Hari Ray struggles to make ends meet as a priest, but aspires to be a playwright and poet someday and continue the family legacy of writing. His wife, Sarbojaya, looks after the household and their two children Durga and Apu. Indir, an elderly cousin of Hari’s, also resides in the same compound and depends on the family for sustenance. Durga is close to her aunt Indir, and often steals fruit from a rich neighbour’s garden for her, undeterred by her mother’s warnings. Indir and Sarbajaya share a tense relationship, particularly since their hand-to-mouth existence makes it difficult for her to accept Indir’s dependence on them.
Durga and Apu look out for each other. They are thick as thieves and get up to various capers in their idyllic village, enjoying the novelty of a bioscope, watching a theatre performance, and consuming forbidden treats. They plan together to see the train, a rare new sight in the village. One day, they follow a sweet seller to Durga’s friend’s house, where Durga gets caught up in a game with her friend. She sees that her friend Tunnu is making a bead necklace. A few days later, Tunnu’s mother accuses Durga of stealing the necklace, and she is severely punished by the humiliated Sarbajaya.
Meanwhile, Hari leaves the village to seek more profitable employment. Indir, who had left the house after a fight with Sarbajaya, returns to their compound to live out her last few days. Sarbajaya behaves coldly with her, and she leaves again. In the interim, Durga and Apu finally see the mythical train, an euphoric moment for the two. Tragically, they stumble across a dead Indir on their way back home.
Pushed to the wall by their need, Sarbajaya has to sell some valuables from the house to buy grain. When this stock runs out, their cantankerous neighbour helps them out. In the midst of this, Sarbajaya receives good news: her husband has managed to earn a good amount of money, and is coming back home with it. Durga and Apu are out playing, and they get drenched in a heavy downpour. Durga comes down with a high fever. As the storm rages and Sarbajaya sits anxiously by her ailing daughter, Durga succumbs to her fever and dies.
Hari comes back home bearing gifts for his family. Sarbajaya breaks down when he asks after Durga, and he is stricken when he realizes that she is dead. They decide to leave their ancestral home behind and move to Benaras. While packing his things, Apu finds Tunnu’s necklace amongst Durga’s belongings, and he throws it in a pond before he leaves.
A heartwarming, evocative film exploring rural poverty and its effect on personal relationships, Pather Panchali is the internationally acclaimed directorial debut of revered filmmaker Satyajit Ray.