Pulling off the Impossible: Making of Pather Panchali


A classic scene in the film where Apu and Durga discover the train across a field of Kash flowers (Kans Grass). On 27 October 1952, Ray set out to take the first shot of Pather Panchali which happened to be this scene. The following Sunday he returned to shoot further only to discover that the Kaash flowers had been eaten up by a herd of cattle. He had to wait for the next season of flowers to complete the scene.


Editor’s Note: The story of the making of Pather Panchali, one of world  cinema’s masterpieces is itself a story which can well become a film script. A part time director, using his personal finances, with a cast of amateur actors and a crew who were first timers, pulled off a miracle. If perseverance is stubbornness with a purpose, making of Pather Panchali is an apt example.







In September 2012, the prestigious publication Sight & Sound of the British Film Institute published the list of 50 Greates Films ever made. Only one Indian film featured in this list- Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) at rank 42nd.

What makes it incredible is that this movie was directed by a self taught film director, filmed by an untrained cinematographer, embellished by a first time art director , with largely amateur actors and on a shoe string budget. Despite all thr obvious obstacles the movie was released in 1955 and put the then independent India firmly on the world cinema map. The film went on to win eleven international awards including the Best Human Documentary at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. This was the first film made in independent India to receive an international recognition.

The story of how Pather Panchali got made is no less than a film script. The man who made the impossible happen was Satyajit Ray (1921-92). Ray was a virtual one man army on the Pather Panchali project, doing the scripting, casting, scoring, editing and designed the credit titles and the publicity material. Ray followed Pather Panchali with Aprajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), which form the Apu triology. Ray went on to make 35 films and garnered an impressive 32 Indian National Film awards, a number of international film prizes and the life time achievement Oscar in 1992. The Government of India honoured him with the Bharat Ratna in 1992.

Grandson of Upendra Kishore Ray and son of Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray had a distinguished family lineage. Upendra Ray was India’s foremost printing technologist, whose articles on printing were published in international journals. Sukumar Ray continues to be the most popular writer for children in Bengal. With such distinguished legacy, Satyajit Ray certainly had a head start.

An alumnus of Presidency College Calcutta, Ray had a natural flair for painting and honed his artistic skills at Tagore’s Visva Bharati University under stalwarts like Nandlal Bose and Binode Bihari Mukherjee. Shortly after finishing his education at the age of 22, he joined the British advertising agency D.J. Keymer (now Ogilvy), as a junior visualizer. Starting 1943 he would spend next 13 years here, rising up the ranks to be the art director , a post from which he finally resigned to become a full-time filmmaker after the success of Pather Panchali.

Even as he got busy in his work at Keymer and was highly regarded for his skills, the love for films continued as a hobby and passion. He along with his friends would screen and critically discuss films on weekends. In 1948 Ray and his friends established the Calcutta Film Society. The Battleship Potemkim was the first film they screened. Soon, Ray started writing and publishing articles on cinema in newspapers and magazines. Who would have known that these addas (leisurely discussion) on films would one day produce India’s best film maker. Not only that, it would also give India its foremost art director in form of Bansi Chandra Gupta and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, both friends of Ray and part of his team which shot the path breaking Pather Panchali. Ray, Gupta and Mitra, all three without any formal training, would prove to be pioneers in their area of expertise. One wonders is it providence, environment or the right company which produces brilliant work – probably it is mix of all three.

A well paid job in one of India’s leading advertisement agency and a film society to manage, life was moving along predictable lines for Ray. Becoming a filmmaker till then had never crossed Ray’s mind, However three things happened which would change the course of his life.

First was a request by his senior at DJ Keymer, DK Gupta, who ran a Bangla publishing house Signet, to design the cover of its publications. One of the books Ray illustrated was the abridged version of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadyay’s Pather Panchali. The book made a lasting impression on Ray, and a chance remark by DK, who had once been an editor of a film magazine, that the abridged version would make a great film got Ray thinking.

Second was a chance meeting with Jean Renoir, the famous French film director. It so happened that in 1949, Renoir had come to Calcutta to scout locations for his film The River (which incidentally went on to win a prize at Venice Film Festival). Ray an admirer of Renoir presented himself at the Great Eastern Hotel and sought an audience with Renoir. The last thing that Renoir had expected was to meet someone in Kolkata who could with great authority discuss the entire body of his (Renoir’s) works. Impressed Renoir asked Ray if he was planning to be a film maker. Ray found himself nodding in the affirmative and narrated the story of Pather Panchali. Renoir encouraged Ray. Getting a pat from one of world’s finest film director convinced Ray of becoming a film maker.

The third event was Ray being sent in 1950 by his employer DJ Keymer to the firm’s London office for a 4 months stint. Ray in these four months saw 99 films, at a rate of one film every second day. This was his first real exposure to world cinema. The film which struck Ray the most was Vittorio De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). In the movie De Sica had broken many myths about film making which echoed many of the ideas Ray had for Pather Panchali. De Sica had shot only on location, cast non actors, allowed no makeup, worked on shoe string budget and brilliantly used light and sound for stunning visuals. Bicycle Thieves is ranked amongst the top ten movies ever produced. Ray had found the framework for Pather Panchali in Bicycle Thieves, which he would use to telling effect.

Back in India in later half of 1950 after his 4 months stint in London, Ray was clear that he wanted to make a film which would have a treatment never before been tried in Indian films. He was ready to sail the uncharted waters, he was ready to challenge the convention wisdom and he was ready to write poetry on celluloid.

Source: Probashi. Photo Courtesy : Telegraph

Ray now went about tieing up the logistics. First was to get the filming rights for Pather Panchali, for which he approached the widow of Bhibuti Bhushan Bandhopadhyay. Rama Bandhopadhyay was an ardent admirer of Ray’s father and grandfather and was privy to Ray’s skills as a book illustrator. She immediately gave the filming rights for the movie to Ray. She did not budge even when other lucrative offers were made by established film producers. To one producer who had offered her Rs. 15000 (a princely sum those days), she politely replied, “one does not sell ones son”.

If the film had to be made of the book it had to be by Satyajit Ray. Confident Ray now went about in search of funding for the film . It was then that he hit his first major roadblock. Ray’s towering presence, his family background and connections got him audience with all the top producers of Bangla movies. But his idea of making a realistic film (sans song and dance) with an amateur crew and first time actors with onsite shooting (never tried before in Indian cinema) ala Bicycle Thieves, found no taker. He spent two years scourging for funds. The final verdict was “ It sounds wonderful the way you relate it. But you, with no experience would not realise even fifty percent of your idea”

With no funding in sight, Ray decided to put in his personal funds to make some parts of the movie and show those parts to the producers as a marketing tool for getting additional funds. Ray took a loan of Rs. 7500 against his insurance policy. That , in addition with some help from friends, came up to Rs 9500. Ray also sold his art books and music records to further supplement the funds. With that amount Ray and his team decided to start rolling. The shooting started in early 1953. All this time Ray continued to work with DJ Kheymer, who gave him flexibility to pursue his dream.

Source: Probashi, Photo Courtesy: Telegraph

One unforeseen problem cropped up at the outset- the cinematographer selected by Ray was away shooting in Madras. The mantle fell on the 21 year old Subrata Mitra who was the assistant cinematographer. But there was a problem here, Subrata a friend of Ray, had never in his life shot a single footage of reel with a movie camera. He was essentially a still photographer with great interest in movies and had seen at close quarters films being shot, but never from behind a movie camera. Why did Ray take such a risk? One, because he admired the way Mitra composed his still photographs , second Ray believed that cinematography is less about technique but more about the ability to observe the subject and third most of the established cameramen were skeptical about location shooting especially the rain scenes. With some hits and misses, Mitra learned to use the movie camera, an ungainly and heavy Mitchell, on the job. The gamble paid off, Pather Panchali has been heralded for its excellent cinematography. Subrata Mitra subsequently went on to become India’s most celebrated cinematographer and pioneered many new techniques like the use of bounce lighting.

The village where the film was to be shot was Boral, now part of the Garia neighbourhood of Kolkata. A ramshackle and derelict house was the biggest attraction. This would be the main set for the house of  Harihar and Sarbajaya. The house was taken on rent at Ra. 50/month. Bansi Chandragupta the art director set our to work on making the house look appropriate. For the first time plaster over bamboo mats were used , now a mainstay in set making in India.

The unit started shooting , the money was running precariously low. Bijoya, Ray’s wife , pawned her jewelry. The unit managed to can 4000 feet of film, which they could now show show to prospective financiers after editing. The editing team of Ray, Subrata Mitra and Anil Choudhury would take the bus to the cine laboratory where editing was being done. Ray being over 6 feet tall would stand on the foot board of the bus, for being inside would have his head banging on the bus ceiling. Hiring a taxi was not an option.

Source: Probashi (print edition). Photo Courtesy: Telegraph

Belying Ray’s expectations, the preview film did not do any miracles as far as securing finances was concerned. A dead end had been reached. Pather Panchali seemed a dream unrealized. The critics clamoured “we knew it”.
Ray was depressed, Suprabha , Ray’s mother, set aside her disapproval of her son dabbling into film making and requested a friend who knew Dr BC Roy , the then Chief Minister(CM) of West Bengal, to enquire if Government could help with funds. A meeting with the Chief Minister was arranged. The CM saw the preview footage and concluded rather erroneously that these were the starting scenes of a documentary on rural Bengal and sanctioned government funds with an advice for the Director- “see if you can ensure that the family joins a government run community development programm project”. Ray strategically kept silent. Dr BC Roy would later become one of the most ardent admirers of Ray’s works.

Government of West Bengal put in Rs. 2 lakhs, the entire cost of the film. For some unfathomable reason the money came from Government of West Bengal’s road development fund, the CM’s view of it seemingly being a rural development documentary must have played in the minds of the bureaucrats who did the paperwork for the financial sanction. Government financial systems are not designed for making films. The money would come in installments. Once the installment was spent, Ray was required to submit bills which were scrutinized by the government accountants and on being satisfied that Ray’s accounting was correct would the next installment be released. During the interim the film shooting would remain suspended for want of funds. All the rights to the film were to vest with Government of West Bengal. When Pather Panchali was awarded the President’s Award for the Best Film, it was Director of Publicity, Government of West Bengal who went to Delhi to receive the award and not Satyajit Ray. Strange might be the way of the Government , but one has to agree that without government funding Pather Panchali would not have been possible.

By the time finances were in place, the shooting had been suspended for eight months. In Ray’s words, three miracles happened which saved  the film which took so long to complete- one Apu’s voice did not break, two Durga did not grow up and three Indir Thakrun did not die.

Meanwhile in 1954, Monroe Wheeler from the New York Museum of Modern Art arrived in Calcutta. On seeing parts of the film, Monroe wanted it to be a part of an exhibition he was planning the following year. With only one year left, it was desperate race to complete the film on schedule. While shooting was going on, the post production work started to trouble Ray particularly the music for the film . Ray wanted Pandit Ravi Shankar to do the music, but the sitar maestro could spare only two days for Pather Panchali, given his prior commitments. The complete recording of the music for the movie was done in a through the night session of 11 hours which ended at 4 am in the morning. Ray would tell of a particular portion of the film for which he wanted the background score, and Ravi Shankar and Ray’s flautist Aloke Dey would confer and quickly come up with a score then and there. Aloke would then transcribe Ravi Shankar’s compositions into notations, and the musicians would play it. Ravi Shankar himself played two solo sitar pieces in raga Desh and Tori. Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar, Aloke Dey, the Musicians and GOD were all working in tandem for this miracle to happen. Those eleven hours gave the world one of its best film background music.

Satyajit Ray : The man who pulled off the Pather Panchali miracle

When the film reached the editing tables at the Bengal Film Laboratories, the deadline for shipping the print to New York Museum of Modern Art to be screened at the art exhibition was only 10 days away. It was virtual race against time. The team comprising of editor Dular Dutta, Ray and the editing assistants camped at the laboratory- not bathing, shaving or sleeping, while they worked continuously for seven days. Dular would take half an hour naps while Ray almost none. At one point Dular begged he would not be able to carry on, but the enthusiasm of a classic in the making pushed up the adrenalin and Dulal did not waver again. On the seventh day at night the final edited print along with sound mixing was ready. The next morning PanAm flight was to take the prints to New York. While the film reels were being packed in a large steel trunk, Ray fell asleep; people feared he was seriously ill due to sheer exhaustion, Ray was catching up on the loss of seven nights sleep. There was no time for the sub titles and no time to see the final version of the movie before being sent.

The review of Pather Panchali from New York was outstanding. The cable read “triumph of sensitive photography”. The film was released in West Bengal on August 26, 1955 in one hall in Kolkata. Ray designed the final publicity material, the crowd puller being the large electric neon sign board on KC Das Street, Kolkata, which showed Apu and Durga running. All the publicity material was done on credit.

The film opened to a poor response , but as word spread the hall by second week was going houseful. With the box office jingling, the theatre was reluctant to pull off the film, but was under contractual obligation to screen a Tamil movie as the next change. At 6 am , the morning the day after Pather Panchali was taken off, Ray found a Tamil gentleman at his door. With eyes brimming with tears, the person said had he known about Pather Panchali in advance he would have postponed the release of his own Tamil film. The gentleman had come with his apologies to Ray.

Pather Panchali swept the national film awards in 1955 and was sent ot the 1956 Cannes Film Festival as India’s official entry with the personal approval of the Prime Minister. The film was screened towards the end of the festival, with only a small number of critics in attendance. There was not much expectation from the Indian entry. When the film came live on the screen, it left the audience enthralled. India had stunned the world. The film was awarded the Best Human Document prize at the festival, thereby making Pather Panchali the first film made in independent India to receive an international recognition. Pather Panchali subsequently went on to get the best film award at a number of film festivals including Vancouver, Berlin, San Francisco and Manila.

Who would have thought of this day when Ray was pawning his wife’s jewellery, begging for money and readying his amateur actors and crew for the first shot? Ray had set out to make a good film, he had never dreamt that he would actually end up directing one of world’s best films ever made.

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