Such fears are understandable but unfortunate. Hey, I confess that I too viewed the prospect of renting a 2-hour flick about poverty in India with a bit of fear; I wondered whether Pather Panchali's halo has silently tarnished over the years. Far from it. Satyajit Ray's incredible debut is still a classic and landmark of humanist filmmaking. The film is an experience that connects deeply with the viewer, and is equally enjoyable.
Pather Panchali is the first part in a trilogy that follows Apu from birth to his mid-30s. This isn't immediately evident until the end of this film, which concentrates more on the rest of the family than young Apu. Dad (Kanu Banerjee) is a scholar and not very aggressive; after many financial misfortunes, he goes off to find a job elsewheres. Mom (Karuna Banerjee, the wife of an executive) worries constantly about where the money will come from and about son Apu. Indira (Chunibala Devi; she was retired for 30 years, but was lured out with fees to pay for her narcotics) is the elderly aunt who drains the family's resources. At the center of all this is sister Durga (the marvelous debut of Uma Das Gupta, who's not credited for anything else on IMDB) and, somewhat, her relationship with brother Apu.
It's not immediately evident that Durga and her influence on Apu are the central focus. Ray devotes an equal amount of time to all the characters, and shows enough of the family's ghastly surroundings to give the unperceptive the chance to label the film as merely a crusading one about poverty. Unfolding through vignettes, the film accumulates a gradual power (please note, though, that some find the film too distant and unaffecting). Like a good humanist, Ray respects all his characters, and places a large emphasis on the role of nature in daily life (though in black-and-white, and some of it shot on 16mm, this isn't your typically lovely cinematography; it's beautiful and graceful, but a bit distanced, since Ray never wants you to forget the poverty at the heart of this landscape).
Ray learned all about film while making this movie; he really had no experience previously. A rough cut was seen by John Huston, who brought this movie to the attention of America, and the film rapidly was internationally acclaimed (though the Cannes jury thought it a bit crude). Miraculously, the film hasn't aged a bit; it's a magnificent piece of work that is very easy to watch. An eissential classic, followed by Aparjito and The World Of Apu.
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