Pather Panchali

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Synopsis

With the release in 1955 of Satyajit Ray’s debut, Pather Panchali, an eloquent and important new cinematic voice made itself heard all over the world. A depiction of rural Bengali life in a style inspired by Italian neorealism, this naturalistic but poetic evocation of a number of years in the life of a family introduces us to both little Apu and, just as essentially, the women who will help shape him: his independent older sister, Durga; his harried mother, Sarbajaya, who, with her husband away, must hold the family together; and his kindly and mischievous elderly “auntie,” Indir—vivid, multifaceted characters all. With resplendent photography informed by its young protagonist’s perpetual sense of discovery, Pather Panchali, which won an award for Best Human Document at the Cannes Film Festival, is an immersive cinematic experience and a film of elemental power.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection has upgraded its edition of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali to 4K UHD, presenting it in ultra high-definition SDR at 2160p/24hz in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. As the first feature in Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, it is delivered on the first triple-layer disc of Criterion’s 4K box set, which includes all three films. Additionally, Criterion includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray presenting the film in 1080p/24hz alongside its special features, the same disc Criterion released in 2015.

Sourced from the same 4K restoration used for the Blu-ray presentation, I wasn’t expecting a significant upgrade, considering the lack of HDR and the remaining film-related issues. However, as with my initial expectations for another Criterion 4K edition—McCabe & Mrs. Miller—I was way off; this looks incredible.

Print damage remains a minor issue, with scratches, bits of debris, fluctuations, and more popping up consistently enough to be noticeable, but it’s to be expected. The original negatives were either heavily damaged or destroyed in a fire, so the restoration was lengthy and intense. Alternate prints had to fill in where the original negatives weren’t available, including a duplicate negative supplied by the Academy Film Archive and a fine-grain master from the BFI. Impressively, the image remains incredibly sharp and crisp for most of its run time, with noticeable quality decreases only where I assume the fine-grain is being used, resulting in a slightly fuzzier image with lower contrast and moderately heavier damage.

However, this ends up being of little concern thanks to the boost afforded by the increased resolution and a stellar encode. The digital presentation is solid, rendering grain cleanly without any apparent artifacts, and the grayscale is noticeably wider compared to the Blu-ray, even without HDR. Blacks look a bit better, and the gradations within the grays look cleaner and smoother. There's a far more photographic look to this image.

Overall, this presentation has a far more film-like texture and look, delivering a considerable upgrade over the previous Blu-ray edition.

Audio 5/10

The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack sounds the same as the Blu-ray's. Yet again, the track is limited by the original recordings (captured on cheaper equipment according to a documentary about the restorations included in this set) and the condition of the materials. The range is narrow, and there is sometimes a slight "tinny" sound. At the very least, there are no severe issues with pops or drops.

Extras 6/10

The Blu-ray disc included with this release is the same one from Criterion's 2015 Blu-ray edition, so all features have been ported over.

Things start again with A Long Time on the Little Road, which is a recording—made by Gideon Bachmann—of Ray reading from a 1957 essay he wrote on the making of the film. During the 14-minute recording, Ray talks about his first day of shooting, his general nervousness that did ease over time, and his thoughts on obtaining authenticity. He admits he thought it would be all easy, but once he got into the nitty-gritty of it and had to deal with the camera and the actors, things became more challenging and weren’t as clear cut. It’s a wonderful first-hand recollection with plenty about the learning curve he experienced while making the film.

Criterion then includes a few interviews, starting with a brief 7-minute one with actor Soumitra Chatterjee. The actor plays Apu in the third film in the trilogy, Apur Sansar, and has nothing to do with Pather Panchali directly. Still, he talks about the popularity of the film and its source novel and the impact the film had on him, chiefly in terms of his acting career.

Shampa Srivastava, who plays the younger Durga in the film (credited as Runki Banerjee), talks for 16 minutes about working with Ray, who she keeps referring to as, more or less, that “large, beautiful man.” She gives an idea of what it was like while making the film, but she also talks about working with her mother, Karuna Bannerjee, who plays her mother. She also talks about how her mother handled her newfound fame and how she was recognized regularly, thanks to the film. It’s an insightful and funny interview, and it's probably still my favorite interview across the whole set.

Criterion then interviews camera operator Soumendu Roy, the only crew member they interviewed for the set. It’s disappointingly short, but Roy gives a decent account of the production and how it got its funding and also recounts shooting on location and dealing with the elements. A name that comes up in the supplements here and there when others are referring to Ray is Manik-da (there’s even a book about Ray that uses the name for its title), a term of endearment suggesting a “big brother,” which shows the admiration and respect everyone had for the man.

Criterion then includes a 6-minute excerpt from the documentary The Song of the Little Road, featuring an interview with musician Ravi Shankar. Shankar talks about first meeting Ray and composing the music, coming up with specific themes, and then talking about how Ray worked it into the film. He also shares the story of the last time he met Ray. It’s a satisfactory interview, though its presentation is pretty frustrating: for whatever reason, the actual interview with Shankar is presented as a series of stills. At first, I thought that maybe this was some way for Criterion to get around some copyright/licensing issues. Yet, looking up the documentary (which I still have not seen), it appears the whole thing is edited like this, even during interviews with Martin Scorsese and Ismail Merchant. I found this aspect unnecessary and more distracting from what was being said.

This closes off the supplements specific to this disc.

I was somewhat frustrated by the last feature (regarding editing/presentation). Still, the content and material are good, and the features on this disc give an excellent insight into the making of Ray’s debut feature. If the supplements here leave a bit to be desired, the material found on the other discs (which get a little more academic) makes up for this.

Closing

Despite the inherent limitations of the print materials, the 4K UHD delivers a sizeable improvement over Criterion's previous Blu-ray. A very welcome surprise!

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Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Year: 1955
Time: 125 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 783
Licensor: NFDC
Release Date: January 02 2024
MSRP: $124.95  (Box set exclusive)
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
1.37:1 ratio
Bengali 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: None
 
 Audio recording from 1958 of director Satyajit Ray reading his essay “A Long Time on the Little Road”   New interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee and Shampa Srivastava and camera assistant Soumendu Roy   Excerpts from the 2003 documentary The Song of the Little Road, featuring The Apu Trilogy composer Ravi Shankar