Watching director Satyajit Ray’s 1955 debut, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), seems less like viewing a film than like spending two hours in another life in another world — unless, of course, you grew up in a poor village in Bengal in the 1920s, which probably precludes most readers. At the same time, there’s a universality of human emotion that should make Pather Panchali resonate deeply with just about anyone. That is the secret to Ray’s film.
Pather Panchali is a simple story of a poor family with a careworn mother, a distracted would-be-writer father, a charmingly disobedient daughter, and a young son, Apu. The film both is and isn’t Apu’s story, since it follows the family fortunes (or lack thereof).
Its creation is the stuff of movie legend: first-time filmmaker (formerly a graphic artist), first-time cinematographer (previously a still photographer), largely amateur cast, unknown composer (Ravi Shankar), no money, production constantly suspended for lack of funding, etc. It’s a recipe for disaster. In short, there but for the grace of talent and genius goes the Indian Ed Wood. Talent and genius are indeed what saved the day, propelling Ray into the realm of world film, while also laying the groundwork for two subsequent movies that would ultimately form his “Apu Trilogy.”
There’s really nothing quite like this movie, which casts a compelling spell of enchantment and beauty. It’s one of those must-see works for students of film.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke