Fifty years ago, the very first San Francisco International Film Festival showed Satyajit Ray's uniquely personal, practically homemade Pather Panchali, which was by then two years old. The festival had scheduled its brand-new follow-up, Aparajito, but had to make a last-minute switch. The film was shown again in 1992 when Ray won the festival's prestigious Akira Kurosawa award (also won by the likes of Akira Kurosawa himself, Michael Powell, Robert Bresson, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and many other greats). And it was shown yet again in 1997 when local director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Henry & June) chose it for the "Indelible Images" series and introduced the screening. That's when I saw the film for the first time. Now, to mark the occasion of the festival's 50th anniversary, what better film is there to show?
Some films take a while to sink in, and others hit big immediately and then age badly, but Pather Panchali (or, roughly translated, "Song of the Road") was an "instant classic" that still plays well to this day. It dropped like a bomb on the huge, rigid Indian film industry, which preferred -- and still prefers -- romances and musicals with decidedly non-realistic settings. Like the Neo-Realist classics from postwar Italy (Open City, Bicycle Thieves) and the late 1960s, early 1970s Hollywood films (Easy Rider, M*A*S*H), it brought to cinema a new kind of realism that audiences were thirsty for. Certainly escapism has its place, but there's only so often, and so far, one can escape. At some point, one must face one's self. And if you recognize a little of yourself in Apu, then the film has done its job.