In the lush Bengali countryside the struggles of everyday life for the Ray family unfold through the stories of its members. The long-suffering mother, Sarbojya, is subjected to the ignominies of life so common to the poor, while her daughter Durga, a clever, often naughty girl who is tragically bereft of horizons, languishes under her mother’s stern discipline, but remains co-conspirator and friend of elderly Aunt Inder. Little Apu is the pride and hope of his family, and he carries great expectations on his tiny shoulders, especially when his father, Harihar sets off on a long and difficult journey to find work. Struggle and ultimately tragedy ensue, and Harihar’s return, and all of the hope and potential it held is sundered by Durga’s untimely death.
Pather Panchali is often cited as the film that put India on the cinematic map, but this view takes only one side of the relationship of recognition into account. While it is certainly the case that Satyajit Ray’s (pronounced Sho-tyo-jit Rye) early masterpiece brought Indian cinema into wider critical and popular consciousness in the West, the domestic film industry in India had been thriving since long before Ray’s arrival on that scene. Indeed, Ray himself frequently commented on the state of Indian cinema(s), and what he saw as the comparative lack of sophistication evident in so many of the products of his homeland, particularly when viewed against the films of several European directors with whose work Ray had become quite impressed during his period of residency in London. In a telling recollection of that period, written in 1948 and titled ‘What Is Wrong with Indian Films?’ Ray is characteristically engaged on several fronts, simultaneously critical of much of Hollywood’s production, correcting the widely held misperception that cinema was a late arrival in India, and also addressing himself thoroughly to the titular question. He observes that there are problems from the practical (e.g. poor planning, hasty production, budgeting difficulties), to the thematic (e.g. the undue influence of Hollywood, a penchant toward the fantastical), to the technical (e.g. poorly executed scripts, cinematography, and editing) that plagued Indian film in the period from its inception through the late 1940s, and closes with an exhortation that would guide his own practice throughout his career: ‘The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the filmmaker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so’. 1
Throughout his career, and indeed in much of the critical uptake of his work, Ray was and still is often slung between India and the West, a sort of uneasy go-between, pioneering a new style in the Indian context (referred to by turns as ‘Indian New Wave’, ‘Parallel Cinema’, or ‘Indian Art Cinema’), but often reductively viewed through his affection for De Sica, Renoir, Ford, Kurosawa and Chaplin, among others, as not entirely ‘of’ India either at home or abroad. Ray’s films often struggled at the box office both in and outside of India, despite his status as a favourite of the international film festival circuit, and he himself said that his films were not generally intended for a mass audience. The problem lies less with who Ray was, or where he belonged, than with the fact that his cinema contains within it the capacity to transcend the local, the specific, rendering the ineffability of the human condition universally legible, transparent beyond the boundaries of culture and idiom (though certainly never abandoning it either), visible, and made so through the apparatus of camera and projector.2
Pather Panchali owes a debt to Di Sica whose Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) had an immediate and significant impact on the young Ray. In the introduction to a volume of his collected writing on cinema, Ray offers this recollection: ‘Within three days of arriving in London I saw Bicycle Thieves. I knew immediately that if I ever made Pather Panchali – and the idea had been at the back of my mind for some time – I would make it in the same way, using natural locations and unknown actors’ (Ray 1976: 9). But even though the marks of Italian Neo-Realism are in evidence throughout the film, Ray employs a far more lyrical style, and, for example, his use of exquisitely shot musical montage sequences to denote the passage of time, setting images of Bengal’s pastoral beauty to Ravi Shankar’s evocative and magnificent soundtrack, marks a distinctly different aesthetic imperative that is at work in Ray’s film.
A side-by-side comparison of Pather Panchali and Ladri di Biciclette yields both great affinities and notable differences. Ray’s use of nonprofessional actors, shooting on location, and eschewing complexity in the plot in favour of highlighting the mundane struggles of regular people, all speak to this affinity. However, Ray’s aesthetic and narrative choices yield a very different feeling and form of intervention into modernity than is to be found in Ladri di Biciclette. Ray’s extensive use of Ravi Shankar’s brilliant soundtrack, the greater artistry with which shots are composed, his aforementioned juxtaposition of Bengal’s pastoral beauty with the gritty realities of life for its rural poor, and the choice to invert Di Sica’s focus on Antonio Ricci’s struggles outside the domestic context, staying instead in the home and the village rather than following Harihar on his journey to find work all speak to ways in which Ray expands on the potent Neorealist model, bringing it into contact with an interventionist, avant-garde sensibility. As Ray scholar Keya Ganguly has written:
“[Ray’s] avant-garde impulse [is] a specific mediation of realism, not only given the constitutive place of the technology of film (which is both modern and modernist) but also because it is fundamentally untenable to equate humanism with liberal reformism …. For Ray, as is evident from his cinematic practice as well as his journalistic and creative writings, cinema was not only an ‘art’, but a mode of intervening in politics and philosophy. It is in this specific sense that he was an avant-garde director. Like the European avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, his effort was not only to disrupt accepted ways of making films, but also to question the very institutions of art and political practice in their relations to other sociocultural realities. However, unlike the European avant-garde artists … Ray’s historical location as well as his personal convictions took him out of a purely intellectual engagement with the visual image into a questioning of the historical and social contradictions that govern the production of art …. It was a conceptualization of the world, rather than a representational reaction to it.” (2002)
In marking the distinction between Ray’s cinematic practice and the variants of realism more typical in Western cinemas, Ganguly frees Ray from the shackles of being seen as merely an Indian exponent of a European tradition in film, exposing instead an artist with a unique practice, directly engaging the sociocultural issues of his day and questioning the conventions of cinema, particularly Indian popular cinema, in the process.
If Ray is most often seen as a critic of class and feudal hierarchy, and modernity more broadly, it is important to draw attention to another of his frequent critiques of the sociocultural milieu that is in evidence in Pather Panchali, namely, the position of women in Indian society. The film follows the mother and daughter of the family, Sarbojya and Durga, most closely, and though much of the dramatic tension is provided through the father/ husband Harihar’s departure from the village in search of work, he is not a primary driver of the plot except by his absence. Indeed, the majority of male characters in the film occupy positions of nominal authority, but seem largely impotent, as it is the women in the film who are shown doing all of the various work necessary to survival. Sarbojya clearly runs her household, and her husband’s ineffectiveness as the family’s income generator is a constant threat to their well-being. Further, in scenes of both innocence and familial love, Durga and Sarbojya are seen feeding the younger male child Apu by hand, despite the boy’s clear ability to feed himself. In addition, Harihar is routinely shown as dependent on Sarbojya for the fulfilment of his needs, from the bodily to the professional/spiritual, from the coals for his hookah to his need for her to accompany him in taking part in a religious ritual for which his services have been retained. The male characters are sent outside the home, Harihar for work, Apu for school, but the site of the majority of the film’s action occurs within its intimate confines, a space in which the women work and provide for the maintenance of the men, and one can hardly miss the point that Apu, the family’s hope for the future, and Harihar, the family’s ostensible provider, are both essentially dependent on the women in their lives.
Bishnupriya Ghosh has commented on Ray’s attentiveness to articulating the female subject, viewing his work as an opportunity to construct ‘a third-world feminist critique’ (1992).3 It is imperative that in addition to reading Ray’s work in terms of a feminist critique, the additional contextualisation of its being ‘third-world’ be taken into account. According to Ghosh, ‘Firstly, [Ray] attempts to construct a female subject through the use of space, and, secondly he critiques modes of representation through self-reflexive image-making …. His depictions of gender are, inevitably, inscribed within the specific cultural practices of Bengal which cannot be explained through a historically situated psychoanalytic paradigms’ (1992: 171). The cultural specificity of the various practices to which the audience is witness in Pather Panchali and Ray’s other films (not all of which are set in Bengal, nor in the contemporary era) provide an opportunity for feminist critics outside the West to, as Ghosh describes, ‘theorize the non-western elements of our experience, the elements that acquire their meaning in the context of specific cultural practices …. [To undertake] a construction of female identity, in order to conceptualize differences in western and third-world cinematic hermeneutics’ (1992: 165).
Pather Panchali is a document of its time and place; India had not yet been independent for a full decade, and the transition from colonial state to world’s largest democracy was juttering forward with both great expectations and the more-than-occasional misstep. Ray would come to be criticised in later years as a Europeanised aesthete by many in the very cinema culture he was instrumental in expanding, if not creating, in his homeland.4 But its lasting resonance, from its continued inclusion on myriad top film lists, to the seemingly constant Ray retrospectives being held somewhere at any given time, to its common appearance on film studies syllabi around the world, stems from Ray’s ability to capture the humanity of his characters in its stark beauty, its many difficulties, and its total, universal lucidity.
1. Many of Ray’s writings on cinema, both on his own films and the works of others, as well as several manifesto-like short pieces on cinema as art and as social engagement, are collected in a short but extremely provocative and insightful volume. See Ray (1976).
2. For an extended exegesis of cinema as it relates to universality, as well as Ray’s avantgardism, and its differences with realism, see Ganguly 2002. Although she is dealing with another film from Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Ganguly’s commentary is as relevant to the majority of Ray’s other works as it is to Apur Sansar itself.
3. Ghosh is primarily concerned with Ray’s 1960 film Devi (The Goddess), but her interest in potentially reading Ray as mounting a feminist critique maps as easily onto Pather Panchali as it does on this later work, despite this line of critique being more pronounced, and the critique itself more trenchant in Devi. While Ray is more often read as a critic of class and feudal social hierarchies, the theme of women and their exploitation and subjugation is at least as prominent a theme that resonates throughout his oeuvre, particularly Devi, Mahanagar (The Big City) Charulata (The Lonely Wife) and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World).
4. For an extensive and fascinating study of the Film Societies of India, see Rochona Majumdar’s essay ‘Debating Radical Cinema: A History of the Film Society Movement in India’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, pp. 731–67, 2012, in which she charts the origins and development of film societies across the country, including their evolving definition of ‘good films’, from aesthetic considerations to more politically driven criteria. She does so in the context of wider debates in late-colonial India in what she calls ‘left-oriented cultural movements’, which, in addition to many of these societies, included the Progressive Writers Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: The Government of West Bengal. Director: Satyajit Ray. Producer: The Government of West Bengal. Screenwriter: Satyajit Ray (based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay). Cinematographer: Subrata Mitra. Music: Ravi Shankar. Editor: Dulal Dutta. Cast: Kanu Bannerjee (Harihar Ray), Karuna Bannerjee (Sarbojya Ray), Subir Bannerjee (Apu), Uma Das Gupta (Durga), Chunibala Devi (Indir Thakuran).]
Shyam Benegal, Benegal on Ray: Satyajit Ray, a Film, Calcutta, Seagull Books, 1988.
Darius Cooper, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Keya Ganguly, Cinema, Emergence, and the Films of Satyajit Ray, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011.
Keya Ganguly, ‘Cinema and Universality: Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar’, Race and Class, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 57–70, 2002.
Suranjan Ganguly, Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern, New York, Penguin Books, 2000. Bishnupriya Ghosh, ‘Satyajit Ray’s Devi: Constructing a Third-World Feminist Critique’, Screen, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 165–73, 1992.
Rochona Majumdar, ‘Debating Radical Cinema: A History of the Film Society Movement in India’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 731–67, 2012.
Satyajit Ray, Our Films, Their Films, Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 1976.
Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989. Robin Wood,The Apu Trilogy, New York, Prager, 1971.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.