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Pather Panchali

Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // October 28, 2003
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted October 27, 2003 | E-mail the Author
Movie: Every once in awhile I'll stumble across some movie held to be a cultural treasure of a foreign land and proceed to apply my usual standard of "what does everyone see in this piece of crud" standard to it. After all, times change and a great many movies made decades ago simply don't hold up very well (no matter what some people think). On the other hand, I've also reviewed movies that the self-proclaimed "cultural elite" thought were base and worthless, yet found them completely enthralling (such is life). Well, I was treated to a couple of movies by famed Indian director, Satyajit Ray (R.I.P.), this week including his first credited movie, Pather Panchali (AKA: Song Of The Little Road).

The movie is set in the early 1920's, in a small village in India. The local population is dirt poor but especially one family. The father of the family, Harihar, is a dreamer who is always dreaming of making it big as a writer. He is a priest by profession, a family tradition, and pursues his dreams at the expense of his impoverished family, led by wife, Sarbojaya, an aunt, Indir, and a daughter, Durga. After a bit into the movie, a son, Apu, is born which seems to signal a change in family fortune.

Initially, the movie focuses on Durga. She is a petty thief who steals from those around her, having picked up the trade from Auntie Indir. The neighbors and relatives all chastise Sarbojaya about it but the mother is powerless to change the ways of her daughter. By not even trying, she sets in motion a series of events that ultimately prove tragic more often than not. When Apu is actually born, a son being considered much more positive news than a lowly daughter, Mom thinks things will get better and the movie picks up sometime in the future.

Harihar moves on to greener pastures in search of work in order to support his family and the rest make due with the limited resources available. Durga plies her trade to help with procuring food but when the surrounding families get fed up, Mom decides that a bit of tough love is in order. Things don't work out as they plan so the family goes about its business until their karma catches up with them over and over. By the time Harihar makes it back to his family, a storm has devastated the family home and things are far worse than he left them. The family, having lived in the village for three generations, decides to move in order to break the curse but is it too late for them?

The movie is considered the first part in a trilogy of movies often referred to as the Apu Trilogy. While this release focused more on his sister, it did set the stage for his later rise to prominence and provide a background of poverty from which to motivate him. The acting was mixed here and the technical qualities very weak (primarily due to the multitude of print scratches and age of the print used) but I can see how some people, particularly people who confuse poverty with some form of nobility, would think of this as a classic. The themes abound this time with karmic debts taking center stage as well as issues relating to wealth and relationships. I'd be lying if I said that I thought the director's worldview at the time struck a cord with me. For the most part, not a single person in the movie was very sympathetic, from the thieving daughter and aunt, to the carefree father who thought money would come to him without working for it to the relatives that show remorse only when it's far too late. Apu himself learns to be quite stoic in how he treats the world as well, making no real claim to fame for himself.

So, if you want to wallow in self-inflicted tragedy among a group of poor role models, you may want to rate this one higher than the Skip It I believe it's worth. Yes, the visuals of the direction were very interesting and I'm told that this print was restored a whole lot by a host of experts, but the messages it presents are for those who believe that circumstances are random rather than brought by cause and effect.

Picture: The picture was presented in 1.33:1 ratio full frame Black & White. It had more print scratches than I could count with a thousand helpers sitting beside me. There were a host of problems with contrast as well but a low budget movie made decades ago is probably supposed to look like this. I've had unconfirmed reports that the reason the print used for this DVD was so lousy was because the last remaining decent prints were lost in a fire too.

Sound: The audio was presented in monaural but cleaned up a bit with Dolby Digital processing. The audio was just as bad as the picture but other than the problems with the vocals and music not being mixed properly (this may be due to the latter processing), it was about what I'd expect from a moderate budget Hollywood release from the 1920's.

Extras: None

Final Thoughts: The movie has historical significance and is therefore something movie buffs should consider renting but to be fair, it was very dated in so many ways. Most people would find this boring since it's so slow as to make it painful to watch (especially with such a flawed print) but the relative few enthusiasts might enjoy watching it and I wish them well. If this was the best India had to offer back in the 1950's, it's curious that the industry ever made it. Skip this one unless you are looking for a movie devoid of entertainment value.

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