Making of Pather Panchali

1950, Search for a Producer

On his return in late 1950, with absolutely no experience in movie-making, Ray collected a group of young men to work as technicians. Subrata Mitra was the cinematographer; he had been a still photographer and had to be coaxed into taking up the assignment. Anil Choudhury became the Production Controller, Bansi Chandra Gupta the art director.

While looking for financial backers, he approached widow of Bibhuti Bhusan Banerjee, the writer of Pather Panchali for film rights. She admired Ray’s illustrations for the book and works of his father and grandfather. She gave her oral assurance and retained her faith in Satyajit Ray despite a better financial offer.

To explain his concept for the film to the potential producers, Ray had a small note-book, filled with sketches, dialogue and the treatment. This script along with another sketchbook that illustrated the key dramatic moments of the film were greeted with curiosity by producers. While many of them were impressed, none came forward to produce the film. Later, Ray donated this script and the wash sketches to the Cinémathèque Française, Paris.

Many offered advise against shooting in outdoor locations as most films were made in studios at that time. He was told by many that rain sequences could not be shot in the actual rains but required a well equipped studio. At the earliest opportunity, Ray rushed out with a 16 mm camera to test-shoot monsoon rains.

About two years were spent in vain to find a producer. Meanwhile, undeterred Ray had begun assembling the cast and looking for locations.

1952, Cattle eat up the scene

Unable to find a producer, Ray decided that unless he could prove his bona fides by producing a few sequences of the film, he was not likely to find financial backing. He borrowed money against his insurance policy and from a few relatives and friends. The shooting was to be done on Sundays due to his job at D.J. Keymer.

On 27 October 1952, he set out to take the first shot. The scene was the famous ‘discovery of train by Apu and his sister Durga in the field of Kaash flowers’. “One day’s work with camera and actors taught me more than all the dozen books,” Ray would write later.

The following Sunday when they returned to shoot, to their horror they discovered that the Kaash flowers had been feasted upon by a herd of cattle. He had to wait for the next season of flowers to complete the scene.

1952, Casting and locations

Meanwhile, efforts to find a backer and working on other production requirements and casting continued.

The cast was a mix of professional actors and a few with no prior experience in acting. Only Subir Banerjee who played Apu, Karuna Banerjee who played Apu’s mother, and the villagers who played other smaller roles, had no prior experience of acting. The rest had either acted in films or theatre.

Chunibala Devi, an 80-year old, retired theatre actress was cast to play Indir Thakrun. Boral, a small village on the outskirts of Calcutta was to be the major location.

1952, Faith in realistic cinema gets stronger

During this time, Bimal Roy had made Do Bigha Jamin (Two Acres of Land), in India; The film had a few songs, shot largely on locations. It was about the struggle of a peasant family. The film was in the tradition of neo-realist cinema with natural acting (though using professional actors, including Balraj Sahni who pioneered natural acting in mainstream Indian films). The film won the Prix International at the Cannes Festival, 1954. Do Bigha Jamin and Kurosawa’s Rashoman, further strengthened Satyajit Ray’s faith in the kind of film he was making.

Pather Panchali was to be shot in sequence as Ray had realized that he would be learning as they went along. He had to discover for himself, “how to catch the hushed stillness of dusk in a Bengali village when the wind drops and turns the ponds into sheets of glass, dappled by the leaves of Saluki and Shale, and the smoke from the ovens settles in wispy trails over the landscape and the plaintive blows on conch shells from homes far and near are joined by the chorus of crickets which rises as the light falls, until all one sees are the stars in the sky, and the stars that blink and swirl in the thickets.”

1953, A producer at last

He found a producer, Ana Dutta, who provided some funds with a promise of more after seeing the results and releasing his latest film. Ray took one month’s leave without pay to shoot a few more sequences.

The shooting began in the village. Ray recalls this period as a great learning experience. The film appeared to be shaping up well. It was not long before the funds ran out. The producer’s latest film had been a box-office disaster so he was unable to provide any more finances. However, since the arrangements had already been made for shoot, some of Ray’s wife, Bijoya’s jewelry was pawned and shooting continued for a few days more.

Ray was back to work at Kaymer. The footage was later edited to about 4000 ft. Ray approached many producers with the edited footage and was turned down. Ray’s production manager, Anil Choudhury suggested approaching Dr. B. C. Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal for help. The government agreed to fund. On September 8, 1953, a son and the only child, Sandip was born.

1954, Shooting resumes after a long break

After a break of almost a year, the shooting resumed in the early part of 1954. The funding from the government meant that the money would come in installments. Before each installment, the accounts had to be submitted and cleared by the government. This would often take up to a month. Later, Ray would describe it as a miracle that while making the film, “One, Apu’s voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indir Thakrun did not die.” In the autumn of 1954, Monroe Wheeler, a director of Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York was in Calcutta for putting together some Indian highlights for an exhibition. In a chance meeting, Ray showed some stills of Pather Panchali. Wheeler offered to hold a world premier at MOMA. About six months later, John Huston had come to India in search of locations for ‘The man who would be King’. He had been asked by Monroe Wheeler to check the progress of the film. After seeing about 15-20 minute long silent rough-cut, John Huston gave rave reviews to Wheeler. The film was scheduled to premier at MOMA.

1955, Breakneck post-production

Ray wanted Pandit Ravi Shankar, renowned Sitar maestro, to compose music for the film. Ravi Shankar, due to his tight touring schedule, was able to see only about half of the film and recorded the music in a non-stop session of about eleven hours. “It was a marathon session and left us exhausted but happy, because most of the music sounded wonderful”, Ray would write in ‘My Years with Apu’, many years later. Due to shortage of time, however, Ravi Shankar could not provide music for a few sequences. Subrata Mitra, Ray’s cinematographer, devised music for the sweetmeat seller as he goes peddling his sweets. Mitra also played sitar for a sequence. To meet the MOMA deadline, Ray and his editor worked ten days and nights continuously in the final stage of post-production. The first print of Pather Panchali came out at night before it was to be dispatched. There was no time or money for the subtitles. Weeks after the scheduled screening at MOMA, a letter came form MOMA describing at length how well the film had been received by the audience.

Next: Triumph of Pather Panchali, 1955

It was a marathon session and left us exhausted but happy, because most of the music sounded wonderful.
Satyajit Ray
About music recording for Pather Panchali, 1955