Satyajit Ray’s debut film, “Pather Panchali,” chronicles the life of a poor family in Bengal, India. As they struggle to survive with the little money that their paternal figure, Harihar, is able to earn, the film focuses on the childhood of the protagonist, Apu. Their home is dilapidated and in need of some extensive repairs, but Harihar constantly tells his wife that the money will come once he becomes a great writer. Harihar’s dreams of writing original plays overshadow his role as a father and provider for his family. As a result of his indifference and inability to demand the wages he is owed, his family falls into debt and his home becomes more and more derelict. However, despite their poverty and the third world conditions of their village, Apu and his family provide a glimpse of what life could have been like for many people in rural India.
Additionally, the film portrays the adolescence and childhood of Apu and his sister Durga in a way that any audience would be able to identify with. The siblings have a very close relationship and Durga seems to care for Apu as if she were his own mother. They experience the world together and engage in some of the same activities as children from the western world, which makes it very easy for the audience to identify with the two children. However, the film is struck by a great deal of tragedy and the lives of this family are overturned by the degree to which they have lost and the only way for them to possibly recover from their losses is to leave their ancestral home in search of a new life in a less rural part of the country. I found the most interesting and compelling character in the film to be that of the mother, Sarbajaya. Her role in the film is often depicted in the negative, but the degree for which she seems to care for her family and the pride of her family is quite powerful.
Sarbajaya is not depicted in the film as a caring mother and instead seems to be very authoritative and demanding of her family, but I find that looking at this situation the family is subjected to and taking note of the Harihar’s absence and general inability to provide, that Sarbajaya’s attitude is out of necessity rather than malevolence. For instance, very early in the film while Sarbajaya is sitting in her home with her husband and Durga she explains, “We’ll have two good meals twice a day and new clothes twice a year.” Very early in the narrative Sarbajaya is optimistic in response to the reassurances from her husband, but it appears that after years of hardship and the eventual tragedy of Durga’s death that their perpetual poverty begins to wear on her. It seems very unlikely that any human psyche would be able to deal with constant hunger and fear of not being able to provide for one’s children, without losing their sense of optimism.
In Steve Vineberg’s essay, Home and the World: Reflections on Satyajit Ray, he explains, “Saribojaya, Apu’s mother… is limited by her lack of education; home is her whole world”(Vineberg 33). This insight brings some clarity to her character. Sarbajaya is, for almost the entire film, depicted only inside the limits of their home. By my recollection, she leaves only once and we only see her walk off the property and then there is a cut to her walking back later. Sarbajaya lives only to serve her family and home life is all she knows. She will do anything she has to in order to keep her family safe and healthy. Harihar constantly attempts to assuage his wife’s concerns by telling her about his ideas and opportunities, which will surely bring them prosperity. In the middle of the film in a scene where Harihar is laying down to go to sleep he explains to Sarbajaya that, “I have a new idea for a play, I should be able to write it in about a week.” Though he never explains what his play will be about or to whom he will sell it. Harihar is a weak man and cannot even bolster the courage to ask his employer for three months of wages that are due to him, yet he still has confidence that he will be able to sell his plays.
Sarbajaya never questions her husband, she does ask him, “you once lived in Benares, did you have friends there?” She suggests that they move to Benares since the orators there are able to earn a living wage. Harihar, however, denies the request and tells her, “This is my ancestral home. How can I leave it?” It is somewhat ironic that she suggests moving so early in the film when they ultimately leave for Benares in order to find a place where they can get by without relying on his ability to find work in their village. This scene explains Sarbajaya’s frustrations even though they are not explicit. She want to be able to live a life where she does not have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feed her children.
Sarbajaya comes off at some point in the film as crass and uncaring for the suffering of others, but I feel that this image of her is inspired by her unwillingness to let her children go hungry or live in a home that will barely protect them. Her relationship with Indir, her aunt-in-law, is problematic for most of the film. She constantly scolds Indir for playing the role of the beggar. Pride is very important for Sarbajaya and her family’s inability to pay back its debts, repair their home or feed themselves weighs very heavy on her. It appears as though she resents Indir’s presence in her home because it give her one more mouth to feed and one more person to provide for. Her husband wants to take care of Indir and regards her as one of the family, but Sarbajaya does not want Indir to continue living with them as their poverty worsens and she ultimately casts Indir out of their home and tells her not to come back. I do not think that Sarbajaya wished for Indir to die alone and did want her aunt to live out the rest of her days as happily as she could manage, but she was unable to continue to provide for the old woman when she was struggling to keep her children healthy and protected.
Sarbajaya is a strong willed woman and would not allow herself to live off the charity of others, but when she could no longer provide for her family she had to make rash decisions in order to keep them from spiraling down into further deficiency. I found that Sarbajaya’s pride and motherly duties were the cause of her aloofness and not a flaw in her character. Instead it seemed that the traits that made her a good mother and wife were the ones that also made her unlikable. If she were a weaker woman, I believe that the fate of her family would have been much worse. Although their fate was extremely dismal, by allowing others to take advantage of her hospitality, it is possible that they would have all starved or been forced out of the dilapidate building they called their home. Durga’s death was extremely unfortunate, but if her husband had been a stronger man or been capable of leaving his ‘ancestral home’ when conditions worsened, it is possible that Durga would have been afforded better medical attention and avoided death. Satyajit Ray’s film, “Pather Panchali”, was extremely powerful and gave a compelling glimpse into the effects of poverty and economic hardship in rural India. His characters and his portrayal of them forced me to think about the cause/ effect dynamic of their actions and in his depiction of the character Sarbajaya I found a loving mother who was forced by a weak husband to make extremely difficult decision on behalf of her family.
Pather Panchali. Dir. Satyajit Ray. Perf. Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta Bannerjee,. Youtube.com. Google.com. Web. 2 Mar. 2012.
Vineberg, Steve. “Home and the World: Reflections on Satyajit Ray.” The Threepenny Review 43 (1990): 33-35. JSTOR. Web. 2 Mar. 2012.