“Everybody Dies Frustrated and Sad and That is Beautiful,” or How Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali Helped Me Through a Shitty Time

Writer, director and animator Jack Dunphy on the curious resonance of Apu Trilogy in the wake of his father's death.

I had a pretty good time at my dad’s funeral. Tears became laughter; friends became family; the food was above average – a warm hug of humanity, all around. But, as those who have lost a loved one know, that hug doesn’t last long. After what’s deemed an appropriate period of grief, you’re tossed back onto the hamster wheel that is your life and people stop asking if you’re OK. You have to move on, whether you’re ready to or not.

The first couple months back on the wheel were tough. After a night of heavy drinking and binge-watching Adam Sandler movies (that’s what depression looks like on me), I decided to blow off work to see all three films in The Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray back to back at BAM. I had seen one of them when I was a kid, but remembered nothing of it except the monkeys and being bored to tears.

This time around, the character I gravitated to most was Apu’s father, Mr. Ray. Like my own father, Mr. Ray is a writer at heart who works soul-sucking jobs in order to support his family. When we first meet him, he is a confident young man who refuses to have his spirit stampeded by the harsh circumstances that govern his existence. He moves through life in a sort of half-dance, always laughing at a joke no one else is in on, the way many creative types do – the way my father did when I was young.

At the start of Pather Panchali, the first movie in the trilogy, Mr. Ray tells his wife of his plans to become a famous playwright. Of course, this does not thrill Mrs. Ray. She is concerned with the family’s financial stability, health and ultimate survival – she can’t afford to live in a dreamland with her husband. Still, she doesn’t have the heart to kick him in the groin with reality. She knows her husband’s dreams, however childish they may be, keep his spirit alive in the face of extreme poverty.

This is just one instance in which the film proves to be so much more than “a movie of peasants eating with their hands,” as François Truffaut famously called it. Regardless of economic situation or culture, most of us quietly harbor the belief that we will someday paint our masterpiece. That we will one day do something great, something specific to us, something that tells the world who we are, or who we were – something that makes sense of our reality – something that proves this brief whirlwind of heartbreak and chaos was not all in vain.

Mr. Roy and Apu in Pather Panchali

My father wanted to be a writer – he was a writer, in his own right. In the same way young Apu watches his father slave away at his typewriter in Pather Panchali, I too sat beside my father and watched him write when I was young. Through a fog of false memories, I hear clearly the sound of my dad’s fingers hammering at the keyboard – I see, in perfect focus, the uncharacteristically serious face he made when he wrote. It was the same super-serious face young Apu observes his father making when he types – the same super-serious face I am making now as I struggle to finish this article.

Self portrait by Jack Dunphy

At the end of Pather Panchali, Mr. Ray returns to his village after months of looking for work (and perhaps pursuing selfish endeavors) in the city. He’s just been paid, so he carries himself like a man that has just conquered the world. He can’t wait to give his daughter the new sari he bought for her, but he is mortified to learn she has died while he was away. This causes Mr. Ray to abandon his artistic pursuits. He decides to move his family to the city, where they can at least get by. A group of elders tries to convince him to stay in the village, claiming it is his ancestral duty to do so. Mr. Ray tells them, “All my plans came to nothing. I wanted to be a writer.” He shows them what remains of his writing: “Look at these,” he says, “Eaten up by woodworms. I hoped to educate my boy. That came to nothing. And my little girl slipped away.”

Like Mr. Ray, my father reached a point where it was no longer enough to put his family before his writing – he had to abandon his writing entirely in order to provide for us. My mother, a filmmaker, had to make the same sacrifice. Pather Panchali shows that art is not merely a first-world luxury. The compulsion to make art arises naturally from the human spirit, whether you come from rural India or from the South Side of Chicago (where I’m from).

Art is as necessary to the survival of the spirit as food and water is to the body. The film also shows that when faced with mounting real-world problems, you often have to forgo survival of the spirit in order to maintain survival of the body. You have to let your spirit die in order to survive.

Jack Dunphy’s drawing of himself and his father from the upcoming film The Pervert

Two years ago, on his 57th birthday, my father told our family he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Since there was nothing he could do for his body, he decided to nourish his spirit, which for years he had let starve. He told our family, on the day of his diagnosis, that he planned to use the six to 18 months the doctors gave him to live to finish his novel, which he had been working on for as I long as I can remember. After he made this announcement, we all held hands and watched an Adam Sandler movie on the shitty hospital TV.

A week later, he was dead.

Like Apu in the third installment of the trilogy, Apur Sansar, I have inherited the dreams of my father. I walk around in a trance, painting my masterpiece in my head, hoping to one day do something great. Because I have a sensitivity to the delusional artist’s mentality, the hardest thing for me to accept about my father’s death was that he did not get to finish his life’s work. Yet when I saw Mr. Ray in Pather Panchali hold the remains of his writing, I felt oddly consoled. When Mr. Ray says, “All my plans came to nothing. I wanted to be a writer,” he does not invoke self-pity. Earlier in the film, he wore the super-serious writer face. Now, he wears a different face – a calm, Zen-like face. He seems to have accepted life for what it is: a whirlwind of heartbreak and chaos, from which no sense can be made. He smiles softly when he says, “Look at these. Eaten up by woodworms …,” he even sees the humor in it.

Usually when I cry at the end of a movie, I make a beeline for the exit, just before the lights come up. But at the end of Pather Panchali, that did not seem necessary. Everyone was crying. This made for an awkward line to the men’s room, but it served as a welcome reminder for why we leave our sad domiciles and sit in the dark with strangers. On my walk home, I felt a hundred pounds lighter – I had taken the emotional dump I needed. As I opened the door to my sad domicile, I remembered the lyrics to a song by They Might Be Giants, which my dad always played for me when he picked me up from school. In a jovial voice against an upbeat, poppy melody, the singer says:

No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.”

We must have listened to that song a hundred times together, and those lines always made the old man laugh.

Jack Dunphy is a filmmaker, animator, and occasional actor whose short films, Serenity, Chekhov and Bob Dylan Hates Me (which he animated for Caveh Zahedi) have played at Sundance and festivals around the world. He co-wrote Stinking Heaven with Nathan Silver, with whom he also co-directed the upcoming feature The Pervert. Dunphy and Silver are currently editing another project, The Great Pretender, which Dunphy also wrote and produced. The SXSW winner Assholes, in which Dunphy plays the male lead, will be released later this year. (Picture by Mike Ott.)