60 yrs of Pather Panchali

60 yrs of Pather Panchali

August 27, 2015

August 26, 2015 marked the 60th commemoration of the release of the iconic film, Pather Panchali (‘Song of the Road’) in India. It was first released in Kolkata on this day in 1955, at the prestigious theatres, Sree, Basusree and Bina. Despite misgivings of the distributor, Aurora Film Corporation, the film's reception was a box-office hit. In Kolkata, the film ran for six weeks at a stretch and then had a seven-week run at other theatres. The Times of India wrote, “It is absurd to compare it with any other Indian cinema... Pather Panchali is pure cinema.”

It had its world premiere, though, on May 3, 1955, when it was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, in front of a rapturous audience. The film ran for eight months in New York.

It was due to the efforts of Monroe Wheeler, the director of MoMA and John Huston, the legendary Hollywood director, that the film could have its world premiere. The former had come to Kolkata in the autumn of 1954, for putting together some Indian highlights for an exhibition. In a chance meeting, Ray showed some stills of the film; it so impressed Wheeler that he offered to hold a world premier at MoMA. About six months later, legendary director John Huston had come to India to search for locations for The Man Who Would Be King. He had been asked by Wheeler to check the progress of the film. After seeing a short silent rough-cut, he gave rave reviews to Wheeler. Thus was secured Pather Panchali’s world premiere at MoMA.

The release was the culmination of an almost titanic struggle by Satyajit Ray. Many times the completion of the film seemed an impossible task; but Ray’s perseverance prevailed in the end.

In Kolkata, West Bengal Chief Minister Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy arranged a special screening for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru saw the film at Lighthouse Miniature Theatre, flanked by Dr Roy and Satyajit Ray, who did the occasional translation. Nehru came out of the theatre impressed.

Against all opposition (since the film depicted the poverty of India), Nehru decided to have Pather Panchali sent to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. The first screening took place on one of the festival holidays at midnight. As result, most of the jury members did not turn up. Also, only a small number of critics attended. On the insistence of a few film critics and Ray's friends, Lindsay Anderson and Andre Bazin among them, another screening was held in front of the full jury. The film was subsequently named the ‘Best Human Document’ at the festival. It went on to win a dozen odd prizes at home and abroad.

The recognition persuaded Ray to give up his advertising career and take the plunge into film-making full-time. His first film itself had established him as a world-class director. A long and illustrious career followed.

This little film by a debutant director, featuring unknown actors, changed the face of Indian cinema forever. Since then, the story of Apu and Durga has continued to resonate with viewers and artists worldwide.

Satyajit Ray (itimes.com)

The film, Pather Panchali is based on a well-known novel by the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. It was his first published novel, in fact, having come out in 1929. Pather Panchali deals with the life of the Roy family, both in their ancestral village in rural Bengal and later when they move to Varanasi in search of a better life. It describes the life the Roy family led in their village, followed by the loss and the anguish that gradually take over their lives.

The making

On his return to India in late 1950, with absolutely no experience in film-making, Satyajit Ray collected a group of young men to work as technicians. Subrata Mitra was the cinematographer; he had been a still photographer and had to be coaxed become a part of the film. Anil Choudhury became the production controller and Bansi Chandra Gupta, the art director.

He approached the widow of Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay, the writer of Pather Panchali, for film rights. She admired Ray's illustrations for the book and works of his father and grandfather. She gave her oral assurance and retained her faith in Satyajit Ray despite a better financial offer.

Many advised Ray against shooting in outdoor locations as most films were made in studios at that time. But shooting rain sequences required a well-equipped studio, which meant a lot of money had to be spent. At the earliest opportunity, therefore, Ray rushed out with a 16 mm camera to test-shoot monsoon rains.

Finding a producer, however, turned out to be a huge struggle. Almost two years were spent in vain to find one. Meanwhile, an undeterred Ray had begun assembling the cast and looking for locations. The cast was a mix of a few professional actors and others with no prior experience in acting. Chunibala Devi, an 80-year old, retired theatre actress was cast to play Indir Thakrun. Subir Banerjee, who played Apu, Karuna Banerjee, who played Apu's mother, and the villagers who played the smaller roles, had no prior experience of acting. Boral, a small village on the outskirts of Kolkata was selected as the major location.

On October 27, 1952, he set out to take the first shot. The scene was the famous discovery of the train by Apu and his sister Durga in the field of kaash flowers. “One day's work with camera and actors taught me more than all the dozen books,” Ray would write later. The following Sunday when they returned to shoot, to their horror they discovered that the kaash flowers had been feasted upon by a herd of cattle. He had to wait for the next season of flowers to complete the scene.

In 1953, Ray found a producer. Ana Dutta provided some funds with a promise of more after seeing the results. Ray took one month's leave without pay (from his job in an advertising agency) to shoot a few more sequences.

The film appeared to be shaping up well. However, it was not long before the funds ran out. The producer’s latest film had been a box-office disaster, and so he was unable to provide any more finances. But since arrangements had already been made for the shooting, Ray pawned some of his wife, Bijoya's jewellry, and continued the shooting for a few more days. Ray then approached many producers with the edited footage, but was turned down.

But hope dawned at last. Ray’s production manager had suggested approaching the chief minister of West Bengal; Dr BC Roy relented. Thus, in the early part of 1954, after a break of almost a year, the shooting resumed. Funding from the government, though, meant that the money would come in instalments; and before each instalment, the accounts had to be submitted and cleared by the government. This would often take up to a month.

Later, Ray would describe it as a miracle that, while making the film, “One, Apu's voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indir Thakrun did not die.”

Ray wanted the renowned sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, to compose the music for the film. Due to his tight touring schedule, Ravi Shankar was able to see only about half of the film before composing the music. He recorded the music in a non-stop session of about eleven hours.

In the meantime, as described earlier, MoMA director, Monroe Wheeler and the Hollywood director, John Huston had seen rough cuts of the film and been impressed enough to suggest a world premiere at MoMA.

To meet the MoMA deadline, Ray and his editor worked ten days and nights continuously in the final stage of post-production. The first print of Pather Panchali came out the night before it was to be dispatched. There was no time or money for the subtitles (it is a testament to the film’s universality that despite no English subtitles, it received a huge ovation at MoMA).

Thus, after a long struggle, Pather Panchali finally got made, on a budget of approximately Rs 1.5 lakh.

Poster of Pather Panchali; scenes from the film (Wikipedia; trigon-film.org)

Restored to its old glory

The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajita, Apur Sansar) has recently been restored to its pristine glory. On May 4, 2015, just a couple of days after Satyajit Ray's 93rd birth anniversary, his son Sandip, himself a film-maker, was on hand to present the new restoration of the first chapter of his late father’s trilogy at the venue of its world premiere, the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Immediately after that, it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it had received its first international award in 1956.

The famous scene where Apu and Durga run to see the train (movies.ndtv.com)

What the greats have said

Some of the world’s greatest creative geniuses have been big fans of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Here are some of their experiences described.

John Huston (actor, director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

  • “When I saw the footage of Pather Panchali in Calcutta in 1954 I was deeply impressed and recognised it as the work of a great film-maker.”

Akira Kurosawa (director of Seven Samurai, Rashomon)

  • “I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.”

Martin Scorsese (director of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver)

  • “I will always remember the scene in Pather Panchali where young Durga and Apu run through the village meadows and notice a train whistling by in the distance.”
  • “I was in high school and I happened to see Pather Panchali on television. Dubbed in English. With commercials. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.”

Richard Attenborough (director of Gandhi)

  • "I was absolutely bowled over when I first saw Pather Panchali. The whole trilogy to me is extraordinary."

Wes Anderson (director of The Grand Budapest Hotel)

  • A lifelong fan of Ray, Anderson dedicated his film, The Darjeeling Limited to the man who made him want to come to India through his films. The scene where Jack, Peter and Francis run after the train is an allusion to Apu and Durga in the iconic train scene.

Shyam Benegal (film director)

  • The first time Benegal saw Pather Panchali in 1956, he was so struck by it that he watched it back to back until he saw it a dozen times. He considers this as that one film that changed his life.

Girish Kasaravalli (director of Ghatashraddha, Dweepa)

  • “We can call ourselves as Pather Panchali’s children.”

Roger Ebert (film critic)

  • The great, sad, gentle sweep of the Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be.

Saul Bellow (winner of Nobel Prize for Literature)

  • In one of the most famous novels of the last century, Herzog, Bellow mentions his protagonist Moses watching Pather Panchali: “Two things affected me greatly – the old crone scooping the mush with her fingers and later going into the weeds; and the death of the young girl in rains.”

Arthur C Clarke (science fiction writer)

  • Pather Panchali is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful films ever made. There are scenes which I need never view again because they are burnt upon my memory.”

JM Coetzee (winner of Nobel Prize for Literature)

  • In his fictionalised autobiography, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, Coetzee mentions Ray’s Apu Trilogy: “He watches the Apu trilogy on successive nights in a state of rapt absorption. In Apu’s bitter, trapped mother, his engaging, feckless father he recognizes, with a pang of guilt, his own parents. But it is the music above all that grips him...”

Amitav Ghosh, (writer of The Shadow Lines, The Hungry Tide)

  • Amitav Ghosh considers Pather Panchali as the greatest of Ray’s films. And his admiration is evident in this letter he wrote to Ray: “The Japanese have a custom which allows people to pay homage to artists they admire by standing outside their houses, alone and in silence, until they are invited in. You are the only person in the world for whom I would gladly do that...”

Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons)

  • Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria), the proprietor of Kwik-E-Mart, in The Simpsons got his name from Ray’s Apu: “I’m a big fan of Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar. And Ravi Shankar’s music for these movies is just priceless.”

MF Hussain (painter)

  • “I have a fascination for Satyajit Ray’s films. My first experience of them was Pather Panchali. I was so taken with it that I sketched many drawings inspired by it. The world of the Bengali villages stirred me. My 1986 exhibition, ‘From Gitanjali to Pather Panchali‘, was my tribute to Ray’s film.”

Pather Panchali: A Living Resonance

James Ivory, Govind Nihalani, Richard Attenborough, Girish Kasaravalli, Saeed Jaffrey, Sandip Ray and others talking about Pather Panchali’s enduring influence

Lead image: probashionline.com

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