“Pather Panchali” explores the microcosm of an impoverished Indian family’s daily life. Their poverty is apparent in the state of their home, holes in the walls, worn-out wooden doors and window coverings. Cats wander about everywhere like pests, plants grow in the courtyard, and everywhere is open spaces, letting the home merge with the natural elements. This contrasts with the pristine home of their nearby wealthy relatives, which sports walls so high we do not see where they end and a courtyard completely clean of animals and runaway growth.
Their poverty brings endless strife to their existence. Obtaining small needs, such as food and adequate shelter, are a constant struggle. Sarbojaya’s relationships with her family are affected by this state of poverty. She scorns Indir as a burden on the household and accuses her of spoiling Durga. She bickers with her husband, who pursues unrealistic dreams of writing and providing religious guidance, while smoking too much tobacco, instead of providing practical financial support to his family.
Sarbojaya also pines for the easier times of her youth, before relatives took her family’s orchard for Harihar’s brother’s debts. This once wealthy background has ingrained her with a severe concern for respectability, which is difficult to maintain in their impoverished state. The two women, Durga and Indir, bare the brunt of this concern, through Sarbojaya’s frequent and severe reprimanding.
The conflict surrounding Sarbojaya’s attempts to keep her household together contrasts with the ways the other characters try to escape it. Auntie Indir cannot suffer the indignation of answering to Sarbojaya, as one who remembers her own time and resents the dependence on others that age has brought. She simply leaves when she has had enough.
Durga escapes through simple life’s experiences. She follows the candyman, crosses the countryside to see the train, and dances in a monsoon. She let’s Apu tag along with her to a degree. They explore together, but when she is invited into her wealthy relatives’ home to play, she sends him home.
Throughout all of this, Apu plays the quiet observer. His mother lavishes love on him. He sits with his father and learns. He follows his sister in her exploits. Apu partakes in all the aspects of his family’s life; experiences that I expect will shape him for the second and third films.