A boy named Apu is born to a poor Brahmin family living in its ancestral village in Bengal, India in 1920. The father, Harihar, a poet and lay priest, earns so little money that the family can barely keep going. Each day is a struggle for survival.
The daughter, Durga, is constantly stealing food, and the wife, Sarbajaya, bickers with their old aunt who lives next door. Harihar gets a new job at the treasury but, after six years, nothing changes, so when he has an offer of an even better job in a nearby village, he leaves.
When he returns home, bearing gifts and money, he learns that his daughter has died. Facing the situation head on, Harihar decides to take his family out of the village to a new life in the holy city of Benares.