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 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
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
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
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.
A still from Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Jamin, 1953
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.
Ray filming Pather Panchali
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
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.
Ray rehearsing 80-year old Chunibala Devi
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.
A page from the script of Pather Panchali ©Ray Family
Indir Thakrun and Durga
Sketches by Ray, Durga and Apu discover a train
Durga & Apu in a field of Kaash flowers ©Teknica
Chunibala Devi, an 80-year old, retired theatre actress played Indir
Durga & her parents ©Teknica
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