Film of the Week: Pather Panchali

I’ve watched The 400 Blows quite a few times, and I’ve discussed it with people countlessly, but it’s only recently that I’ve watched Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, a film that I now consider a direct precursor to Truffaut’s debut work. Ironically it’s never been recommended to me by peers who I’ve discussed The 400 Blows with, and that may be because they haven’t watched it or it hadn’t crossed their mind, so I would like to dedicate this film of the week post to heavily recommending it. A bit of research shows that Pather Panchali is indeed heavily celebrated, but my own personal experience in discovering it later than I should have leads to me believe that it’s a work which might need a bit more recognition ergo this post.

Like Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Pather Panchali is also Satyajit Ray’s debut film, the key here being that Ray’s film was released four years before Truffaut’s. Shot on location due to an influence from the Italian neorealists—just like the members of the French New Wave—Pather Panchali is about a small family living in poverty and their struggle for happiness.

The similarities between 400 Blows and Pather Panchali come about in their themes and focus on children. For example, both Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Apu (Subir Banerjee) take delight in the small pleasures that they can afford; the prime one being art. To clarify, for Doinel this means an escape to the movie theater and for Apu it takes the form of going to the more traditional theater of stage acting.

For Doinel and Apu, art functions as an escape from the harsh realities of their life; Doinel is able to go watch a film with his family, an act that temporarily allows him respite from knowing that his family is falling apart due to his mother’s infidelity and the family’s own poverty. Apu too is able to partake in a group activity. Watching the play allows Apu to forget about his poverty and be part of a larger community, a moment that contrasts one earlier where he is unable to join the children eating sweets, because he can’t afford to thus reinforcing his alienation.

Admittedly, both films are heavily different from one another, namely in style and atmosphere. While both 400 Blows and Pather Panchali embrace shooting on location in order to strive for a sense of realism, the village in Pather Panchali is much starker than Paris in 400 Blows. The times of happiness in Apu and Durga’s life are mere moments of fantastical delight in a life of harshness. Apu’s life is marked by two deaths whereas Doinel’s is only marked by the lie about the death of his mother in order to not get in trouble at school.

Truffaut also utilizes space in 400 Blows in order to create a contrast that’s reflective of Doinel’s life. Interior spaces are made to be cramped and claustrophobic, signifying Doinel’s entrapment whereas  the outdoors are filmed from higher angles, the appearance of the wider space signifying Doinel’s freedom.

The use of spacing in Pather Panchali seems to signify the constant threat of nature. Apu’s family lives in a house that is quite literally falling apart. The walls and roof are bare, leaving the family to the dangers of wind and rain, especially during the monsoon. There never seems to be an angle where Apu’s house seems to offer any protection. The open spaces in Pather Panchali then become indicative of the family’s poverty. Their lack of a stable home—literally—becomes representative of their fragility which threatens them both psychologically—Apu’s mother falls into a depression—and physically, a thought I’ll leave unexplained due to spoilers.

What makes Pather Panchali worth watching is Ray’s chameleon-like prowess as a director. Both moments of glee and moments of sadness are captured with equal clarity that revel in their simplicity. It’s in this simplicity that makes Pather Panchali an emotionally tractive film. Take for example one scene where Ray films Apu’s mother dealing with their broken house during a storm. We are first given a shot of her watching her children sleep, and we are able to hear the rain and wind beat outside. The curtains on the left begin to wrench, and the doors on the right begin to bang and loosen. As the mother glances at each side of her home falling apart, Ray switches the angle, first giving us a view of the curtains being pushed and then the door.

As the storm worsens, Ray’s camera movement intensifies, and the mother’s own increasing anxiety become our own. Undoubtedly, we become aware that both sides of the house will collapse, although we wish it not to for the safety of the children. Once again, it’s only a simple sweep of the camera but it is enough to convey the surmounting helplessness and anger of an impoverished mother.

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