Stories within the movie Pather Panchali

"Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon" - Akira Kurasova

Nishanth Nazeem

On a rainy day in the month of August 1955, a few men were busy erecting a large poster of a soon to be releasing film in a crowded street of Calcutta. The man leading the party was the director of the film. He was excited as it was his directorial debut. The poster portrayed the three main characters of the film – a boy, his elder sister and their mother. Though the poster attracted the attention of many onlookers it didn’t create any magic in bringing them to the cinema hall. The film was released in a Calcutta cinema on 26 August 1955, and the initial response was poor. But soon screenings started filling up after the film received good reviews from the audience and became the talk of the town.  The film got opened in many other theatres where it ran for several weeks. The film was Pather Panchali and the director was Satyajith Ray.

Pather Panchali went on to break many records worldwide. The films international premier was held at the Museum of Modern Art’s, New York, where it was well received and was praised for his poetical way of depicting a story. It was sent to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with the personal approval of the then Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru where it was named the Best Human Document at the festival. It was released in the UK on 1957 and in the US on 1958. It went on to achieve great success in the US, running for eight months at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. It was named the best feature film in the 3rd National Film Awards.

With a simple story about a young boy in a 1920’s Bengal village, with no previous experience in film making and with an untried crew, Satyajith Ray made one of the most quietly influential cinema of all time. How did he conceive it? Let us explore.

What’s wrong with Indian Cinema?

“What our cinema needs above everything is a style, an idiom, a sort of iconography of cinema, which would be uniquely and recognisably Indian” – Satyajith Ray

In the year 1948, on one fine morning, an article appeared in the Statesman, the leading Calcutta English daily with the title “What’s wrong with Indian Cinema” by a young writer Satyajith Ray. He quietly targeted the ways the cinema was produced in the Indian subcontinent and objected to its lack of imagination and integrity. Though Ray was still a film enthusiastic, he was equally educated in the technical aspects of film making as well as in the dynamics of world cinemas. Ray was saddened to see the Indian film makers trying to compete with their much funded western counterparts and in their process neglecting what he thought was really Indian.

Ray’s love for films started from his early collage days where he spent hours watching Hollywood flicks and reading magazines on world cinemas and it was when he read the books written by Vsevolod Pudovkin he shifted his attention from the stars of the cinema to the technical artists of the medium. To instil more knowledge about films and its various aspects to more film aspirants, Ray started the Calcutta film society with some of his close friends and well wishers. During this time he was asked by his employer DK Gupta to illustrate the abridged version of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1929 novel Pather Panchali. DK Gupta, being a film buff, told Ray that the abridged version of Pather Panchali would make a very good film. The idea was so struck to Ray’s mind that when he met the renowned French film director Jean Renoir he expressed his interest in making Pather Panchali into a feature film.

Meeting Jean Renoir

Ray has said in his book “My years with Apu, A memoir” that One of the most dramatic events in his life was meeting Jean Renoir, who came to India to scout locations for his film The River in 1949.

The hotel where the director stayed was hardly a few minutes’ walk from Ray’s office. Ray met Renoir and the pair soon developed a liking for each other. Ray was an ardent follower Renoir’s films. He was more interested in his realistic style of film making. Ray assisted Renoir in the weekends to help him in his location hunt and it was during one of these trips when Renoir planted the idea of making a film in Ray’s mind.

Shooting without a Script

Ray chanced to watch Victorio De Sica’s Bicycle thieves during his brief stay at London. The film’s treatment was something that Ray had planned for Pather Panchali. Bicycle thieves cleared all the doubts that Ray had had in mind and Ray completed the treatment for Pather Panchali on his way back to India.

The shooting of Pather Panchali started with a shoestring budget raised by Ray and his friends and the shooting was done during weekends (Ray was still working at that time). There wasn’t a proper script. The crew took cue from the storyboard sketches that Ray had developed to guide the shooting. Ray had carefully planned to shoot the scenes with no dialogues in the beginning because of the absence of a sound recordist. So the first scene that the team planned to shoot was set in a white fluffy kaash flowers field with the two lead actors Subir Banerji (Apu) and Uma Dasgupta (Durga). The scene later went on to become the iconic train scene.

The famous train scene

On Sunday, 27 October 1952, Ray and his team set out to shoot the very first scene of Pather Panchali. The scene was not that complex – Apu and Durga have a quarrel, Durga sticks out her tongue at her brother and runs away. Apu pursues her. They both arrive at the field of kaash flowers where they first hear the rumbling sound of an approaching railway train.

Bansi Chandragupta, the art director, who had also worked with Jean Renoir in his film The River, was the one who reminded Ray to use the words “Action and “Cut” when they were called for. Subrata Mitra put the camera rolling and Ray shouted “Action”. The seriousness of the set produced a zombie-like walk from Subir Banerji (Apu) which had no relation to what Ray had had in mind. Ray rectified it by placing a few crew members behind clumps of kaash at varying distances from each other. They were asked to call out “Subir” at certain intervals and Subir was to react to each call by turning his head in the direction of where it came from, though never stopping his walk. A second take was arranged. The take went perfect and Ray shouted “Eureka” for his discovery of handling a boy with no acting experience.

The negatives were developed and Ray and his crew were happy to see the footage. But the trouble came at the editors table. Dulal Dutt, who had only edited one film by then, was hired for the job. Dutt found out that the shots weren’t enough to cut. So Ray announced to make up for the lack and planned for shooting at the same location. What happened at that time, Ray had mentioned it in an article which he had wrote for Sight & Sound

“On the following Sunday we were back at the same location. But was it the same location? It was hard to believe it. What was on the previous occasion a sea of fluffy whiteness was now a mere expanse of uninspiring brownish grass. We knew kaash was a seasonal flower, but surely they were not that short-lived. A local peasant provided the explanation. The flowers, he said, were food for the cattle. The cows and buffaloes had come to graze the day before and had literally chewed up the scenery.”

Ray vowed not to compromise his work. He waited for a year for the kaash flowers to grow back, to complete shooting the scene. During this time he worked hard on shooting other scenes and tried convincing producers. His hardest challenge was to find the right person to play the elderly aunt Indir Thakrun’s character and that’s when he met Chunibala Devi, an 80 year old retired actress, who was living in a house at Calcutta’s red-light district.

Chunibala Devi
 Chunibala Devi was a forgotten artist during the  time when Ray approached to cast her. The reaction of octogenarian actress was doubtful as she asked Ray “But what can I play at the age of eighty” to which Ray replied “That of an eighty year old woman”,  Chunibala Devi replied to it with a smile.

Though Ray was sure to cast Chunibala Devi, he was doubtful of her memorising the lines while acting. Ray asked this question directly to her and Chunibala Devi replied by humming an old nursery rhyme. All 20 lines of it. Ray was amazed by this, as he himself could only remember the first six lines of the rhyme. Ray was so delighted that he even thought of giving the old woman an opportunity to sing.

Chunibala Devi went on to garner international recognition for her role as Indir Thakrun upon the release of Pather Panchali. She became the first Indian to win an award in the best actor/actress category in an international film festival – The Manila Film festival. Unfortunately Chunibala Devi met with a severe accident hurting her hip. She died before the release of Pathir Panchali at Calcutta but not before seeing her self as Indir Thakrun on screen. Ray had arranged a special screening of a 16 mm print in her house.

Premiere At MOMA

In the autumn of 1954, Ray met Monroe Wheeler, one of the directors of the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA). He was there in the town with idea of putting together an exhibition of Indian highlights at MOMA. Wheeler chanced to see some of the footage of Ray’s work. He immediately made a proposal for showing the film at the exhibition, a world premiere at the MOMA. At this time Ray was struggling to fund the film and the film was shelved for nearly a year. Ray later admitted that the delays had made him tense and that three miracles saved the film: “1, Apu’s voice did not break. 2, Durga did not grow up. 3, Indir Thakrun did not die.”

In the process of finding a producer Ray had met many but failed to convince them all as the film lacked what a commercial film required. To avoid an abrupt rap up of the shooting Ray sold his valuable collection of rare books and gramophone records. He even pawned his life insurance policy and his wife’s ornaments. Ray’s financial aid finally came from the Government of West Bengal. Dr BC Roy, who was the chief minister of west Bengal, was requested by an influential friend of Ray’s mother to help the production. With this help Ray completed the shooting.

Ray brought in Pandit Ravi Shanker whom he knew personally to do the music. After the music was completed there were only three weeks left for Ray to deliver the prints to Pan Am to reach New York. During these days, Ray and Dulal Dutt spent long hours working day and night to finish the product

The first print of Pather Panchali came out late at night the day before it was to be delivered to the Pan Am office. Ray didn’t get the time to take a final look. In the morning, along with his production manager, Ray took the trunk to the Pan Am office. The main formalities were completed and while talking to the receptionist Ray fell asleep leaning over the counter.

Pather Panchali’s MOMA opening held successfully on 3rd May 1955 with a full audience. It ran without having subtitles.

Nishanth Nazeem, is an ex-IT engineer and ardent film lover, now following his dreams to be a film-maker . He can be reached at )