Two young siblings, holding their hands, watch a train pass through the fields. The grey clouds begin to swell and melt. The raindrops create ripples in the pond, leaving the kids mesmerized. The strains of sitar by Pandit Ravi Shankar punctuates the imagery strewn with bounties of mother nature. Our films, equipped with all the technical finesse and aesthetic sense, have never been able to recreate the magic that Satyajit Ray conjured up way back in 1955 with Pather Panchali, a Bengali film that speaks a universal language of human emotions.
Satyajit Ray had no experience of directing, shooting or writing a film. He used to work with an advertising agency as an illustrator and wrote for an in-house magazine for kids. The entire crew of Pather Panchali had a day-job and the shooting was hence done over the weekends. Roger Ebert, the renowned film critic wrote about the veteran filmmaker and his film, Pather Panchali:
“Ray (1921-1992) was a commercial artist in Calcutta with little money and no connections when he determined to adapt a famous serial novel about the birth and young manhood of Apu–born in a rural village, formed in the holy city of Benares, educated in Calcutta, then a wanderer. The legend of the first film is inspiring; how on the first day Ray had never directed a scene, his cameraman had never photographed one, his child actors had not even been tested for their roles–and how that early footage was so impressive it won the meager financing for the rest of the film. Even the music was by a novice, Ravi Shankar, later to be famous.”
Pather Panchali is based on a novel by the same name, written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay in 1929. In 1949, Jean Renoir had come to Calcutta to shoot his film ‘The River’ (1951). Ray, a founding member of the Calcutta Film Society, helped him scout for locations within the vicinity of Calcutta. When Ray told him about his longstanding wish to film Pather Panchali, Renoir encouraged him to follow his dream.
In 1950, the employer of Satyajit Ray at the advertising agency, DJ Keymer, sent him to London to work at their headquarters. During his six months in London, Ray watched multiple films from across the world and after watching Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist film ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), he resolved to become a filmmaker. The film made him believe that it was possible to make realistic cinema that was shot on location with an amateur cast.
In his book, ‘Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye’, a biography of the master film-maker, author Andrew Robinson shares: “Pather Panchali never had a proper script. Unlike every other Ray film, there was no red shooting notebook for it. Most of the dialogues, three-quarters of which came from the writer, Banerjee, he kept in his head. By showing producers these sketches, which were of course unheard of in Bengali films, and telling them the story, he hoped to raise interest in a film with him as its director.”
Ray could complete his movie Pather Panchali because the Chief Minister of Bengal financed him. It seems like all other politicians he, too, lacked an eye for art. After watching the movie CM suggested Satyajit Ray that he should change the sad ending of the movie and show that the family participates in a government housing scheme and gets a house. Thank heavens, Ray didn’t relent to the suggestion and went ahead to make the film that he’d set out to make.
On being asked about the biggest obstacle that Ray faced while making Pather Panchali, given the kind of bureaucracy he had to endure while making the film, he stated, “The finances took a long time to get approved. My only fear while making Pather Panchali was that the kids shouldn’t grow up and the old woman shouldn’t die.”
Pather Panchali gave way to other two films, Apur Sansar and Aparajito, which, along with Pather Panchali are reckoned as ‘The Apu Trilogy’. All these three films have the train in common. The arrival or passing of train always paved way for a new twist in the stories of all the films from the Apu Trilogy.
The film went on to win national as well as international accolades and till date, Satyajit Ray remains the only director from India who has won the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ conferred by the Academy Awards. Do revisit this classic, with the language bar notwithstanding.