Writer: Satyajit Ray
DP: Subrata Mitra
Editor: Dulal Dutta
Score: Ravi Shankar
Starring: Subir Banerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Karuna Banerjee, Chunibala Devi, Kanu Banerjee
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Length: 2 hrs. 5 min.
Pather Panchali was the first film directed by Satyajit Ray. It anticipates his later work in its treatment of characters in relation to other elements of composition; he integrates his characters with their surroundings, and their surroundings inform their social context. This perhaps stems from the influence he took from the concept of rasa from traditional forms of Indian theater; that is, the characters' thoughts and emotions become a part of an overall effort to evoke specific mental states in the audience.
So, when we're first introduced to the main characters, we come to understand them not through exposition, but through their place in the world. In turn, we understand their world through them. The respective conditions of children, adults, and the elderly are all explicated in this manner before the film's main character, Apu, is even born, as is the central family's place in their community's social hierarchy.
It's perhaps a little misleading to say Apu is the main character; he doesn't do much in the film other than display rather ordinary childlike behavior. However, he acts as an observer to many of the scenes between the other members of his family, and so he accompanies the viewer and invites them to compare their perspective to his own.
So, what is his perspective? He is a child, and when he finally is introduced to us, the first thing we see is the effort put by others into maintaining him. His basic needs are attended to, and he only expresses concern for the future. This is true of the immediate future and the far-off future; he's excited for the festival happening in three weeks, and also holds to the lessons his father gives him in the hope that he will become a scholar.
In one scene, his sister Durga has been accused of stealing from another child, and their mother Sarbajaya is angry with Durga for causing her public shame. She throws Durga out of the house, the camera watching through the wall and creating a separation in the screen between Sarbajaya and Durga. Apu, has been watching, and his response to the problem is interesting: He takes up his workbook and reads it aloud, not looking away from it until his mother asks him to bring Durga back into the house, which he does happily. During a harsh moment, Apu focuses on the future and waits for it to be resolved.
But this is much easier for Apu than Sarbajaya; unlike him, she doesn't trust the future to bring solutions. She worries, and works tirelessly to keep the present in order. Meanwhile, she laments the past: she had dreams, talent, and ambitions, and gave them up for her family's sake while her husband Harihar pursued a career as a scholar and a priest. The difference between her perspective and that of the other characters is the presence of what she feels is an irreversible loss in her life; while the other characters are accepting of life's ebbs and flows of happiness and hardships because they are content to wait for the good times to come around again, Sarbajaya knows the unreliability of that pattern. She's largely alone in that; she must meet the expectations of people who are more well-off than her, while Harihar remains idealistic in his relative freedom to do what he pleases.
If Apu's focus on the future is the child's perspective and Sarbajaya's apprehension and fastidiousness is the mature perspective, the perspective of their elderly relative Indir also bears consideration. Indir's perspective seems based in the past; she's old enough that she's likely been through many of the same conflicts as Sarbajaya. She goes about looking for people who will give her a break in her old age. Unfortunately, the only person who takes responsibility for the resources of the household is Sarbajaya, who has far too much else to attend to for Indir's troubles to concern her. I don't believe Indir's desires are unreasonable; in fact, I don't believe any of the characters' more idealistic beliefs are unreasonable, but I am not the god of Pather Panchali's world, and Satyajit Ray has decided he will not be that god either. In Pather Panchali, life is indifferent and capricious, sometimes demanding some things and sometimes rewarding others for no reason. Or, more accurately, for no fair reason: Ray links this to differences in social class, which amounts to a devastating climax when the locale we've become so used to - and in which the characters were so inextricably mired - undergoes a drastic physical change.
The film has us understand a world and its effect on its inhabitants, then pulls the rug out from under us. Then, it tests us, asking us to consider how we respond to that. Throughout the film, one of the most prominent characters is Apu's sister Durga. Durga is a kind child who seems to want to see a smile on anyone's face. But near the film's very end, one moment seems to unravel this image of her and reframe her as a petty child acting on impulse (I won't describe the scene in detail). What does Apu do? He erases it. He takes action for the first time, changing his reality to one that accommodates the belief that Durga had a kind and hopeful outlook, that she wasn't just thoughtlessly impulsive. His one major action in the film is a challenge to us.