If you ever took a class in cinema history, or even read a book on the subject, you’ve heard of these movies. I had, but had not seen them until recently. Twenty or more years ago they were available in the local library on video tape. I checked out the first one, Pather Panchali, but the quality was poor, the story slow and far from gripping, and I had many distractions, and never finished it.
Recently the entire trilogy was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, which we get via the cable TV service which we use very little and have several times decided to cancel. (I haven’t been able to make myself follow through on that decision, partly because I know it will involve a long time on the phone and partly because we very much enjoy the few channels that we do watch--PBS, TCM, and ESPN during college football season.) So I decided to record the three films. I did this more out of a sense of duty than of anticipation of something wonderful: the trilogy was just an item on a mental list of Classics One Ought To Have Seen.
But what I got was in fact something wonderful, and if you’ve never seen these films, or saw them many years ago, perhaps in an inferior copy, I strongly recommend that you seek out the newly restored Criterion Collection edition. At $65 or more, it’s not something most of us would buy, but one would hope that libraries which maintain good film collections would be getting it. As of this writing, Netflix only has the first two films in the set. I don’t know whether that means it’s coming or going.
The original negatives were severely damaged and partly destroyed in a fire in 1993. The benefactors of mankind at Criterion Collection have taken what could be salvaged from those negatives, combined that with the best copies and prints they could find, and applied all sorts of painstaking manual and electronic techniques of restoration to every frame, producing a version which probably gives you on your TV something as good, apart from the the size of the screen, as most theater-goers saw in the 1950s. (One of the discs includes a documentary on the restoration, which is fascinating.)
This is all very important because in my opinion it’s the visual quality of the films that makes them. I almost hesitate to describe the plot. The three films together comprise six hours or so of what is basically a fairly ordinary story of the childhood, youth, and early manhood of the character whose name is usually given to the whole trilogy. Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) gives us his boyhood in a rural village. Aparajito (The Unvanquished) takes him through schooling and adolescence. By the end of Apur Sansur (The World of Apu) he is a young husband and father.
The story moves slowly; our protagonist does not even get born until well into the first film, which is really about Apu’s family more than Apu himself. And there is nothing spectacular in them. We don’t, for instance, see Apu witnessing or participating in any great events. There are no obvious socio-political messages involved—nothing attacking colonialism, for instance—although there are certainly implications of that sort, presumably not accidental. Similarly, there is no agonized wrestling with existential questions, except as they are naturally suggested by the events of an ordinary life. Apart from the fact that he becomes something of an intellectual, and a would-be novelist, Apu is not an unusual sort of person. He and his family live quiet lives. They experience joy and sorrow. They manage as best they can. Apu grows up, leaves home, marries. But to say that there is nothing spectacular doesn’t of course mean that there is nothing dramatic, because there certainly is, as there is in every human life. But it’s quiet and personal and in its sorrows all too normal. Well, perhaps somewhat greater than normal: the family is very, very poor, and financial difficulties and the strains they produce are a big part of Pather Panchali. So is the elemental enemy, death, throughout the trilogy.
I’m at something of a loss to explain why the three films are so captivating. I’ve asked myself how much of my interest is due to the exotic setting and culture. That’s certainly part of it, especially in Pather Panchali, which, at least on one viewing, is my favorite of the three. I’m not sure whether this is a strictly accurate way of putting it, but the best quick description of the setting of Pather is that Apu’s family lives in the jungle. Yet they live in and among large well-constructed stone buildings, and I’m very curious as to how this came about.
And speaking of the exotic, one can’t discuss the trilogy without mentioning its very effective and appealing music, which was composed and partly performed by a musician who at the time must have been very little known in the West, though he later became very well known indeed: Ravi Shankar. I’ve look for a soundtrack album, but haven’t found one. I did find the theme from Pather on a 1962 Ravi Shankar release, Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali. I thought the cover looked familiar, then realized that I own the album, though I haven’t listened to it for decades.
But back to the question of the films’ appeal: above all it’s visual, at least for me. Astonishingly, Pather Panchali was Ray’s first film, and also the first for his cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, who had literally never operated a movie camera before beginning work on Pather. Obviously they had some strong instinctive sense of how to compose a scene for the camera, and quickly learned techniques of lighting and such. I found myself, even when nothing much was happening, drinking in the rich imagery. And although the actors were reportedly inexperienced, they have strong and expressive faces to which the camera gives a great deal of attention. I don’t think I’m going to forget the face of Apu’s mother.
I don’t feel like my critical vocabulary is really up to the task of giving an adequate sense of what these movies are like, or what their effect on me was. Whoever wrote the blurb for the Criterion Collection did a better job:
These delicate masterworks...based on two books by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, were shot over the course of five years, and each stands on its own as a tender, visually radiant journey. They are among the most achingly beautiful, richly humane movies ever made—essential works for any film lover.
And here is the trailer for the new edition. I suggest you double-click on it and watch it at full screen, because at least on my computer the video within the blog column is not centered in its own window and the right side is cut off, which means that when the advertising banner appears I can't close it, and that pretty much ruins the effect. Or click here to watch it on YouTube, where you can get rid of the banner. The haunting theme of Pather Panchali is heard beginning at 1:32.
For once something that sounds like advertising hype is the simple truth: “Don’t miss this opportunity to see three of the greatest films of all time.”
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.