One of my apprehensions when being introduced to Satyajit Ray’s films is how he focused on the upper class. Charulata and The Music Room were the first two films of his I saw. And, while both are delightful, it felt like perhaps it might be too affluent at times. Therefore, seeing Pather Panchali alleviated this nagging fear as it deals with an impoverished Indian family.
Durga (Ulma Dasgupta/Runki Bandopadhyay) is the firstborn of the local village priest, Harihar (Kanu Bandyopadhyay). She spends her days stealing fruit from her aunt, playing with the kittens and run around with the other village children. Her mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bandopadhyay), comes down hard for her for stealing in order to save face with the bickering neighbors.
A big joy in this film is how it shows the generational shifts in behavior and attitude. The film opens following the carefree ventures of Durga as she runs about the wilds of the village, not given a second thought to stealing and free to roam around as she pleases. In contrast, her mother is confined in the walls of their small home for most of the film, trapped by anxiety, worry and responsibilities.
It would be easy to peg Sarbojaya as the villain of the film, but I don’t think that’s Ray’s intention at all. Sarbojaya is deeply flawed because she burdens herself with worry instead of following her husband’s simple refrain of trusting whatever God wills. Harihar is often carefree, loose with money to the children even as the walls of their home crumble around them. Meanwhile, Sarbojaya is trapped in a life of constant doubt and worry.
The aunt is yet another generational contrast, a look at life in its final stages. She’s reverted back to a lot of those childlike tendencies, treating herself to delicacies, taking whatever she pleases from the kitchen and has a cavalier attitude about life even when she’s thrown out of the house at one point.
And while these generational gaps show different nuances in how one lives day to day, religion is perhaps the biggest contrast. Even though Harihar is a priest, the film hardly ever shows him engaged in the higher religious functions that come with being a priest. Instead, it focuses on how all the moments outside of that allow him to demonstrate and practice his faith.
It’s perhaps one of the most subtle depictions of religion committed to film. Of course he speaks about trusting in God and he prays once in the film, but it’s always in passing. The formality of religion is not here, instead it’s the simple pragmatism of living a life in light of one’s faith. There’s not a single line of preach, not a suggestion of formal religious ritual, simply a life lead with a simple mantra: whatever God wills.
And that simple pragmatism is what makes Harihar’s family such an interesting dynamic to watch. The three generations that Harihar has in his family are all adrift and at odds with each other because of those generational divides but Harihar finds a way to maintain healthy relationships with all three because of his faith.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing