Trying To Glimpse The Train: The Riches of ‘Pather Panchali’

By  · Published on January 15th, 2014

Trying To Glimpse The Train: The Riches of ‘Pather Panchali’

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they travel to Bengal to spend a few days with a poor rural family.

In the #41 (tied) movie on the list, Satyajit Ray delivers a view into poverty that eschews exaggeration in favor of realism and calm, quotidian contemplation.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So you wrote recently about American cinema’s reluctance to show poverty (on the 50th anniversary or our country’s war on it), and here we have a movie from India that displays the poor with a kind of open-eyed simplicity. This was my first time seeing Pather Panchali, but I’m absolutely glad that I did.

In your piece, you raised a question of whether film as a medium was inherently bad for meditating on something like poverty, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts after watching this.

Landon: I briefly mention in that piece how certain international traditions of cinema have existing frameworks through which detailed examinations of class and poverty are possible, one of which being the many realist styles that popped up around WWII. And Ray’s work undisputedly fits in that tradition of social realism, which (according to people who know more about Bengali cinema than I do) was a significant break from the Bollywood style, and made for perhaps the first modern Indian film to make a huge stamp for Indian cinema internationally.

I mention this because Pather Panchali has notable similarities to films like The Bicycle Thief, and Ray has attested to Italian Neo-Realism as an inspiration in his approach. It seems that there was a truly global style of filmmaking that developed around this time which was capable of addressing the topic of poverty in ways cinema hadn’t before, using more open narrative structures, location shooting, actors who look like ordinary people, etc.

Scott: Yeah, I don’t remember seeing the Busby Berkeley-style all-singing, all-dancing finale in Pather Panchali.

Landon: You didn’t stay after the credits, then.

Scott: It makes me wonder about whether that kind of realism could float in American filmmaking. When you consider something like The Pursuit of Happyness, the film is imbued with so much energy and adrenaline because it’s high concept. Man Fights to Get Job. Obviously life-altering things happen in Pather Panchali, but the flow of it is almost without goal or purpose, and it feels almost alien because of it. Trying to see a train is one of the highest aspirations.

Even alongside The Bicycle Thief (Man Hunts Down Stolen Bicycle), this feels more like an unmoving window into a world we don’t usually get to see.

Landon: Absolutely. I saw this in a movie theater, and I remember feeling in that space how inescapable the growing sense of impoverished desperation was, and the feeling throughout that (although this is hardly the case) Ray was putting a camera where one had never been before.

Scott: And yet where billions have been before. That feeling of claustrophobia probably comes from the lack of a stated goal that I mentioned earlier. The movie isn’t about the Roys needing to win a singing competition to get tuition money or needing to train for soccer to secure a better future.

Landon: Or even finding a bicycle in order to work – it’s about he struggle of daily living, the cycles of life rather than long-term goals.

Scott: It’s about their present – a difficult, immobile present.

Landon: That’s a good way to put it, Scott – this is a film invested in presence, in allowing the audience to experience the given moment of these characters’ lives.

Scott: Obviously there’s a cultural and religious engine there that differentiates itself from Western thought.

Landon: It’s important to talk about without oversimplifying Western and Non-Western cinema/storytelling, but yes, there is a fundamental difference here in terms of viewing the organization of life that informs its style of storytelling through religious and cultural inflections: life is less linear than cyclical, and life is full of suffering.

But this film – like the film we talked about last week – was also part of a greater narrative about a boy’s life growing up. Ray followed the film with two more entries on Apu: Aparajito and The World of Apu.

None of these films individually follow a strict, goal-oriented linear structure, and together they construct a really expansive view of a single life.

Scott: True, but the spiritual worldview informs it as much as The American Dream informs our movies about the poor. (Even though the wealthy are often villains – it seems The American Dream wants us to aim straight for the middle class comfort in storytelling.)

Meanwhile, the Roys are interesting and in many ways admirable even as they lack the drive to join an exclusive stock trading internship program. That’s, admittedly, challenging for me.

Landon: The spiritual worldview is especially apparent in the family’s relationship to the elder Indir, who is one of my favorite characters in this film. You see the struggle here between a tradition of respect for elders and care for family in contention with Sarbajaya’s daily frustrations with it.

Scott: To respect is divine, to get supremely annoyed with your relatives is human.

Landon: It’s a film about the art of living. And it never feels overwrought in its portrayal of poverty. It’s honest, especially because Ray balances the bitter with a sincere, but never rosy-eyed, appreciation for the little joys of daily living.

Scott: Exactly! And having rarely been able to see this kind of living on display, it pushed and pulled at me a bit. It made me wonder if there was or could be an American counterpart, and because it takes place in the 20s, I thought about The Grapes of Wrath.

Both are rural, both deal with the poor, but in Grapes we have a family literally moving forward in order to change their station in life.

Landon: I could see Ray maintaining that book’s original ending before John Ford ever would.

Scott: Or could. Ford was making a studio film, after all. Fox probably didn’t want the Joad family disintegrating in their movie about American can-do spirit, and a still born baby might not have been the symbol they wanted for that either.

Landon: Point, and it’s another good example of how even a book molds to specific aspects of the American Dream’s vision onscreen…Pather Panchali reminded me a bit of Tokyo Story as well, except in this case we never see the city that motivates so much family discord. It goes back to your point about spirituality in this film: Harihar leaves his job as a pujari to aspire to something “more” or something “else,” and this abandonment of tradition leads the family to suffer while he gathers goods in the city. It’s a film about the conflict between modern and traditional living, but unlike the two Ozu films we watched for this series, any portrayal of modernity is hidden from us.

There aren’t yet prominently placed Coca-Cola signs in West Bengal.

Scott: Watching it also made me question how we focus on, applaud and deal with “serious” contemporary films. I couldn’t understand why some were outraged at Jared Leto for making jokes during his Golden Globe acceptance speech because I thought, “Hey, here’s an artist celebrating his own hard work. Why would he be obligated in that moment to be dire or contemplative?” but I think I understand the disappointment more now.

If someone made a movie like Pather Panchali here in 2014, we’d fawn over the struggle of the actor (weight loss, method acting, take your pick) and the “bravery” of the filmmaker – that celebration runs the risk of overpowering a movie’s reality-based subject matter.

It would be handled with a pernicious severity while Pather Panchali has several yawn-worthy moments of pure normalcy.

Landon: That’s a good point: it emphasizes the gap between the movie’s subject matter and its making, rather than focus on what the movie provides for us (not what creatives provide for the movie). And when you’re dealing with underrepresented people, that can result, oddly enough, in further disempowerment. I think the slice of life, that pure normalcy, is what resonated so much for initial audiences of this film. The film still feels so authentic through-and-through. And it’s aged better, I think, than The Bicycle Thief – thanks, Ravi Shankar!

Scott: I don’t know that I agree with that. The Bicycle Thief still has a magnetic quality after all these years, and it feels more like a movie (owing to Ray’s newness to directing and probably hinting at why it feels more calmly real).

But I can understand the storytelling instinct with the underrepresented. In taking on a subject that virtually no one else touches, you agree to shoulder a significant responsibility, and it’s easy to focus entirely on that statistical brick wall instead of the breathing subject matter at hand.

Landon: Don’t get me wrong – I stand by all our praise of The Bicycle Thief. But its realism reads to me, I think, differently than it did to audiences at the time. It feels less radical, more calculated, even Hollywood-like in its own specific ways. It’s self-conscious. Like the way that James Dean’s performances can read as over-the-top to contemporary audiences: it doesn’t mean it’s suddenly become less of what it was, but that it demonstrates a particular relationship to the sensibilities of a place and time.

But to me Pather Panchali maintains this raw quality where it still feels like Ray just went into rural Bengal with a camera. The mechanics of his style feel less apparent to me throughout. It feels timeless, which is not to me a universal virtue, but I think a commendable aspect of this film.

Scott: I can absolutely agree to that. This discussion has been great, but I also have to point out that I’m a white guy who last saw The Bicycle Thief while on a Mediterranean cruise, so there’s a giant swath of this reality that I will never understand.

Which is why I deeply appreciate being able to see movies like Pather Panchali that focus on life outside the realm of my experience without resorting to white-knuckle bombast.

Landon: That question of access is important, for this film and films throughout this list – why this film traveled, premiered at MoMA, gathered a library of international film awards, and ended up on this list, while other South Asian films didn’t. How do we come to understand and appreciate films about people whose lives and culture we’re unfamiliar with? Ray’s style has a lot to do with that. Even though this is a film about the most rural of communities, it’s use of realism had really become a global language.

Scott: Ultimately providing another example where cinema can transport you to another side of the planet, into someone else’s shoes.

Next Time: Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy

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