Pather Panchali was the start of a new journey in the history of not only Bengali cinema, but also in the global cinema world. The film Pather Panchali still stands strong as one of the most legendary works of art.
The Pather Panchali series is made of three films. The sequels Apur Sansar and Aparajito deep delve into the life of Apu whose childhood we experience in Pather Panchali. Veteran Bengali actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay made his debut in Apur Sansar and since then has wowed spectators worldwide. Whenever one speaks of the term Pather Panchali series or the Apu trilogy, along with Satyajit Ray one invariably thinks about Soumitra Chattopadhyay.
Soumitra Chattopadhyay is a man of much mastery, recitation being one of them. His heartfelt narration of the poem based on Apu’s life is a classy feat. Apu comes to life again in this poem. In this narration, Apu writes to his good friend reminiscing about the old times and the simple life of the village. He tells about his son’s life now and how he still misses his long lost wife, Aparna.
Here is Soumitra Chattopadhyay’s heartfelt recitation of the Apu poem –
How Apu the child actor was found
Pather Panchali stands epic in its characters. For Satyajit Ray it was not an easy task to find the right actors for the role. Especially for the role of Apu he had auditioned many child actors. When he did not get the right one, he advertised for it. He put out an ad in the newspaper that he was looking for a five to seven year old boy for his film. Many answered the announcement but Ray did not find his Apu among them.
Actually it was Satyajit Ray’s wife, Bijoya Ray who found him. Bijoya had spotted one of the boys playing in the neighbourhood and told her husband that he could be Apu. When Ray saw him, he knew she was the right. The boy’s name was Subir Banerjee and Ray approached the boy’s father. Subir’s father did not consider the proposal useful and he was reluctant to let his son act in a film. However, Ray convinced him well enough and promised him that one day the whole of Bengal would know his son.
The story behind Pather Panchali
Bengal’s popular writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay penned the Pather Panchali in 1929. In 1950 Satyajit Ray chose this novel to make his first film and started shooting the film in 1952. He himself readied the screenplay. But the screenplay was not in written form, most of it was in the form of storyboard and notes. There was no script as much. For anyone’s directorial debut, this film is such a massive feat that only the genius can achieve.
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Interestingly this was Satyajit Ray’s first film and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra, was also making his debut. He was a photographer with still camera and had never used a film camera before. This also posed a big challenge for Mitra. On top of that, the child actors who would play Apu and Durga had never stood before a film camera. However if you see Pather Panchali, it is absolutely difficult to believe it as a work of first timers.
Satyajit Ray did not have a script for this film, instead he used this storyboard which he created by imagining and painting the sequences. He planned this when he was on a ship. In 1950, he was going to London from Kolkata and then back. To spend his time he painted the scenes of Pather Panchali.
Today, his invaluable storyboard and notes are preserved at Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which is the world’s leading archive of film related artifact. Here are some pictures from that storyboard which was later compiled as the Pather Panchali Sketchbook.
Remember the beautiful train scene amidst the kash phool (kans grass)? It is probably the most famous scene of Pather Panchali. Here was how the director visualized it. Satyajit Ray painted these while he was on the ship.
Based on the storyboard visuals, this was how the actual shot happened.
Who inspired Ray to make Pather Panchali?
Satyajit Ray was, like many of us, a film buff and who perhaps did binge watch. In 1950 he travelled on ship to London and stayed in Europe for about six months. It was also the first time Ray had been on a foreign trip and he utilized his stay fully by making sure he could watch all those films he missed back home. In those six months, he is said to have watched 99 films in total. The film that impressed him the most was the 1948 Oscar winning Italian film Bicycle Thieves. Satyajit Ray was deeply touched by the work of the Italian director and actor Vittorio De Sica. He said that he saw in Sica’s film what was exactly in his mind and what he wanted to do,
“Who said inexperienced people cannot be made to act? Who said one can’t shoot in the middle of the rains? Who said make-up is mandatory? If my mind was looking for a sanction for everything radical that I had wanted to do if I ever made a film, I had found it in that one film by De Sica.”
What Vittorio De Sica had started was a soft revolution in film making and Satyajit Ray knew now that their views on making films in a different light were correct. This gave him the push to make his own. During his journey back on ship, he seriously took up the venture of making Pather Panchali once he was back at home. He spent his time on the ship making the storyboard and drafting the story for the film.
What if Pather Panchali was not made?
Pather Panchali film had a budget slab of Rs. 70,000 only. However, no one was willing to finance the film as they did not consider it to bring back any commercial return. There were no songs, big names or song sequences that most commercial movies rely on for the success of the films. People called it an ‘art film’ which implied the notion of a film that sacrifices ‘success’ for quality. There were hurdles, and while Satyajit Ray started to shoot this film in 1952, it was destined to be released in 1955.
The biggest hurdle came in the finance of the film. A producer had initially agreed to pay for the film but in the earlier stages of shooting, he had to abandon this project as his other produced films flopped. Satyajit Ray did not want to pause the shooting for an indefinite time. He had three concerns in the film against time- Apu, Durga and Indir Thakrun. In his own words, “One, Apu’s voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indir Thakrun did not die.”
Satyajit Ray took a loan to let the shoot of Pather Panchali continue. Along with that, he carried on his profession as a graphic designer to finance the film. Things were getting tough. He placed his life insurance and his cherished gramophone records as collateral to get further funds. Even his wife pawned her jewels to let the shoot continue. But things did not get easy. There were long delays and months passed before the shooting could resume. The film was being shot as and when funds were available, much to the chagrin and stress of the director.
One of Ray’s acquaintances knew the then Chief Minister of Bengal, Bidhan Chandra Ray. Upon request, the Government agreed to loan money for the film in installments.
But his real break came when he met Monroe Wheeler and showed him parts of the shot footage. Monroe Wheeler who was the head of the department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was highly impressed by the quality of the work and he told Ray that he wanted to exhibit Pather Panchali at the museum exhibition. Later when John Huston, the well known American director visited Calcutta Wheeler asked him to meet Ray and inform about the progress of the film. Huston was highly impressed by the pieces of the footage and came to know of the film’s budget issues. The Museum raised money and helped Satyajit Ray to finish Pather Panchali at last.
In the beginning, Pather Panchali was presented as The Story of Apu and Durga and that was how it was screened at Museum of Modern Art. It was made in a hurry so that Ray’s team could present it on time. Later the film was decorated with its title and subtitles.
Satyajit Ray’s Oscar and many awards
Pather Panchali was the stepping stone to Satyajit Ray’s life as a director. It culminated as the prestigious Oscar for Lifetime Achievement and many honorable awards.
When Pather Panchali was released it created an uproar among the critics in the cinema world. While some criticized the film for showing ‘poverty’ others enjoyed the beautiful countryside of Bengal and the innocence of life. Life is so much about perspective; Pather Panchali is a prime example. No one imagined then Satyajit Ray could get an Oscar ever.
There is an interesting narration that when Pather Panchali was shown at a special function to Jawaharlal Nehru on the recommendation by the then Chief Minister of Bengal, Bidhan Chandra Roy. Nehru was quite impressed to see the film and advised it to be sent to the Cannes Film Festival. It is to be noted that it was only 1955 where only few years had passed since India became independent. Most western cinema critics had poor idea about Indian cinema and to most it was more of a pomp and show. But here was a cinema, absolutely pure in its best form and it was a great chance to showcase India to the world. But many Indians itself opposed the idea, stating that it shows a poor family in an Indian village which would make a bad impression on foreign spectators. However due to Jawarlal Nehru’s personal backup, the film was sent to the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. As the story goes, no one had much interest in seeing the film and it got screened at the end of the festival in the presence of a few critics. Not only did Pather Panchali impress them well enough, it also got awarded with the Best Human Document at Cannes Film Festival In 1956. At the festival Arturo Lanocita, a popular film critic and journalist from Italy, is said to have called Pather Panchali as poetry on screen.
An artist’s greatest reward is appreciation for his art. One of the greatest filmmakers of the world Akira Kurosawa, was one of the greatest admirers of his work, especially Pather Panchali. He had stated about Ray that,
“I feel he is a giant of the movie industry. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon. I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it (Pather Panchali).”
British film critic Basil Wright commented that Pather Panchali is “a new and incontrovertible work of art”. American novelist and film critic James Berardinelli had said that Pather panchali is a film that touches the mind and soul of the viewer. It is this depth of a film that breaks and goes beyond language and culture.
Satyajit Ray is still being remembered reverently for Pather Panchali after decades. Contemporary day directors like Christopher Nolan still watch and learning from Pather Panchali and his other films.
Pather Panchali stands as one of the greatest films ever made in history.
Pather Panchali music
Pather Panchali soundtrack has been called as the greatest 50 film soundtracks of all time. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar had composed it for the film.
Here again like other novices in the film, Ravi Shankar was at the beginning of his career and still not shot to fame. He worked with Satyajit Ray on the film to create the right tune for the mood of the story. He had read the Bengali novel and knew the story well.
The soundtrack which Ravi Shankar composed is based on the ragas of Indian classical music with minor modulations of his own. The main theme was played on the bamboo flute, the beloved Indian instrument. You can also enjoy the solo sitar performance by Ravi Shankar twice in the film on the ragas Desh and Todi. Desh raga is related to rain and monsoon and it seemed appropriate in the film scenes. It is notable that Desh raga is also the one that had been used in the national song of India, Vande Mataram.
Ravi Shankar’s epic soundtrack was developed through sitar, flute and shehnai for Pather Panchali and it won over the world. All the feelings and emotions of man and nature that Pather Panchali showed spoke in our hearts through its music.
Pather Panchali story
Panther Panchali stands for the song of the road or path. The word ‘path’ exists in both Bengali and English meaning the same. The path here metaphorically refers to the journey of life which has given Pather Panchali many other English titles like Song of the Little Road, The Lament of the Path, Song of the Road and Song of the Open Road. A panchali is a song or a rhyme that is traditionally sung or read in the villages.
The plot of Pather Panchali has been quite a controversy among many. Some people like the story for the film, others hate the film for its story.
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali novel and Satyajit Ray’s film has many differences, although the main plot remains the same. Ray had adapted the story for the course of filmmaking. Some scenes are not depicted as described and sometimes, events have been rearranged. In spite of all these changes, the book and film both go hand in hand.
The basic plot revolves around the family Harihar Roy and his family who live in a small village in West Bengal. He is a pujari (priest) but his passion is writing and poetry for which he has to leave for the town. His income is meager and he has a family to support of his wife, two children and an old aunt. He ultimately decides to try his luck in the town and his wife Sarbajaya is left to care for the family with whatever little she has.
Durga is the elder sister and Apurba or as we know him popularly, Apu is the younger sibling. The main plot revolves around the situation of Sarbajaya’s struggle to maintain her family life and to feed and care for the members in spite of having almost no money. It is stressful for her to bear it all alone. The old ailing aunt does not make things better for her. Tragedy follows the family as Durga gets sick and due to inadequate treatment, she passes away. Her father returns but too late. The incident changes the family forever and in the end we see Harihar leaving the village with his family to settle in another place.
Pather Panchali had a very plain cast. In fact we know most of this cast through this film. Kanu Banerjee who played as Harihar Roy was more of a theatre artist and director than actor. The role of his wife Sarbajaya was acted by Karuna Banerjee was also an amateur theatre artist who went on to perform later mostly in Ray’s films. Only Tulsi Chakraborty the school teacher was a regular and somewhat established in the Bengali cinema then.
Ray painted this story board for him.
Chunibala Debi, the old aunt was a retired actress of the stage. She had only performed in only three films earlier and one of those films was the iconic Natir Pujo which was directed by the great Rabindranath Tagore. It was on Satyajit Ray’s insistence that she agreed to come out of her retirement and act again at the age of 80. However she won in the Manila Film festival the Award for Best Actor/Actress category creating history as the first Indian actor to win in an international film festival. Sadly she had passed away before the release of Pather Panchali.
Pather Panchali is a film that depicts many layers. However the interpretation is open to the viewer. A film lover sees the magic of the director Satyajit Ray. A story book lover sees a deep, touching humane tale. Some will see only poverty and suffering and the truth was that. Rural Bengal had been the subject of oppressing colonial rule and for quite some time suffered inconsolably. It is true that Ray portrayed the suffering of the village. But that is not the whole story.
The main story is how much Sarbajaya bears and still carries on for her family. The real story is how Indian villages suffer hardships and scarcity, yet the family life is of paramount importance. There may not be enough for the stomach, but there should be enough for the soul. Durga is punished for stealing and yet she steals not for herself but for her family. The relationships go deep in a way that perhaps Indians can understand.
How many films are there like Pather Panchali which has explored the deep bonding of a sister and a brother? Durga, the elder sibling almost takes on a parental role for her little brother. It is not enough to show childhood, one must illustrate innocence in its simplest ways.
This is where the beauty lies – the way the siblings they explore the world through the greenery and magical kashphool (kans grass). A nature lover would appreciate the lush nature of Bengal countryside.
Pather Panchali has something for everyone. You could perhaps see yourself in Harihar the father who has to choose between family and dreams. You could perhaps see yourself in Sarbajaya as the woman who is bearing so much for her husband and his relatives. You could perhaps be Durga, who does not care much about rules. Like her, you perhaps want to be free and just give love. Or maybe you are Apu and like him you just grew up seeing the song of the path.
Credits: thecinemaholic.com, firstpost.com, The Big Indian Picture, Wikipedia, cinematheque.fr