Pather Panchali: The Search for Spectacle to Escape Poverty

11/14/2012 4:00 AM |

Pather Panchali (1955)
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Wednesday, November 14, at MoMA, part of its Auteurist History of Film series

The Bengali villagers depicted in Satyajit Ray’s sterling debut are understandably prone to gazing upward. Apu (Subir Banerjee) and Durga (Uma Dasgupta), the two rascally siblings at the film’s center, peek their heads over countertops, rock walls, and tall grass in search of spectacle that might puncture the monotony of rural Indian life; their necks are likewise often craned roofward to meet the eyes of adults who perpetually foil their fun with condescension. The story’s elder characters, most crippled and humiliated by penury, don’t fare much better; they’re socioeconomic children, continually nourishing their hopes for the future. Apu and Durga’s father (Kanu Banerjee), a poor priest, suffers delusions of literary grandeur, although their mother’s more practical goals are sadly no less lofty. (These include paying off the family’s litany of debts, marrying off the roguish Durga, and rebuilding both their bamboo house and their reputation among the village’s gossiping inhabitants.)

Ray’s peripatetic script, adapted from an early, modern Bengali novel, offers these characters little in the way of wish fulfillment, to say the very least. But the film’s patient photography, executed by Subrata Mitra, forms a dialectic with their misery; as the villagers search both literal and figurative horizons for meaning, the camera’s omniscient and often downward-oriented angles provide the landscape with gestural enlightenment. While an old woman rocks the newly born Apu in a rope-suspended cradle the lens tilts to reveal his body, effectively “birthing” him; later, as Apu and his sister follow a candy man through the nearby jungle, their images are reduced to shimmering māyā in the surface of a pond; in the final scene, an ambiguously menacing serpent curls out from under a rock to investigate a vacated hut that sits otherwise uncompromised.

Through these shots and many others, Ray cultivates within the frame’s lower third nothing less than ornamental wonder; at the visual bottom of his film are inconspicuous but essential details that provide the action above them with spiritual context. In what might be the movie’s most famous sequence, Apu and Durga sprint across a field to glimpse the pumping metal and spewing smoke of a steam engine cutting through the countryside; a reverse shot takes us to the other side of the train, which then fills the bulk of the screen with rushing darkness while the children sit gawking beneath. Modernity might be excitingly above and beyond Apu’s grasp, but it creates only negative space. Beauty is in the dust around his feet and the overgrown stalks of piercingly bright kans grass that brush his neck.