Going into Pather Panchali (or Song of the Little Road), the first film of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, I expected more of, well, Apu. As there are two more movies in “his” trilogy, I anticipate more Apu to come, but this first entry struck me by its broader focus on the family.
In fact, probably no one gets more screen time than his mother, Sabarjaya. Actress Karuna Banerjee gives a terrific performance as a strained woman being pulled in every direction – providing food & shelter for the elderly “Auntie” who lives with them; disciplining her daughter Durga, whose “thievery” has ignited disapproval & gossip from their neighbors; struggling their family’s finances, and pushing her husband Harihar to earn more for the family. Sabarjaya is not perfect, but one can easily empathize with everything on her plate and the pressures she undergoes as a woman, mother, caretaker.
Her son Apu, interestingly, is hardly a catalyst in any of the action. He is seen around the house, tagging along & bickering with his big sister, running to his neighbors’. Unlike traditional narratives, however, there is no “hero’s journey” he undergoes (at least within this first film); he barely has a story arc to speak of, as more a witness than a participant to any of the action.
Pather Panchali tells more of the change over time as one family falls deeper and deeper into financial strife. It is a snapshot of life, rather than a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But what a snapshot it is; Satyajit Ray’s debut is rich with memorable vignettes of life in rural India, driven by stunning imagery.
When tragedy strikes, it is genuinely moving because we have been with this family through so many triumphs & failures, good times & bad. It is not difficult to see how this story of one rural Indian family struck a chord with audiences around the world.