Pather Panchali: India’s most famous film turns 64

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Imagine a film that flopped miserably on the first day of its release in the box office yet turned out to be such a super-hit subsequently that it catapulted India virtually an independent cinema-brand in 1955 on the global silver screen?

Movie-making is not possible without a complete screenplay. But the film never had any. What it had were some notes and drawings of sets and scenes. Imagine the person who got Lifetime Oscar Award for this film had never ever directed even a single one and what the cameraman had done was only still-photography. He never had done a film shooting. But the film did miracles.

The story too had no thrill, no romance or no dramatic turns usually considered essential ingredients for a successful movie. But the real-life struggle of making the film indeed was no less than an action-packed reel-life story.

It was a very simple tale of the battle for survival of a poor Brahmin family of Bengal portrayed in equally simple fashion in the screen. The director of the film too had no sufficient funds to complete the movie. Naturally, he opted for a shoestring budget. But can you imagine what he did when his budged finished? He sold all his favourite long play records and asked his wife to pawn her jewellery.

Yes! We are talking about Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali that has just turned 64. Satyajit, only 35 when the film was launched, used only the natural locations, did not use any make-up for the actors and even caught natural lightning in the camera to portray the scene a stormy night.

The film played for 36 weeks at the 5th Avenue Playhouse in Seattle (Washington/ USA). The US-based Film Foundation (Los Angeles/New York) has preserved the copy of Pather Panchali. The music of the film was composed by sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and the background music acted as a source of inspiration to The Beatles particularly George Harrison. It is considered as one of the “50 Greatest Film Soundtracks” by The Guardian.

The film, based on Italian Neo-realism, was released on 26th August, 1955 in Calcutta. Since then, the media globally takes up Pather Panchali every year as a ritual to talk about the film which is known as one of the best films of the world ever made. Media persons also made it a habit to go to Boral, a small hamlet located near Calcutta which was selected by Satyajit in 1953 as the location of the film. Interestingly, in 1944 Satyajit illustrated some scenes of Pather Panchali. At that time, the idea of making a film out of the novel came to his mind.

Hardly anybody knows it was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who sent Pather Panchali as the official Indian entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. In fact, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy invited Nehru to Calcutta at the screening of the movie. Nehru was impressed by the portrayal of a very simple story in an equally simpler way. Hence, he wanted Pather Panchali to go to Cannes.

However, some bureaucrats were apprehensive that by sending Pather Panchali to Cannes India would be highlighting its poverty. But Nehru interfered and overruled the objections. The film was categorized as Best Human Document at Cannes. The film was then brought to the notice of Hollywood by John Huston.

Making of the story of Pather Panchali into a film by itself is another interesting story with its own twists and turns. In fact, another full-length story can be composed out of the struggle that the director of the film Satyajit made to fight against a host of odds. To begin the tale of making the film, let us first come to the most interesting fact about it.

Pather Panchali, Bengali meaning of the title of the book is song of the road. When all the funds of Satyajit exhausted and he was left with nothing to complete the film, he requested the West Bengal government to finance him.

Guess under which head the state government gave the loan? Interestingly, even if you storm your brain, it would be impossible to guess that. You would simply be astonished to know that when the West Bengal Government gave loan to Satyajit to complete the movie, it was given under the head of a documentary for “Road Development”.

The reason for this was that “Pather” in Bengali meant “belonging to road” and “Panchali” meant “an account” or “story/Song” or “Narrative.” The state government thought the movie would promote it’s the road transport department.

The novel Pather Panchali was written by the famous Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhushan Banarjee in 1929. Satyajit read Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali in 1943. It was in that year he conceived the idea of making a movie out of the novel. But he had no money and finally, with the help of West Bengal government’s fund, he released it in 1955.

The story of Pather Panchali is really heart-touching. It revolved round Harihar, a Bengali Brahmin priest, his wife Sarbajaya, daughter Durga, son Apu and his old cousin Indir Thakrun. Struggling to make both ends meet, Harihar would often go away from home to town and elsewhere to earn money.

Durga and Apu, always be together, would move around the village freely and come across many interesting events. The brother-sister duo saw a train moving and also witnessed a marriage ceremony of the village. However, Durga fell ill after a joyous monsoon rain-dance and died of illness. Father Harihar does not know about it as he was away from home for work. When he returned to home he was asking for Durga and Sarbajaya told him about the tragedy. It was too much for the poor father.  

The poverty-plagued Harihar's family ultimately leaves their ancestral village in search of greener pastures in Benaras. Pather Panchali closes with the family moving away from the village in an ox cart.

And India’s most famous film ends here.

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