It’s like taking a tour of an art gallery and then getting mesmerised by the brilliant paintings, and when the tour ends, you can’t decide which painting you liked the most, leading you back to the first room to take the tour again.
On a first viewing, Pather Panchali can be seen as a film which sells poverty to the west, but on a deeper level, it is just a simple story of an extended family. It’s a story of aspirations and hopes of different characters, whether it be the father, Harihar who works as a priest but wants to be a playwright or a poet and earn a decent income to provide comfort to the family; the mother, Sarabjaya who wants Harihar to make some money so that the neighbours stop taunting her and the family, so that one day, she can walk in the village with her head held high; the old lady, Indir, who tries hard to be a part of the family despite living in the same place and wanting to hear something good from Sarabjaya; the kids Durga and Apu, who want to follow the sound of the train they hear every evening and see what it looks like—though both children keep teasing each other all the time. Yet, they still want to enjoy the simplest things of life together—be it the chutney that Durga makes, sharing the fruits that Durga steal from the neighbour’s place, running wildly in the fields, following the sweet vendor, or theatrical performance.
Moreover, in this film, we can also see three different generations of women portraying three different ways of life. Durga the child is fearless, she is a free spirit, and she is not bothered about anyone. Though she is loved by her parents, she is treated inferior to Apu, but then her love for Apu never diminishes which is evident throughout the film as she is protective over him.
Sarabjaya, the mother is worried not just about the state of the family but also the way neighbours and the others in the village treat them because of their financial situation. She tries to live with some dignity and she feels aghast when Durga is accused of stealing as it impacts her pride. Indir, the old lady lives alone but she is still self-sufficient and self-respecting and she shows that when she is taunted by Sarabjaya, she leaves the house and takes refuge at another relative’s house. She leaves the house permanently to show Sarabjaya that she is not going to take the tantrums.
The film also takes on the different kinds of death, the death of the old lady which only impacts Durga because of her closeness, and then the death of Durga which affects the whole family—including Apu, which can be seen in the end when Apu drinks the milk himself and combs his hair himself. This death leads the family to migrate to a distant place in the end.
The beauty of this film is enhanced by the beautiful shots of the countryside, along with the unstoppable nature that takes place around the village. These shots are complemented by the sitar music played by Ravi Shankar. A lot of people can say that the film is slow, which is true, but that is how life takes place in a village. And at the end of the day, it is the portrayal of life which director Satyajit Ray tried to mimic, and he succeeded.