Pather Panchali : Witch or Grandmother

Because of a mix up in dates by the cinema, the U3A audience at the Lexi was small but very appreciative.  I had forgotten how woman-centered was Pather Panchali and remembered only the visual and music emotional impact it made on me when I saw it years ago.

I think that the film should be the major work in the study of old women in the cinema. Recently there has been an interest about ageing and its representation and on the whole the stress has been either on the ‘still doing it’ approach or the beauty of the very old woman’s face. This film accepts the physical deterioration of the ageing body but also allocates to the old woman her rightful place in human life.

The main characters in Pather Panchali are the Mother, Sarbojaya, and her two children Durga and Apu, the Old Aunt, Indir, and Harri the father, Indir’s brother . The father is absent, either unaware of the practical problems of real life or away to find a job.   The mother bears the whole  weight of a hard rural existence on the verge of starvation. We see the girl as a 7-8 years old and later as a teenager.  The little boy Apu is around 7.

The old Aunt, Indir is played by the retired stage actress Chunibala Dev who is said to be 80 by some sources. She looks very old. All skin and bones, her cheeks are hollow, her face lined,  her mouth toothless, and wisps of  white hair  reveal her big ears.  She sits on her haunches, her legs folded up to her chin. She shuffles around, bent double. This witchlike appearance is even emphasised in a nightshot when she tells a frightening story to the two children. The shadow of her profile with exaggerated prominent nose and chin   projected on the wall, makes the story still more chilling.

What is wonderful in the film is that with such an uncompromising, even caricature view of physical old age, Ray humanises the old woman by her behaviour and acting  but also by the cinematography. We are introduced to Indir by a close-up shot of a gnarled hand kneading rice in a bowl.  A tilt then  leads us to the old woman in profile eating the balls of rice, and diligently licking her fingers. Her folded  bony legs can be guessed at under her white sari.  There is then a cut to a medium shot. The old woman is initially unaware of the little girl, who is sitting on the verandah in a symmetrical position, all eyes on the old woman. Indir finds the guava that Durga had stolen for her and smiles a toothless grin of appreciation  and  the little girl smiles back.  The following brief shot shows the old woman and little girl in the foreground. In the background, the mother framed by the old woman and the little girl stops, scolds her daughter and calls her away from Indir.  She is back from the well carrying water and has just been humiliated by the neighbour over the stolen fruit.

These early shots of the old woman, the mother and the little girl establish the three ways relationship.

In two painful sequences separated by 7 years Saboraya vents her resentment, weariness and depression onto her sister-in-law. She accuses her of spoiling Durga, of stealing food, of begging and tells her very directly that she is and has been a burden these last years and she should leave. She even refuses her a glass of water when Indir returns to the ancestral home to die.

On the other hand the relationship between the old aunt and Durga is one of complicity and warmth. A long shot shows Indir walking away on the forest path, with her bundle and mat under her arm. Durga runs after her, grabs and tries to pull the mat in an effort to stop her aunt from  leaving. Later, in the same long shot of the path, Durga is skipping and laughing and leading her aunt back home to see her newborn brother Apu and then, we have a beautiful medium close up shot of the faces of Indir and Durga smiling at the baby. Their contrasting faces of old age and youth are united in their toothless smiles. There are also other parallels between the two characters: they both steal food,  and they both are treated harshly by the mother.

How does Indir appear to us? What does she feel? How does she react to the accusation of being a burden?

Indir sees herself as an old woman. “it is too much for an old woman”, “who cares about an old woman”, ” what things come to when an old woman has to patch her shawl”, “I have nowhere to go now I am old, so I thought of you”, “can’t an old woman have whims?”  she expresses without any self-pity.   She seems to be independent from the family. She prepares her own food and is sometimes forced to steal from her daughter-in-law some chilli or other ingredient and she mends her own shawl in spite of her difficulties in threading the needle. She is proud. When she is first accused of being a burden on the household she mutters ” It is too much for an old woman” packs her possessions and leaves. She returns for the birth of her nephew and it is then that we see her contribution to the family.  In a touching, serene family scene she rocks the baby and sings, while the mother is cooking, and Durga is playing. We also see her telling the children traditional bedtime stories. She provides for Durga the warm caring parenting, in opposition to the harsh training for a woman’s life that Saboraya conveys to her daughter.  She is proud but does ask for help.   The only interaction of Indir and her brother occurs with this dialogue: “help me up  my back is stiff.”   Harri “How are you these days”. “who cares about an old woman “she replies. She then proceeds to spread a shawl in front of her and jokingly pokes her head through an enormous hole “It is my shawl for the evening”.  Later in the narrative Indir has a new shawl that she asked (begged for, according to Saboraya)  from Raju. “Can’t an old woman have whims and fancies?”

Indir feels for others. In the scene where the neighbour accuses Durga of stealing her daughter’s beads, Indir tries to intervene but is completely ignored by everybody. The expression of disgust and dismissal shows  great acting. It is again through  her facial expression when she fails to stop Durga from being dragged by the hair by her mother  that we perceive her pain .  It is her distress and empathy that we perceive in  the close up of the ageing face with all its lines and folds rather than her age. Also she tries, to no avail, to comfort Sarbojaya taken by a coughing fit even though the latter verbally attacked her.

Finally Indir is prepared for her death. In a night scene, she sings sitting against the wall while the others are asleep. — Those who came before are gone– I am left behind a penniless beggar– the day draws to its close, night’s mantle descends — row me across to the other side.

She has been sent away to Raju but she walks breathlessly, aided by her  walking stick to her ancestral home where she wants to die. She is sent away and dies sitting on the side of the path. Her song is heard during the funeral procession.

Although it is set in rural Bengal of the 20s, although it is rare in the West to see old toothless women,  this old woman is still relevant today.   The role of the old woman in this film is nuanced. The character is developed and does not depend on appearance. On the contrary, the way she is treated,  the details of  her behaviour and her relationship with the young girl give her a depth rarely seen in the representation of old women.


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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1 Response to Pather Panchali : Witch or Grandmother

  1. old women can be treated as stereotypes – the witch, the old dear, etc. It’s refreshing when they aren’t!

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