During his recent visit to Mumbai, Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan, spoke about how he recently watched Pather Panchali and how much he enjoyed it. He is only the latest in a glowing list of film personalities from around the world, who cite Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali, as a major milestone for filmmaking from around the world.
Contemporary and a great in his own right, Ritwik Ghatak famously and controversially said, “Ray has made only one and half good films in his career.” He was referring to Pather Panchali and the the first half of Aparajito (which showcases sweeping visuals of Benaras). There’s good reason why even his fiercest rivals like Ghatak, found something to love in Satyajit Ray’s debut.
Based on the book by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Ray’s film follows the life of a farmer family living in rural Bengal. Little Apu follows his elder sister Durga as they chase the train passing by, the local sweet-seller and even welcome the first rains (a reason for celebration for the farmer family). However, these are little joys in the face of bigger adversaries – poverty, hunger and a disturbing economic inequality in a newly-Independent India.
The deprived condition of the family, was also a reflection of how Ray was going about the making of his first film. Struggling to raise finances for a film that had no established actor or songs, he was finally able to find a producer. The production began but quickly came to a halt after the producer lost money in a few other films. Ray’s wife Bijoya pawned her jewelry to be able to afford finish filming which started and stopped several times over two and half years. Finally, it was the Govt of West Bengal, which came to Ray’s rescue and enabled him to finish the film and release it in the year 1955.
Pather Panchali is so well-made, that it’s hard to tell that it is the work of a first-time director. Ray did well to surround himself with talented first-timers like Subrata Mitra (Director of Photography) and Bansi Chandragupta (Art director) who gave so much texture to the movie. It’s all so authentic that even after six decades, the audience lives with the family experiencing their joys, their troubles… their grief. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s music helps translate the poetry of the visuals in a way where words would fail.
Satyajit Ray’s enjoys a glorious filmography, but the reason Pather Panchali remains more immortal than the others, is because of how a first-time filmmaker carried out his vision through a million contingencies and delivered such a heartbreaking, poetic film. He led a team of debutantes, amateur actors and a story that was far from ‘filmy’ (even at that time) and made this gem that spoke the universal language of what it is to be human. And maybe that’s why it quashes the language barrier for so many people from around the world.
Recounting the troubled production, the director later said that there were three miracles that saved his debut feature film – “One, Apu’s voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indir Thakrun did not die.” World cinema would be a lot poorer if not for a miracle called Pather Panchali.