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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Pather Panchali (1955)

"Nothing has worked out like I hoped."
- Hari (Kanu Bannerjee)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 17, 2003

Stars: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Chunibala Devi
Director: Satyajit Ray

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:06m:00s
Release Date: October 28, 2003
UPC: 043396018181
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

This is a film seemingly modest in its ambitions—it's the story of the travails of a poor family in rural India—but one that is made with such empathy for its characters and compassion for their emotions that it rightly earned Satyajit Ray, in his directorial debut, comparisons with the great filmmakers of the world. We in the West are certainly at a contextual disadvantage—despite the enormous output of Bollywood over the decades, Indian film doesn't merit all that much attention here—so no doubt there are subtleties and cultural allusions lost on us. But still, in its quiet, deeply felt way, Pather Panchali did for Indian cinema what Rashomon did for that of Japan—it gave it an international legitimacy, and served notice that the storytelling from its country ranks with that of any other.

This is the first film in Ray's Apu trilogy, but Apu (Subir Bannerjee), a little boy here, is eclipsed by his older sister, Durga (Uma Das Gupta), the crucial figure. The family is going through rough times—not only have they been saddled with the heavy debts and crumbling home of their forebears, but Durga and Apu's father, Hari (Kanu Bannerjee), cannot find a proper job. He has dreams of being a poet, a playwright, a man of the arts; but it's his wife who dresses him down, insisting (rightly) that they dig themselves out of their hole first, and see about being able to put food on the table. Durga has more than a touch of the rebel in her, and the most compelling and dramatic parts of Pather Panchali are a classic coming-of-age story, with the girl testing the limits of her family and her community, seeing just what she can get away with, and finding that particular thrill that comes with breaking the rules.

Ray is equally as good with the older generations, too—perhaps the most moving performance in the film is given by Chunibala Devi, who plays an old auntie living with the family. She's cast out, but later returns home to die, in an emotional and bracing sequence toward the end of the film. Ray's filmmaking isn't self conscious—only occasionally will you take notice of his moving camera, say, or particularly elaborate composition. Instead, he registers a kind of humanity for his characters that we rarely see in movies, and in some respects the right Western analogues for his work are the writings of William Saroyan or especially John Steinbeck; you'll also see something of a debt to the neo-Realists, especially the early works of Visconti and Fellini. The story is thoroughly Indian, but the emotions are unmistakably human; in some respects, the film's family has an affinity with Welsh and Irish families in books and movies. The plight of Hari and his brood will have a particular emotional resonance to anybody familiar with How Green Was My Valley, or Angela's Ashes.

A few moments toward the end of the movie situate it in a broader political context, and remind you that the damage done by the British colonial system was tremendous—an Indian marching band plays a flat version of Tipperary, and are stared down by a figure looking very much like Mahatma Gandhi, displeased by this anthem of Her Majesty's soldiers. Those aren't really the most successful aspects of the movie, though, which brims with human emotion and poignancy about the little things in life, about the joys and heartaches of family, the crushing burden of poverty, and the sense of hopelessness that sinks in to too many lives. It's a great and beautiful film, and will make you get ready to queue up its two successors, Aparajito and The World of Apu.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: I don't know that I've seen a more highly regarded movie look worse on DVD. It's full of scratches and discolorations, and bacterial decay is evident in many, many instances. Perhaps the financial burden weighs in against a proper and full restoration, but the film is presented here by The Merchant and Ivory Foundation, with a note from 1994; it's a shame and a botched opportunity that no work was done on the print in the intervening decade before bringing it to this new format.

Image Transfer Grade: D


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The audio didn't fare quite as poorly as the picture; the balance on the mono track isn't bad, Ravi Shankar's moody score sounds fine, and there's relatively little aural interference.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The complete lack of extras only reinforces the suspicion that this movie was dumped onto DVD with little or no forethought.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

This may be the crown jewel of Indian cinema, and is a beautifully made film; it's been done some dirt in its transfer to DVD, though, and is sadly barren of extras. Nice that it's available, but the Apu trilogy deserves much more care and tending to than this.


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