How does “Pather Panchali” reflect a child’s perspective of the world?


Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (1959) form not only one of the great trilogies of cinematic history but also one of the most perfect cinematic examples of the Bildungsroman genre. The trilogy, some of the earliest films of master Satyajit Ray and among the first works to bring Indian cinema to the attention of international filmgoers, were based on classic Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali and its sequel Aparajito. While each film is an artistic triumph in its own right, one of the most impressive aspects of the trilogy is the way in which the stylistic developments across the three films reflect the developmental evolution of its protagonist. This technique can be seen most clearly in the trilogy’s first film, in which Ray immerses the viewer in a child’s vibrant experience of the world around him.

Pather Panchali is a miracle of purely cinematic expression. Following Apu as a very young boy, the film mirrors the protagonist’s current state of intellectual development in its highly nuanced visuals and use of sound. In this nearly nonverbal film, the subtle poetry of the natural world is observed in delicate, exquisite detail, in much the same way that a child’s voracious, developing mind observes with wonder the quotidian things that become invisible to adults through sheer familiarity. In a scene entirely detached from the film’s main plot, Ray includes an extended sequence of insects delicately dancing on the placid surface of a lake, accompanied by Ravi Shankar’s lilting score. While the scene does nothing to advance the plot or even illuminate character, it typifies the film’s emphasis on childlike, poetic, non-narrative expression.

This dominance of sound and image also appears in more developmentally specific ways, as in Ray’s use of music and soundscapes to amplify emotions and mimic the overwhelming way in which a child experiences the world. In a pivotal scene, Apu’s older sister lies sick in bed as a storm rages outside their small, vulnerable home. The sounds of whipping wind and driving rain tap into a primal, inarticulate fear of the power of nature and the mysterious, indiscriminate force of death. Similarly, when Apu’s mother first informs his father of the sister’s death, the devastated parents’ cries are replaced by tortured musical screeches in Shankar’s score. The effect of this switch strikingly communicates the awesome, terrifying way grown-up grief appears to a child experiencing his first significant brush with death.

As the later films of the trilogy go on to demonstrate, this total sympathy of form and content was no coincidence. In translating the novelistic form of the Bildungsroman into cinematic language, Ray employs a series-long process of stylistic evolution to mirror the intellectual development of his protagonist. While the first film reflects the impressions and understanding of the world of a small child, the second and third films – which trace Apu’s development as a gifted student and sensitive young man with literary ambitions, respectively – are increasingly verbal, adding graceful dialogue to the films’ set of tools for expressing character. While the later films are equally true to Apu’s perspective in their more conventional aesthetics and reliance on dialogue, Pather Panchali’s immersion in its childlike perspective makes it one of the most fascinatingly singular works of the cinematic canon.