Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is the first of his reputable Apu Trilogy. Pather Panchali is followed by Aparajito (The Unvanquished) in 1956, and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959.
Ray became a pioneer of the Indian film movement known as “Parallel Cinema” through his direction of this film. Parallel Cinema wanted to move away from the melodramatic, stage-oriented, mainstream films of Hindi cinema (now known as Bollywood) towards more realistic, natural, and socio-political films. Loosely based on the classic bildungsroman novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali was crucial during its time.
Pather Panchali was filmed on location by an amateur crew and cast on a very low budget. Despite its humble origins, Pather Panchali is an evocative tale about a little boy named Apu living with his family in Nischindipur, a village in Bengal, in the 1910s. The film conveys the joys of childhood and the wonders of rural life as Apu discovers the world around him; whether that be by chasing a train, looking through a bioscope, or enjoying jatra (a form of Bengali folk theatre).
What sets Pather Panchali apart from other films is how Ray is able to exteriorize his characters’ internal states by capturing beautiful, natural imagery. I was surprised by the lyricism of Ray’s cinematography; it contained poetic depth and dignity without necessarily feeling sentimental or romanticizing the poor. The effect of this film on the viewer is profoundly suggestive.
Ray claimed Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) had an important influence on his path as a filmmaker. One will certainly notice elements of Italian Neorealism in this film through its realist, rambling narrative style and the absence of frequent musical numbers, which were instead replaced with authentic depictions of unsophisticated, everyday life. These depictions relied on the accompaniment of Ravi Shankar’s background scores of Indian classical music. Even a viewer without an understanding of raga will connect the plaintive and lamenting musical expressions with the characters’ emotional turmoil during key moments of the plot.
A recent restoration of Ray’s trilogy took place in 2013 by The Criterion Collection and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Film Archive, where they toiled to create a digital version of Pather Panchali from its original film negatives.