Ray of Greatness

Published: June 2, 2009 - 13:13 Updated: July 1, 2015 - 16:44

On his 88thbirth anniversary, remembering Satyajit Ray. And the making of his first classic in black and white, Pather Panchali...

Arup K De Kolkata 

The story of the making of Pather Panchali, the all-time masterpiece that established Satyajit Ray's reputation for being "one of the greatest and most sublime filmmakers to emerge in the 1950s" at one stroke, is well-documented. Ray was toying with the idea of quitting his lucrative advertising job for a career in the cinema when he met the French-born American director, Jean Renoir, who came to Kolkata in 1949 to look for locations to shoot The River. Ray met Renoir at the Great Eastern Hotel, spoke to him at length and also accompanied him to various locations. Meeting Renoir was an immediate experience that encouraged Ray to take the plunge in filmmaking.

It was not until his 1967 tour of the US that Ray got a chance to watch The River, shot entirely in Bengal with a partly Indian cast. The screening over, both Renoir and Ray were invited on to the stage. "Ray owes a lot to Renoir," said the introducer. But, Renoir hardly thought as much. "I don't think Ray owes anything to me. I think he had it in his blood. Though he is very young still, he is the father of Indian cinema," he said.

Ray met John Huston, yet another Hollywood great, in Kolkata in the early 1950s. Ray showed some silent rough cut of Pather Panchali to Huston who called it "a fine, sincere piece of filmmaking". Years later, in 1987, while looking back on his Kolkata trip, Huston said that he had "recognised the footage as the work of a great filmmaker. I liked Ray enormously on first encounter. Everything he did and said supported my feelings on viewing the film."

The idea of filming Pather Panchali, in particular, began to take shape while Ray did the illustrations for Aam Antir Bhepu, a children's edition of Bibhuti Bhusan Bandyopadhyay's epic novel chronicling the growing up of a wonderstruck child in the back of beyond in the Bengal countryside. In 1950, Ray went to London with wife Bijoya for a five-month stay. On his way back, he did the visual scenario of Pather Panchali on ship.

"I produced a book of wash drawings describing the scenario of the film," said Ray in an interview with the London-based Bengali author, Sasthi Brata. "But none of the producers from top down wanted to know. They all said, you cannot work on location, you cannot shoot in the rain, you cannot do this, you cannot do that." Finally, he started to shoot on his own.

The shooting for Pather Panchali, which continued fitfully over a period of nearly two years, started in October 1953, on the day of Jagaddhatri Puja (worship of the goddess Jagaddhatri), in a field filled with autumnal Kaash flowers, near Shaktigarh in West Bengal's Burdwan district. "I remember the first day's shooting of Pather Panchali very well. ...It was an episode in the screenplay where the two children of the story, brother (Apu) and sister (Durga), stray from their village and chance upon a field of Kaash flowers," Ray wrote in 1957.

The initial funds were raised by pawning his rare music albums and the jewellery of his wife, and borrowing money from a number of sources, one of them being the legendary singer, Kishore Kumar. But, money ran out midway through, leaving the young director stranded. It was a kind lady called Bela Sen, who put Ray in touch with the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, who arranged for financial assistance to complete the film.

Years later, Ray felt unhappy with some of the shots in Pather Panchali as well as the editing of the film. In his opinion, the early part of the film's making indicated lack of experience. He also felt the film could have been trimmer and quicker-paced had he got a chance to edit it afresh.

"Baba was rather dissatisfied with the first part of Pather Panchali," said filmmaker son Sandip. "We were very excited the day the NFDC people came to our home and presented Baba with a video cassette of the film. While watching the film, Baba clicked his tongue a few times and remarked he would have done some repairing if he had got an opportunity to work on the film at the editing table," continued Sandip. "I asked him why he was saying so after such a long time. Baba answered that he had learnt filmmaking while doing Pather Panchali. So it seemed to him that a few things needed reworking. What Baba meant was that relative inexperience had prevented him from handling Pather Panchali, or the first part of it, with the right amount of care and skill."

Ray had to edit the film at breakneck speed to meet the American deadline for the New York world premiere, which took place in April 1955, four months before its domestic release. The world premiere of Pather Panchali at New York's Museum of Modern Art took the Americans by storm. They had little idea about India, far less of Indian films. Ray's portrayal of an impoverished village family with all its simplicity, lyricism and pathos was a wholly new and overwhelming experience.

The audience reception of Pather Panchali was so remarkable that some critics, who had earlier made nasty remarks, had to revise their opinions. After the premiere, the film had an eight-month run at a commercial theatre in New York. Looking back, Ray wrote in 1982, "I watched the audience surge out of the theatre, bleary-eyed and visibly shaken. An hour or so later, in the small hours, came the morning edition of The New York Times. It carried Bosley Crowther's review of my film. Crowther was the doyen of New York critics, with power to make or mar a film's prospects as a saleable commodity. Crowther was unmoved by Pather Panchali. In fact, he said the film was so amateurish that it would hardly pass for a rough cut in Hollywood."

Later on, Crowther realised his mistake. The most fitting reply to his rude criticism came years later, after his death. "It will be the Apu trilogy for which Ray will be best remembered," wrote Jay Carr in The Boston Globe. "Attacked by a New York Times review as loose and listless and unlikely to pass as a rough cut in Hollywood, the lovingly inscribed Pather Panchali remains a landmark in humanist cinema," he added. 

Curiously, Ray was described as a peddler of Indian poverty, and there were moves in India's external affairs ministry to deny him permission to show Pather Panchali abroad. The odds, however, were removed when a special show of the film was organised for the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As Ray recalled in an interview with noted Bengali novelist Shankar, Nehru's sister Vijay Laxmi Pandit, author Nayantara Sehgal and Dr BC Roy were also present during the screening. The film moved Nehru to tears, so much so that he personally saw that it received the permission it required.

Pather Panchali may probably have disappeared by now had the Kolkata-based Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films, popularly known as Satyajit Ray Society or just 'Ray Society', not taken the initiative to have it restored in partnership with the US-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The process started with David Shepard, a film conservationist of world renown, arriving in India to survey the condition of all the Ray films a little after the maestro's death.

Shepard, who examined the negatives of Pather Panchali and many other Ray classics, wrote in his report: "The original negative (of Pather Panchali) is in poor condition. Each reel has many tears in the picture area, patched either with cell overlays or with mylar tape, and in many reels bits of lost footage has been replaced with blank spacer. Three of the 12 reels have considerably deteriorated from the 'vinegar syndrome'. Several reels contain copy (dupe) negative sections replacing previously-damaged scenes of the original negative. The negative has been 'fotoguarded' and this process, which cannot be removed, has sealed in some damage. Restoration of this film will require a second image source."

Shepard thought the negative lying at a London laboratory would work as a "second image source". But a mysterious fire at the lab burned the negatives of Pather Panchali and five other Ray films soon thereafter. So, in case of Pather Panchali, the restorers in the Academy Film Archive had to work not with the original negative but with good quality positive print and the inter-positive that was made in 1968 for the Pune National Film Archive in India. The restored print is preserved in sub-zero temperature at the climate-controlled vault of the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles. The Ray Society boasts of a restored print of Pather Panchali, preserved in Kolkata. The partnership between Ray Society and the Academy Film Archive has been instrumental in the restoration of 16 Ray classics. 

Pather Panchali, which saw the light of day in India on August 26, 1955, will turn 54 a few months from now. Throughout its history, it has won admirers from among film scholars and ordinary moviegoers. As Akira Kurosawa, another cine great, said, "I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it (Pather Panchali). It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river."

In 1999, The Village Voice put the film on their list of top 250 "Best Films of the Century" on the basis of a poll of critics. The organisers of the Cannes Film Festival, which had awarded Pather Panchali the best human document prize in 1956, decided to devote a whole day at their 2005 film fest to a Ray tribute to mark the golden jubilee of the making of the movie. The festival is also reported to have shown Renoir's The River the same day as yet another Cannes classic, presumably to underscore the links between the two great masters of world cinema.

Last year, the efforts of a Mumbai-based organisation, which had applied colour to two Hindi movies, Mughal-e-Azam and Naya Daur, to turn Pather Panchali into a colour movie, sparked off a storm of protest at home and abroad. The organisation claimed they were in the process of working out an arrangement for sharing revenues with the Government of West Bengal, producer of the film. As this writer wrote in an article published in The Statesman, "Putting colour to Pather Panchali would be like dressing up Michelangelo's David in denims and placing the marble sculpture as a mannequin in the window of a clothing store at a pricey shopping mall." The protests effectively nipped the move in the bud, thereby preventing the annihilation of an exquisite poem on celluloid.

By his own admission, Ray, a city-bred man, discovered rural Bengal while making Pather Panchali, which, in its turn, helped the world discover India. Ray was India's cultural ambassador, who, after Tagore, built a new bridge between the East and the West. The secret of Pather Panchali lies in its power to "capture both that is unique in the Indian experience and that which is universal," as Audrey Hepburn said, who introduced Ray and his works at the Oscar award ceremony on March 30, 1992.

"I never imagined that any of my films, especially Pather Panchali, would be shown throughout this country (the US) or in other countries," Ray said in 1982 to film journalist Dan Georgakas. "The fact that they have is an indication that if you are able to portray universal feelings, universal relations, emotions and characters, you can cross certain barriers and reach out to others, even non-Bengalis."

The author is chairman of Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films, Kolkata. He also edits Salt Lake Post, Kolkata


On his 88th birth anniversary, remembering Satyajit Ray. And the making of his first classic in black and white, Pather Panchali… Arup K De Kolkata

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