Though the film Pather Panchali had a budget of just Rs. 150,000 in which most of the actors were amateur, it was a critical and popular success. Influenced by Italian neorealism, Satyajit Ray developed his own style of lyrical realism in this film. The first film from independent India to attract major international critical attention, Pather Panchali won ‘Best Human Document‘ Award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, establishing Satyajit Ray as a major international filmmaker. Pather Panchali is today considered one of the greatest films ever made.
The novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay is a classic bildungsroman in Bengali literature. It first appeared as a serial in a periodical in 1928 and was published as a book in 1929. The plot was based on the author’s own early life. The novel depicts a poor family’s struggle to survive in their ancestral rural home and the growing up of Apu, the male child in the family. The later part of the novel, where Apu and his parents leave the village and settle in Banaras, formed the basis of Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), the second film of the Apu trilogy.
Satyajit Ray read the novel in 1943, when he was doing the illustrations for a new edition of it, and contemplated the possibility of making a film based on it in 1947–48. Ray chose the novel because of certain qualities that, according to him, “made it a great book: its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth.”
The title of the film in English is Song of the Little Road. During his visit with the French director Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray told him his desire to make a film based on this novel. Realizing the greatness of the story, Jean encouraged Satyajit. His stay in London and watching the films there reconfirmed his conviction that it was possible to make realistic cinema with an amateur cast and shooting at actual locations. The success of Bimal Roy‘s film Do Bigha Jamin inspired Satyajit Ray to hope that Pather Panchali also might find an international audience. Besides the foreign influences, Ray is also indebted to Bengali literature and the native Indian theatrical tradition, particularly the rasa theory of classical Sanskrit drama.
The film never had a complete script; it was made from Ray’s drawings and notes. Ray tried to extract and build a simple theme out of the apparently random sequences of significant as well as trivial episodes of the novel, while preserving the loitering quality of it. Ray himself commented that, ―The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.‖
Some notable shifts from the novel in the script include the death scene of Indir Thakrun, which occurs quite early in the novel in a village shrine at the presence of some adult members of the family; in the film she dies in the open in the presence of Apu and Durga. The scene of Apu and Durga running to catch a glimpse of the train is not there in the novel, neither child manages to see the train there, although they made an attempt. Finally, the ending of the film – the departure of the family from the village – is not the end of the novel.
Kanu Banerjee, an established Bengali film actor, portrayed the role of Harihar Ray, father of Apu and Durga. The role of Sarbojaya, wife of Harihar, was played by Karuna Banerjee Uma Dasgupta played the role of Durga. For the role of Apu, Subir Banerjee was selected. The role of Indir Thakrun was given to Chunibala Devi, a retired stage actress living in a brothel.
Satyajit Ray started the shooting of the film October 27, 1952. Boral, a village near Calcutta, was selected as the location for shooting. The technical team of the film consisted of several first-timers. Ray had never directed anything and cinematographer SubrataMitra had never operated a movie camera. Art director Bansi Chandragupta had some professional experience.
From the outset, funding was a problem as no producer was willing to produce the film. Ray had to borrow money in order to shoot enough footage so as to persuade prospective producers to finance the whole film. In order to raise funds during the production period, Ray kept working as a graphic designer, pawned his life insurance policy and sold his collection of LP records. Production manager Anil Chowdhury convinced Ray’s wife, Bijoya, to pawn her jewels as well. Nonetheless, Ray still ran out of the required money partway though filming and shooting had to be suspended for nearly a year, and following that, the shooting could be done only in intermittent pieces. Finally, the shooting of the film completed with the loan sanctioned by the Government of West Bengal.
Ray and his team worked day and night during post- production, and just managed to get the film ready to send it to MoMA for the exhibition in May 1955 where it was well-received. Pather Panchali was released in a Calcutta cinema on 26 August 1955 and had a poor initial response. However, the screenings started filling up within a week or two. It opened again at another cinema hall, where it ran for seven weeks. It went on to great success in the US in 1958, running for eight months at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. Pather Panchali was the first film made in independent India that received major critical attention internationally and placed India on the world cinema map.
Pather Panchali was followed by two films that continued the tale of Apu’s life – Aparajito (The Unvanquished) in 1956 and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959. The three films are together known as the Apu Trilogy. Aparajito portrays the adolescent Apu, his education in the rural school and in a Calcutta college. The central theme in Aparajito is the poignant relation between a doting mother and her young ambitious boy. Apur Sansar tells the story of the brief family life of Apu, his reaction at the premature death of his wife, and finally bonding with his son whom he left as an infant. Both the sequels won multiple national and international awards. Ray did not have any specific plan to make a trilogy from the start. Indeed, he planned to make the third instalment only after being asked about the possibility of a trilogy at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, where Aparajito won the Golden Lion Award.
Pather Panchali ushered in a new tradition of film-making in India, one in which authenticity and social realism were key themes, breaking the rule of the Indian film establishment of the time. Although described as a turning point in Indian cinema, some commentators opined that Pather Panchali did not usher in a modern age in Indian cinema. Rather, the film refined an already existent “realist textual principle” in Indian cinema. In 1963, Time noted that thanks to Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray was one of the “hardy little bands of inspired pioneers” of a new cinematic movement that was enjoying a good number of imitators worldwide.The film has since been considered as a ‘global landmark‘ and among the essential movie going experiences‘.