Panchali is uniquely Indian in its sensibility. The moment you say that the family at its center is living lives of quiet desperation, you must qualify it by adding that quiet is experienced differently in India. Many an Indian social critic has bemoaned the intrinsic passivity in the widespread acceptance of life and its vicissitudes there. But it's part of a social fabric that engulfs the family in a shroudlike embrace.
Ray is too much of an artist to editorialize, but it's clear that much of the family's dismal existence is traceable to Kanu Bannerjee's Brahmin poet-priest and father's belief that whatever God ordains is for the best. Like Dickens' Mr. Micawber, he persists in optimistically believing that something will turn up. But while his eye remains fixed on the cosmos and ignores the leaky roof, his wife (Karuna Bannerjee) is quietly going out of her mind wondering what she's going to feed them all for dinner, her stress load increased by a mean, nagging sister-in-law dunning her over a five-rupee loan. Their young son, Apu (Subir Banerjee), and daughter, Durga (Uma Das Gupta is the adolescent version, Runki Banerjee the younger), do as children do, making use of what's at hand, adapting, not questioning or even fretting since most of the other kids are as poor as they. (None of these acting Bannerjees are related.)
Apu is all dark hungry eyes, regarding everything in his world with freshness and wonder. He could have devoured the film. Ray went on to make what became known as his Apu Trilogy, adding Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959). But Apu inhabits center stage only in the second and third films. Pather Panchali belongs to Chunibala Devi's ancient grand-aunt, bent over double, white hair cut short (when you first see her, you're not sure what sex she is). Owning only her feeding bowl and the white sari in which she wraps her wrinkled, sun-browned skin, she's as poor as poor gets. But in her case, acceptance does not preclude degrees of spirit and even cheerfulness. There's a warm complicity between her and little Durga, who pilfers guavas from her prosperous relatives and feeds them to Auntie, who scarfs them down before Durga's shamed mother can make the little girl return them, then thanks her little benefactress with something between a smile and a cackle. When either of her nieces tires of supporting her at even the meager level they do, she rises in a huff, gathers her few things and totters to the other niece. Until the cycle repeats. Her life is as stripped down as a Beckett character's.
Most of the film's lightness and lyricism attaches to the kids, though. The boundary of their world is extended when Durga discovers railroad tracks in the high grass and they follow them until they see the mighty train that until then they had only heard at a distance. It foreshadows Apu's move into the larger world as his coming of age story continues in the later films. But at this point it's an eruption of childish glee, then joy, even if it does end with Durga dancing in the rain and developing a grave fever. Her condition worsens when a torrential monsoon blows through the dilapidated house their paterfamilias had left weeks ago to look for work. Suddenly the kids' prior delight in candy vendors, marionette shows and band concerts seems far, far away. When the storm clears and the oblivious father returns, proclaiming, "Our worries are over - I'm back," jubilation does not ensue.
Again and again, one marvels at the ability of Karuna Bannerjee's mother to keep things together, shielding her children with her dignity. But these amateurs - mostly the actors, certainly the children, and Ray himself are just as remarkable. Subrata Mitra, too, who had never photographed a movie, only stills. His imagery displays an almost mystical affinity to both the characters and their world. His eye-level shots, borrowed from the neorealists, establish a child's eye-view. But he knows when to pull back to show moss and lichen reclaiming old stones, or high grass undulating ahead of an impending storm. His landscape shots are surpassed in impact by his close-ups and details -- a shadowed forest path, water bugs skimming a pond's surface as raindrops start to fall. He specifies a world and draws us into it.
At a film festival, Mitra said the production was lucky that the monsoon winds didn't ruin his borrowed 16mm. camera or his limited supply of black and white film. The versatile Mitra also plays the sitar on the potent soundtrack. When Ray was trying to raise money, Indian producers demanded he include Bollywood numbers. Ray cringed and looked elsewhere. He found a young composer-musician named Ravi Shankar, who composed the score in a marathon 11-hour session. Given the film's precarious origins, it's perhaps remarkable that it has survived at all. The sometimes battered-looking print looks as good as it does only because the Merchant-Ivory Foundation, with an assist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, restored it. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, like many filmmakers, owe Ray. The delicate, timeless Pather Panchali reminds us of the difference between films that are visually gorgeous and that much rarer kind of film that remains a thing of inner as well as outer beauty.
By Jay Carr