Regie's Take on the History of Cinema

December 13, 2010

Film Analysis: Pather Panchali

by regiesh

Throughout film history, Bollywood has been recognized for incorporating song and dance even during serious subject matter. In Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, the first of Ray’s three part Apu Trilogy, neither are included. Satyaijit Ray impacted not only Indian cinema but is considered one of the greatest auteurist to have ever lived. One of the greatest factors that make Satyaijit’s films so highly regarded is his use of long takes and realistic scenes. Ray is known to have been influenced by the italian neo-realist movement which comes through in his films. It is clear that The Apu Trilogy is an homage to this movement. This statement can specifically be proven through Pather Panchali. One of the most highly regarded scenes in Pather Panchali is the scene where Durga and Apu, siblings, escape their impoverished life to frolic about the Kaash grass, simply exploring their natural surroundings. This scene directly shows a italian neo-realist influence.

To understand how this scene references italian neo-realism the movement must first be understood. After WW2, Italy was left in economic and moral turmoil. Many directors and writers including Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti reflected on these post-war effects on society by producing realistic film. These directors tried to make their films as life-like and relatable as possible. With realism comes realistic timing. In a majority of film, simple tasks are often shorter than they would be in reality because there may be a time limit to the film or to the director it may be viewed as trivial. Italian neo-realist film tries to accurately depict the time it takes to preform everyday tasks. A significant example would be the famous scene from Sica’s Umberto D. where a maid is grinding coffee. A majority of film would not realistically portray the time it takes to do such a task. Italian neo-realists believed in the beauty of everyday life even it was sullen and frankly humdrum. They made viewers appreciate simplicity; they made it into an art form.

Ray felt moved by this concept and chose to incorporate realistic time in his films through long shots. Many scenes in the film focus for long periods of time on simple every day situations for an impoverished family in Bengal for this reason. Arguably the most beautiful long shot in the film is the train scene. It begins with Durga looking up at power lines which alone takes seventeen seconds. Already, even with no dialogue, the scene speaks volumes. Durga, to the viewers knowledge, has no concept of power lines. The characters never appear to be on the phone and live in a house/hut hybrid. This clearly portrays the separation of indians in poverty and those who are well-off. There is no dialogue. Italian neo-realist film also often had long takes with little dialogue. Apu walks towards the power line pole and presses his face to it. Durga and Apu continue to walk through the large Kaash grass. The Kaash sways in front of the camera making the setting ideally and aesthetically pleasing to the viewer. The siblings continue to explore the grassy terrace. Apu finds what I believe to be a sugar cane and finds is sister sitting elegantly under the tall grass. The scene feels so natural as if there is no acting involved and though the shot is long and lacks discourse it remains engaging. Ray leaves the natural sound of the strong wind in the scene as well. Just like it is believed that these siblings have never observed power lines or are even aware of their purpose, when we see the train we assume this is also new. Ray chose to use off screen space and not show the train right away so that the viewers eyes are exposed to the train only when the children are. It is no exaggeration to say that one may even feel their curiosity and amazement towards their first look at the vehicle. Ray’s close shot of the train moving helps to convey how strongly they are observing this moving object. After the train has passed, the camera does not move, focusing on the smoke left behind. Just as Sica shows the appreciation of everyday tasks, we come to appreciate objects and modes of transportation we take advantage of every day. I can’t personally remember the first time I had seen a train with new eyes but this is the closest I will get to this experience.

Satyajit Ray’s Panther Panchali shows that it has been clearly influenced by the italian neo-realist movement. Ray successfully put his spin on realistic film while using long shots to portray every day life for a poor Bengali family. The train scene is deemed one of the greatest spectacles in film history while still acting as an homage to the neo-realist movement. Satyajit Ray deserves his rank as one of the greatest auteurists[sic] of all time.

Do you remember what it was like to see a train for the first time?

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5 Responses to “Film Analysis: Pather Panchali”

  1.   Amy Herzog Says:

    Thank you, Regie, for taking on one of the most stunning scenes in this challenging film! You really capture the sensuality and wonder of this moment, and the importance of its tempo from an artistic and historical standpoint. I’ve enjoyed your comments in class and online all semester– I hope you are considering a film studies major/minor!

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