On 16th August 1958 Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed film Pather Panchali won the top five awards at the Vancouver Film Festival, including an award for Feature Length Motion Picture. Apart from that, Pather Panchali got an honourary mention at the film festival as well.
Pather Panchali, which means “Song of the Little Road”, is a Bengali film directed by legendary Indian film maker, Satyajit Ray and was produced by the Government of West Bengal. The film is based on a Bengali novel by the same name written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Pather Panchali marked Ray’s debut as a director and was made on a tight budget of Rs. 1,50,000 and features young and inexperienced actors and crew.
The film Pather Panchali is essentially about the maturation of Apu, a small boy who lives in a village in Bengal. The film follows the struggle of Apu and his family against poverty and their helplessness. The film is a beautiful portrayal of the bond between Apu and his elder sister Durga who showers him with maternal affection, yet also teases him like a sister would. Both children enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like following a candy seller whose wares they cannot afford, running through a field to catch a glimpse of a train, witnessing a jatra (a folk theatre performance) and a wedding ceremony. Through this film, even though it was his first, Ray proved that he was an effortless film maker and was a natural behind the camera. Ray was heavily inspired by Italian Neorealism (a film movement characterized by films made on the poor and working class) and French New Wave Cinema, which can be seen in Pather Panchali as well.
Satyajit Ray read Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali in 1943 when he was working on illustrations for the new edition of the book, it was then that the thought of making a film based on the novel crossed his mind. Ray was further inspired to make the film in 1949 after he met French film maker Jean Renoir who had come to Kolkata to shoot his film, The River. While helping Renoir to look for a suitable location for filming, Ray discussed his idea of making Pather Panchali with Renoir, who supported him to go ahead with the idea.
In 1950 Ray’s employers D.J Keymer, an advertising agency sent him to London to work in their headquarters. While in London, Ray watched 99 films and the film which had the most deep impact on him was Ladri Di Biciclette (Bicycle Thief) made in 1948 by Vittorio De Sica. After watching the film, Ray decided to become a film maker.
It is fascinating to know that Pather Panchali did not have a complete script and was only a collection of Ray’s notes and drawings. Ray made an effort to pull out and construct a simple theme out of the random and trivial events of the novel. Since Ray was tight on funds while the making of Pather Panchali he roped in relatively inexperienced cast and crew, some of the actors (including the actor who played the character of Apu) had no previous acting experience. The only experienced Bengali actor in the film was Kanu Banerjee (who played the character of Harihar, Apu’s father), the role of Apu’s mother was played by Karuna Banerjee, an amateur theatre actress. Ray had posted an ad in a local newspaper calling boys between the ages of five to seven to come for an audition for the role of Apu, but none who showed up matched what Ray was looking for. Finally, Ray’s wife spotted a little boy in their neighbourhood who she thought would be perfect for Apu’s role, which is how Subir Banerjee was cast as Apu.
Shooting of Pather Panchali began in October 1952 in Boral, a small village near Kolkata. This film marked the debut of the film’s technical team, cinematographer Subrata Mitra had never used a movie camera before and Ray had never directed a film before this. The only experienced person in the team was Art Director Bansi Dasgupta, who had earlier worked with Jean Renoir on his film, The River. Right from the beginning, funding the film was posing as a great problem to Ray who had to borrow money to shoot enough so he could get funding for the film. In order to collect funds for the film, Ray continued working as a graphic designer. Apart from that, Ray also pawned his life insurance policy and sold his LP records. Even Ray’s wife, Bijoya mortgaged her jewellery to help collect funds for the film. Despite all this effort Ray ran out of money and the shooting of Pather Panchali had to be suspended for a year. During this time, the film was shot only intermittently and Ray experienced a lot of anxiety as to the future of the film. After the film was made, Ray maintained that three miracles saved the film, the first that Apu’s voice did not break, Durga did not grow older and Indir Thakrun (who played the character of an elderly aunt) did not die.
Knowing of the financial difficulties Ray was facing, an influential friend of his mother spoke to Bidhan Chandra Roy, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, to watch some footage of the film. After watching the film, Roy asked the Home Publicity Department to access the cost of funding the film. The Government misinterpreted the nature of the film and thought it was a documentary on rural upliftment, especially that of road improvement. Eventually the money was loaned against “Road Improvement”, in reference to the title of the film. Ray was helped with additional funds by MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) when American film-maker John Huston after watching excerpts from the unfinished film declared it “the footage as the work of a great film-maker”. It took a total of three years for Ray and his team to complete the film and move onto post production.
The music of the film was composed by sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was at the early stages of his career then, having debuted in 1939. The background score of the film consists of several ragas, played primarily on the sitar. The soundtrack of the film gained immense popularity and was included in the “50 greatest film soundtracks” published in The Guardian and was also a source of great inspiration to The Beatles, especially George Harrison.
Pather Panchali opened to a lukewarm response initially, but later went on to achieve critical success in India and abroad, even winning many international awards. The Times of India said “It is absurd to compare it with any other Indian cinema” and Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal arranged a screening of the film for then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in a theatre in Calcutta. Despite there being resistance from some quarters of the Government, stating that the film depicted poverty, Pather Panchali was sent to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with the approval of Jawaharlal Nehru. The film received rave reviews at Cannes and even won the Best Human Document Prize. But not all reviews were positive, in the 1980’s Ray received flack for Pather Panchali by Nargis Dutt, a Member of Parliament and former actress, who apprehended Ray for “exporting poverty”. Pather Panchali was part one of the Apu Triology and was followed by two more films, Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) which follow Apu’s life as an adult. These three films are today among the greatest films of all times and is considered one of the best film trilogies ever to be made.
Pather Panchali won numerous awards, including the National Film Award for Best Film and the National Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali in India in 1955. This was followed by the Vatican Award in Rome in 1956 and the Golden Carbao Award in Manila again in 1956. In 1957, Pather Panchali won the Golden Gate for Best Director and Golden Gate for Best Picture at the San Francisco International Film Festival. In 1958 Pather Panchali won the award for the Best Film and Feature Length Motion Picture at the Vancouver Film Festival and also the Critics’ award for Best Film at the Stratford Film Festival in Canada. Pather Panchali also received awards for Best Foreign Film in the United States and Japan in 1958 and 1966 respectively.
After the success of Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray wet on to make thirty seven films, including documentaries and short films. Over time, Ray developed his own unique style of film making, with strong humanism forming the core of his cinematic expression. In 1992, twenty-four days before his death, Ray was awarded an Honourary Oscar, which he accepted while being bedridden in a seriously ill condition. Ray was the first Indian to be honoured with such an award and he later passed away at the age of 70 on 23rd April 1992 in Kolkata. Satyajit Ray has had an indelible impact on Indian cinema and is counted as one among the 100 greatest film directors from around the world.
Also on This Day:
1886: Ramakrishna Paramahansa Dev passed away.
1946: Direct Action Day was observed by the Muslim League which resulted in communal violence in Greater Calcutta.