Those aren’t tears on my face, they’re salt granules from the margarita rim.
The Film: Satyajit Ray’s 1955 portrait of boyhood and family in rural India
The Potable: One pitcher of homemade Jose Cuervo margaritas
As promised, I decided to return to an old favorite this week. The first feature of legendary Bengali director Satyajit Ray, it’s hard to understate just how affecting Pather Panchali really is. The film and its two sequels, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, have influenced everyone from Elia Kazan to Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson. It is an essential part of any serious discussion about world cinema, plus, I just got a new blender and I’ve been dying to test this margarita recipe.
I’ve seen this before, so I spent most of the first act cutting limes in the kitchen and peering around the corner for the important parts. It’s okay; films rarely require more than one viewing before being understood completely. There’s a mom, a dad, a daughter named Durga, a terrifying aunt, and our young Apu, the trilogy’s protagonist. It’s unbelievable just how thoroughly this blender cuts ice.
Apu may be the focus of the trilogy’s arc, but Pather Panchali – loosely translated, it means “Highway Hum” – really belongs to the mother and daughter, with the film’s most dramatic beats centered on the latter. As the mother struggles to manage the family’s meager finances and bruised reputation, Durga begins stealing fruit from the neighbors’ orchards. Both characters’ motivations are clear, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with them both. A local girl’s necklace goes missing. Is Durga responsible? The answer will be the emotional crux of the film’s finale.
The father is, God bless him, a mess, and not of much help to anyone. Like father like son; Apu spends his days skipping through the forest with toothpaste on his mouth. He’s only six years old, but surely he’s developed motor skills enough to help load and unload a dishwasher. This reminded me that it was my turn to do dishes. I did so, and I took my time.
Throughout Pather Panchali’s first hour, Apu and I are almost equally oblivious to the plight of his family. He plays with a makeshift bow and arrow, I read an old Joe Biden article from The Onion. He begs for candy money, I filled out a check for an overdue parking ticket. Waiting for my favorite scenes, I decided to catch up on Facebook. My high school friend Ball Zach – not a birth name – posted a graphic that charts the bias of various news organizations. I wholeheartedly disagreed with every placement, but I did not say so.
Eventually, Durga and Apu journey across the nearby rice fields to get a glimpse of the then-modern train tracks. I forget why, and the black locomotive roaring through the tall grass seems more symbolic than I remember. Symbolic of what? I refill my margarita glass, shrug, and decide it’s something about agriculture. Crop rotation. I’m sure it goes over Apu’s head, too.
A political fight began to brew on Twitter that I desperately wanted to be a part of – I don’t care how many “seas he’s sailed,” Jack Sparrow would not have voted Green Party, fuck you – but from here, Pather Panchali begins to tackle its most dramatic moments. I took a deep breath, sighed, and peeled myself away from my laptop.
At this point, I must make a confession. Why have I been so distracted tonight? Gone to the trouble of mixing drinks rather than simply opening a can of beer or six? Why, oh why, have I gone out of my way to avoid making eye contact with this delightful picture?
It’s because Pather Panchali devastates me. Devastates. Its final scenes are too real, and I’m not convinced that i’m emotionally-equipped to handle a true second viewing. I can’t take it. If I robbed myself of the film’s early context, my thinking went, then maybe I could at least watch the latter half without completely falling apart.
This was not the case. Even with a nitwit’s understanding of the beginning, the ending still had me in tears, thanks in part to the Jose Cuervo, I’m sure. Through a combination of bad luck and patriarchal ineptitude, the family hits rock bottom and comes to realize they can no longer continue with their way of life. Little Apu, blissfully unaware for the bulk of the film, finally gains an understanding of life’s harshness. Through a last-minute revelation about his sister Durga – gut-wrenching in its brilliant simplicity – he makes the first consequential decision of his life. With a single action, he begins a lifelong journey of maturation and self-discovery.
Whoever Apu becomes, he will have been influenced in no small part by his childhood. This may seem like an obvious insight, but it’s all I can muster while drying the tear stains on this pillow and wiping lime juice from my keyboard.
Verdict: can never rewatch