Pather Panchali Review

An empoverished Brahmin (Kanu Bannerjee) spends his life toiling away to bring home enough money to ensure his family's survival. In poverty-striken Bengal however performing religious ceremonies don't seem to bring enough money in, making him frequently leave the familial home for months at a time, persuing elusive jobs in far-flung locations. Bearing the brunt of their poverty is his wife who seems to be constantly harassed and stressed by the trials brought to them by each sunrise. Their daughter, Durga, tries to make the most of life as she can though she seems to always cause her pregnant mother grief whatever she does...

Adapted from Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay novel, Pather Panchali will come as a revelation to anyone who has equated Indian cinema to solely Bollywood - a genre that Satyajit Ray dismissed as too distant from reality. Raised in an upper-class Bengali family (his father was a famous writer of nonesense verse), Ray's cinematic point of reference was much further afield than India with the European cinema making a profound mark on him. It was Renoir himself who encouraged Ray to pursue his career in filming and in many ways Pather Panchali echoes the French master with the naturalistic touches and his interest in elements that are not in the slightest contingent to the plot but which add to the entire experience.

Though the film was made by a group of film fans who started without a clue how to make one, it shows few signs of the amateurism that Ray bemoaned so much in the movie; one can notice however a certain evolution in the style throughout the film which is hardly surprising given that the production had to be stopped for months on end due to a chronic shortage of cash. All of the performances by the amateur cast are believable and highly effective in evoking the realistic feel Ray wanted to capture. Though the film is now almost 50 years old, it stands as a powerful début by a director who was to become one of India's most respected directors; the Cannes film festival crowned the enterprise by awarding it the prize for "Best Human Document" (though the film had to be screened twice since most of the jury had failed to attend the first showing!).

The DVD:The DVD is the first DVD in a boxset of three called "the Apu trilogy" released by Artificial Eye.

The image:Given the age of the film, the overall state of it is pretty acceptable. AE have obviously done a great deal of restoration on the image as the fade-outs and fade-ins are incredibly rough and grainy. The print still remains quite speckle-ridden at times though most of it has been digitally removed. There's also some evidence of occasional print damage but these are relatively rare and don't really take away from the film. Grain is also apparant at times but given the source material it's hardly that surprising! One negative point is that there is one scene that shows a computer style glitch (blocks appearing and a green line) which should have been resolved but it's a very short occurence though I imagine most would notice it. Overall it's as good a transfer as one can expect given the age of the film and the likely difficulty one would have to source a decent master...

The sound & the subtitles:Again one has to take into account the limitations of the source material when listening to it. It is at times quite scratchy and noisy but not excessively so - one gets rapidly accustomed to it and it ceases to be so noticeable. It could have probably been cleaned up a bit more in parts (such as making the silent parts truely silent) but globally it's good enough... Of course, we get the original mono mix.

The subtitles are of the manchine-generated variety and can be removed on the fly for those who speak fluent Bengali. They are usually quite good but at times reveal to be erroneous (such as missing a few letters) or behind the speech. More annoyingly, they sometimes don't appear on scenes that seem to need them or either start to translate the scene then stops translating half way through (such as the theater scene). Though this probably doesn't take much away from the film, it's a little frustrating at times...

The menus:The usual AE menus - an excerpt from the movie plays in the background against a part of the soundtrack. Nice and effective.

The extras:Though most AE releases don't feature much in way of extras, on this disc they have gone the second mile and produced some excellent extras.

First of all we get a 10 minute long excerpt from BBC's Omnibus on Ray which is part interview of Ray, part history of the making of the film. It's an excellent extra as it touches on the major aspects of the film but doesn't resort to excessive backslapping. Be sure not to watch it before having seen the film as it does contain some minor spoilers...

Somehow AE also managed to get some of Ray's beautiful storyboards from the film (he started out as a graphic artist) - there are various scenes from the movie and even scenes that never made the cut. The only minor quibble I have with them is that the resolution of a DVD probably doesn't do the artwork justice and it may have been better giving each cell a fullscreen rather than putting a full page on each screen. That said it's a very good extra. Finally, AE have included their usual high quality biography/filmography of the director

Conclusions:Though the sound and the image will never be perfect, AE have made a decent effort at digitally enhancing the film and making it watchable for a new generation. The film is a must-see for fans of World Cinema and this is the best release of it to date...

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out of 10

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