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Pather Panchali

Title card for Pather Panchali
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Produced by Government of West Bengal
Written by Satyajit Ray
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (story)
Starring Subir Banerjee,
Kanu Banerjee,
Karuna Banerjee,
Uma Dasgupta,
Chunibala Devi
Music by Ravi Shankar
Cinematography Subrata Mitra
Editing by Dulal Dutta
Release date(s) 1955
Running time 115 minutes, 122 minutes (West Bengal)[1]
Country India
Language Bengali
Budget Rs. 150,000 (US$3000)
Followed by Aparajito

Pather Panchali (Bengali: পথের পাঁচালী, Pôther Pãchali, IPA: [pɔt̪ʰer pãtʃali], English: Song of the Little Road) (1955) is a Bengali feature film directed by Satyajit Ray and produced by the Government of the Indian state of West Bengal. Based on the Bengali novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the film was the directorial debut of Satyajit Ray. The first film of The Apu Trilogy, it depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu in the rural countryside of Bengal in the 1920s.

Though the film had a shoestring budget[2] of Rs. 150,000 (US$3000),[3] featured mostly amateur actors, and was made by an inexperienced crew,[4][5] Pather Panchali was a critical and popular success. Influenced by Italian neorealism, Satyajit Ray developed his own style of lyrical realism in this film. The first movie from independent India to attract major international critical attention, Pather Panchali won "Best Human Document" at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival,[6] establishing Satyajit Ray as a major international filmmaker. Pather Panchali is today considered one of the greatest films of all time.[7][8][9][10]



Apu and Durga running to catch a glimpse of a train, a famous scene of the film

Set in rural Bengal of the 1920s, Pather Panchali focuses on the lives of Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his family members. Apu's father Harihar Ray (Kanu Banerjee) lives in his ancestral home in the village Nischindipur, with his impoverished family. He earns a meagre living as a priest, and dreams of a better career writing scholarly plays and poetry. In reality, he is easily exploited — he cannot even muster the courage to ask his employer for overdue wages, although his family is in dire need of money. Harihar's wife, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) takes care of their two children, Durga (Uma Dasgupta) and Apu, and her elderly sister-in-law, Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi). With limited resources, Sarbajaya resents having to share her home with Indir. Indir is very old, toothless, and a hunchback cripple. Occasionally, she takes refuge in the home of another relative when Sarbajaya either forces her out or becomes overly offensive. Durga often steals fruit from a neighbour’s orchard and shares it with Aunt Indir, with whom she feels some filial affinity. Sarbajaya bears the neighbour's innuendos blaming her for Durga’s propensity to steal. Once, Durga even steals a bead necklace, but denies the theft when questioned.

Apu and Durga share an affectionate brother-sister relationship. Durga, as the elder sister, cares for Apu with motherly affection, although she does not spare any opportunity to tease him. They share the simple joys of sitting quietly under a tree, running after the candy man who passes by ringing bells, viewing pictures in a bioscope shown by a travelling vendor, and watching a play by a travelling troupe of actors. In the evenings, they can hear the whistles of trains far away. One day they run away from home to catch a glimpse of the train. The scene depicting Apu and Durga running through Kaash fields to see the train is one of the memorable sequences in the film.[11] While playing one day in the bushes, they discover their Aunt Indir lying dead there.

Harihar, unable to earn adequately in the village, decides to travel to nearby cities to search for a better job. He promises Sarbajaya that he will return with enough money to repair their derelict house. During his absence, the family sinks even deeper into poverty. Sarbajaya grows increasingly lonely and embittered. The monsoon season approaches and storm clouds gather. One day, Durga dances playfully in the downpour for a long time. Soon she catches cold, and develops a fever. With scarce medical care available, her fever continues and eventually on a night of incessant rain and gusty winds, she dies. Harihar finally returns home and starts to show Sarbajaya what he has brought from the city. But Sarbajaya, who remains silent at first, breaks down at the feet of her husband, and Harihar screams as he discovers that he has lost his only daughter. The family decides to leave the village and their ancestral home. As they start packing, Apu finds the necklace that Durga had earlier denied having stolen. He throws it into a pond. The film ends with Apu and his parents riding a slow ox-cart to their new destination.



The novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay is a classic bildungsroman in Bengali literature.[12] It first appeared as a serial in a periodical in 1928,[13] and was published as a book in 1929.[14] To a great extent, it was based on the author's own early life. The novel depicts a poor family's struggle to survive in their ancestral rural home and the growing up of Apu, the son of the family. The later part, where Apu and his parents leave the village and settle in Benaras, formed the basis for Ray's next film in the series, Aparajito.[15]

Satyajit Ray read the novel for the first time in 1943, when he was doing the illustrations for a new edition of the novel, and contemplated the possibility of making a script around 1947–48.[16] Ray chose the novel because of certain qualities that, according to him, "made it a great book: its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth."[17] The author's widow granted permission for Ray to make a film based on the novel; however, the agreement was on principle only, and no financial arrangement was made.[2]


The title of the film in English is "Song of the Little Road".[13] Other translations of the title have been used, such as "The Lament of the Path",[18] "Song of the Road",[19] and "Song of the Open Road".[20] The Bengali word Path literally means path, and Pather means "of the path". Panchali refers to a type of narrative folk song that used to be performed in Bengal, and was the forerunner of another type of folk song now known as jatra.[21]


In 1949, the French director Jean Renoir came to Kolkata to shoot his film The River. Satyajit Ray helped him find locations in the countryside. It was then that Ray told Renoir about his idea of filming Pather Panchali, which had been on his mind for some time, and Renoir encouraged him to proceed.[22] In 1950, Ray was sent to London by his employer, the advertising agency D.J. Keymer, to work at its headquarters. During his six months in London, he watched 99 films.[23] Among these, the neorealist film Bicycle Thieves would have a profound impact on him. Ray later said that he had come out of the theater determined to become a filmmaker.[24] The film had reconfirmed his conviction that it was possible to make realistic cinema with an amateur cast and shooting at actual locations.[25] The realist narration style of Pather Panchali is indebted to Italian neorealism and the works of Renoir.[26][27] The international success of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin (which was shot partly on location and concerned a peasant family) inspired Ray to hope that Pather Panchali also might find an international audience one day.[28]

Besides the foreign influences, Ray is also indebted to Bengali literature and the native Indian theatrical tradition, particularly the rasa theory of classical Sanskrit drama. The complicated doctrine of rasa "centers predominantly on feeling experienced not only by the characters but also conveyed in a certain artistic way to the spectator. The duality of this kind of a rasa imbrication" shows in Ray's film adaptation of Pather Panchali.[29]


The film never had a complete script;[30] it was made from Ray's drawings and notes. Ray tried to extract and build a simple theme out of the apparently random sequences of significant as well as trivial episodes of the novel, while preserving the loitering quality of it.[15] Ray himself commented that, "The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble."[17]

Some notable shifts from the novel in the script include the death scene of Indir Thakrun, which occurs quite early in the novel in a village shrine at the presence of some adult members of the family; in the film she dies in the open in the presence of Apu and Durga.[15] The scene of Apu and Durga running to catch a glimpse of the train is not there in the novel, neither children manages to see the train there, although they made an attempt.[15] Finally, the ending of the film—the departure of the family from the village—is not the end of the novel.


Apu, the protagonist of the trilogy

Kanu Banerjee, an established Bengali film actor, portrayed the role of Harihar Ray, father of Apu and Durga. The role of Sarbajaya, wife of Harihar, was played by an amateur theatre actress of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), Karuna Banerjee,[4] who was the wife of one friend of Ray.[5] Uma Dasgupta, who was selected by an interview to act as Durga,[5] also had prior experience in acting in theatre.[4] For the role of Apu, Ray advertised in newspapers looking for boys of five to seven years age.[5] Several boys turned up in response, but none of them met the expectation of the director. Finally, Ray's wife spotted a boy in their neighbourhood as a possible candidate. This boy, Subir Banerjee, was eventually cast as Apu (the surname of three main actors was Banerjee, although they were not related to each other). The toughest hurdle in the casting process was to identify an actress suitable to enact the character of the wizened, old Indir Thakrun. Ray eventually found Chunibala Devi, a retired stage actress living in a brothel,[31] as the right candidate to portray Indir. Several minor roles were played by the villagers of Boral, the shooting location.[4]


Shooting started on 27 October 1952.[4] Boral, a village near Calcutta, was selected in early 1953 as the principal shooting location.[4][32] The technical team consisted of several first-timers. Ray had never directed anything and cinematographer Subrata Mitra had never operated a movie camera. Art director Bansi Chandragupta had professional experience, having worked with Jean Renoir on The River. In later years, both Mitra and Chandragupta went on to establish themselves as respected professionals in their craft.[33][34] Mitra had met Ray on the set of The River, where Mitra was allowed to observe the production, take still photographs, and keep copious lighting notes for personal reference. Having become friends, Mitra frequently kept Ray informed about the production and showed his stills. Ray was impressed enough by the photos to promise him an assistant's position on Pather Panchali, but when the production neared, Ray offered to let him shoot the film. As Mitra had no prior filmmaking experience and was only 21 at the time, the choice was met with considerable skepticism by those aware of the production. Mitra himself later speculated that Ray was perhaps nervous about working with an established crew.[35]

From the outset, funding was a problem as no producer was willing to produce the film.[2] Ray had to borrow money in order to shoot enough footage so as to persuade prospective producers to finance the whole film.[2] In order to raise funds during the production period, Ray kept working as a graphic designer, pawned his life insurance policy and sold his collection of LP records. Production manager Anil Chowdhury convinced Ray's wife, Bijoya, to pawn her jewels as well.[28] Nonetheless, Ray still ran out of the required money partway through filming and shooting had to be suspended for nearly a year,[36] and following that, the shooting could be done only in intermittent pieces. Ray acknowledged later that the delays made him tense, and that three miracles saved the film: "One, Apu's voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indir Thakrun did not die."[37]

Monroe Wheeler, the head of the department of exhibitions and publications of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA),[38] was in Calcutta in 1954 when he heard about the shooting of the film and met Ray. He considered the incomplete footage of very high quality, and inspired Ray to finish the film so that it could be shown in MoMA's exhibition next year.[36] Bidhan Chandra Roy, then the Chief Minister of West Bengal, was requested by an influential friend of Ray's mother to see the footage.[36] The Chief Minister obliged, and after seeing the footage, directed officials in Home Publicity Department to examine the cost of backing the film.[37] Eventually the Government of West Bengal sanctioned a loan, allowing Ray to finish the film. However, the government misunderstood the nature of the movie, and considered it as a documentary for rural uplift, such as the need for road improvement.[36] Indeed, the money was loaned on record for 'roads improvement', a reference to the film's title.[39] About six months after Wheeler's visit, American director John Huston visited India for an early location scout for The Man Who Would Be King (which was finally made in 1975).[40] Wheeler had asked Huston to check the progress of Ray's project.[41] Huston saw excerpts of the unfinished film and recognized "the footage as the work of a great film-maker."[40] Thanks to Huston's positive feedback, MoMA helped Ray with some additional money.[42] It took three years to complete the shooting,[43] and go to the post-production.


The soundtrack of the film was scored by the sitar player Ravi Shankar, who was at the early stage of his career, having debuted in 1939.[44] The background scores feature pieces based on several ragas of Indian classical music, played mostly in sitar. The soundtrack, described as at once plaintive and exhilarating,[45] is featured in the list of 50 greatest film soundtracks published by The Guardian.[46] Ravi Shankar saw about half the film in a roughly edited version before composing the background score; however, he was already familiar with the story from having read the novel.[47] When Ray met him, Shankar hummed a tune which had both a classical touch as well as a folk hue;[47] the tune, usually played on a bamboo flute, became the main theme of the film. The majority of the score was composed in a night-long session lasting about eleven hours.[47] Shankar also composed two solo sitar pieces—one based on the raga Desh (traditionally associated with rain), and one sombre piece based on the raga Todi (usually associated with morning or evening).[47][48] The film's cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, also performed the sitar for parts of the soundtrack.[49]


Ray and his team worked day and night during post-production, and just managed to get the film ready to send it to MoMA for the exhibition in May 1955,[47] although it lacked subtitles.[50] It was billed as "The Story of Apu and Durga", and was a part of a series of six evening performances at MoMA including the US debut of sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan and the classical dancer Shanta Rao.[50] Pather Panchali's MoMA opening was well received.[50] The film had its domestic premiere at the annual meeting of the Advertising Club of Calcutta.[50] The response was not positive, and Ray felt "extremely discouraged".[50] Before its general release in Calcutta, Ray himself designed some large advertisements, including a neon sign showing Apu and Durga running, which was strategically placed in a busy location of the city.[50] Pather Panchali was released in a Calcutta cinema on 26 August 1955 and had a poor initial response.[51] However, thanks to word of mouth, the screenings started filling up within a week or two. It opened again at another cinema hall, where it ran for seven weeks.[51] A delay in subtitling caused the postponing of the film's release in UK until December 1957.[52] It went on to great success in the US in 1958, running for eight months at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York.[52]

As of 2008, Pather Panchali is available in DVD in both Region 2 PAL and Region 1 NTSC formats. Artificial Eye Entertainment is the distributor of Region 2 while Columbia Tri-Star is the distributor of Region 1 format.[53]

In India, the reaction to the film was enthusiastic. The Times of India wrote that "It is absurd to compare it with any other Indian cinema [...] Pather Panchali is pure cinema".[54] Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, arranged a special screening of the film for Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru in a Calcutta theatre.[55] Nehru was impressed by the film.[55] Thus, despite opposition from some quarters within the Government of West Bengal and the Government of India because of its depiction of poverty, Pather Panchali was sent to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with the personal approval of the Prime Minister.[56] The film was screened towards the end of the festival, coinciding with a party thrown by the Japanese delegation. Thus, only a small number of critics attended the show. Although some were initially unenthusiastic at the prospect of yet another Indian melodrama, they found "the magic horse of poetry" slowly invading the screen.[57] Subsequently, the film was awarded the Best Human Document prize at this festival.

Pather Panchali was the first film made in independent India that received major critical attention internationally,[58][59] and placed India on the world cinema map.[60][61] In the United Kingdom, Lindsay Anderson noted it as "a beautiful picture, completely fresh and personal. [Ray's camera] reaches forward into life, exploring and exposing, with reverence and wonder."[62] Hazel-Dawn Dumpert of LA Weekly wrote that the film was "as deeply beautiful and plainly poetic as any movie ever made. Rare and exquisite."[62] Pauline Kael commented: "The first film by the masterly Satyajit Ray—possibly the most unembarrassed and natural of directors—is a quiet reverie about the life of an impoverished Brahmin family in a Bengali village. Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen."[63] Basil Wright commented: "I have never forgotten the private projection room at the British Film Institute during which I experienced the shock of recognition and excitement when, unexpectedly, one is suddenly exposed to a new and incontrovertible work of art."[64] Time wrote that "Pather Panchali is perhaps the finest piece of filmed folklore since Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North."[18] Newsweek critic, Jack Kroll, reviewed the film as "one of the most stunning first films in movie history"[62], while Philip French of The Observer has described Pather Panchali as "one of the greatest pictures ever made".[65] James Berardinelli writes, "This tale, as crafted by Ray, touches the souls and minds of viewers, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers".[66]

The film has a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on an aggregate of 34 reviews.[67] Pather Panchali is thus ranked at #71 on Rotten Tomatoes' list of top 100 foreign films.[68]

However, the reaction was not uniformly positive. After watching the movie, François Truffaut is reported to have said, "I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands."[39] Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic of The New York Times,[69] wrote in a scathing review of the film, "Any picture as loose in structure or as listless in tempo as this one is would barely pass as a "rough cut" with the editors in Hollywood."[19] The Harvard Crimson wrote, "Many of the fragmented episodes are effective, but many others have little to add to the general effect. The disconnection itself has its purpose, and gives an all-inclusive quality to the film; yet it is also distracting and contributes to the film's great weakness: its general diffuseness, its inability to command sustained attention. For Pather Panchali, remarkable as it may be, is something of a chore to sit through."[70] Early in 1980, Ray was openly criticised by an Indian Member of Parliament and former actress Nargis Dutt, who accused Ray of "exporting poverty".[71] While many critics celebrated Pather Panchali as a eulogy of third world culture, others criticised it for what they took to be romanticisation of such a culture.[72]

Twenty years after the release of Pather Panchali, Akira Kurosawa summarised the effect of the film as follows: "I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it. I have had several more opportunities to see the film since then and each time I feel more overwhelmed. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river... People are born, live out their lives, and then accept their deaths. Without the least effort and without any sudden jerks, Ray paints his picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How does he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence."[73]


Pather Panchali was followed by two films that continued the tale of Apu's life—Aparajito (The Unvanquished) in 1956 and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959. The three films are together known as the Apu Trilogy. Aparajito portrays the adolescent Apu, his education in the rural school and in a Calcutta college. The central theme in Aparajito is the poignant relation between a doting mother and her young ambitious boy. Apur Sansar tells the story of the brief family life of Apu, his reaction at the premature death of his wife, and finally bonding with his son whom he left as an infant. Both the two sequels won multiple national and international awards.[74] Ray did not have any specific plan to make a trilogy from the start. Indeed, he planned to make the third installment only after being asked about the possibility of a trilogy at the 1957 Venice Film Festival,[75] where Aparajito won the Golden Lion award.

Pather Panchali ushered in a new tradition of film-making in India, one in which authenticity and social realism were key themes (see Parallel Cinema),[76] breaking the rule of the Indian film establishment of the time.[11][77] Although described as a turning point in Indian cinema,[78] some commentators opined that Pather Panchali did not usher in a modern age in Indian cinema.[26] Rather, the film refined an already existent "realist textual principle" in Indian cinema.[26] In 1963, Time noted that thanks to Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray was one of the "hardy little band of inspired pioneers" of a new cinematic movement that was enjoying a good number of imitators worldwide.[79] The film has since been considered as a "global landmark" and "among the essential moviegoing experiences".[80]

Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute's film magazine, included the film several times in its Critics' Poll list of all-time greatest films, in 1962 (ranked at #11),[81] 1992 (ranked at #6)[10] and 2002 (ranked at #22).[82][83] In 1998, in the Asian film magazine Cinemaya's critics' poll of all-time greatest films, Pather Panchali was ranked at #2 on the list.[84] The Village Voice ranked the film at #12 (tied with The Godfather) in its Top 250 "Best Films of the Century" list in 1999, based on a poll of critics.[9]

Pather Panchali was included in various other all-time greatest film lists, including Time Out magazine's "Centenary Top One Hundred Films" in 1995,[85] the San Francisco Chronicle "Hot 100 Films From the Past" in 1997,[86] the Rolling Stone "100 Maverick Movies of the Last 100 Years" in 1999,[87] "The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made" in 2002,[7] and the British Film Institute's Top Fifty "Must See" Children's Films in 2005.[88] The Apu Trilogy as a whole was included in film critic Roger Ebert's list of "100 Great Movies" in 2001[89] and in Time magazine's All-Time 100 best movies list in 2005.[8]

Following Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray went on to make a total of thirty-seven films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His works included scripting, casting, scoring, cinematography, art direction, editing and designing his own credit titles and publicity material. He developed a distinctive style of film-making,[90] with visual lyricism and strong humanism forming the basis of his works,[91][92] as in his debut film Pather Panchali. Consequently Ray established himself as an auteur of cinema.[90]


Pather Panchali won multiple national and international awards:[62][93]

Pather Panchali was also nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.[6]



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See also


  • Chapman, James (2003), Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present, Reaktion Books, ISBN 1861891628.
  • Cousins, Mark (2004), The Story of Film: A Worldwide History of Film from the Host of the BBC's Scene by Scene, Thunder's Mouth Press, ISBN 1560256125.
  • Cooper, Darius (2000), The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521629802, <>.
  • Ettedgui, Peter (1999), Cinematography: Screencraft, Focal Press, ISBN 0240803825.
  • Gokulsing, K. Moti & Wimal Dissanayake (2004), Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change, Trentham Books, ISBN 1858563291.
  • Gulzar; Govind Nihalni & Saibal Chatterjee (2003), "Biographies", Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema, Popular Prakashan, ISBN 8179910660.
  • Khair, Tabish (2005), Amitav Ghosh : A Critical Companion, Orient Longman, ISBN 8178241137.
  • Lavezzoli, Peter (2006), The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 0826418155.
  • Mukherjee, Meenakshi (1985), Realism and reality : the novel and society in India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195616480.
  • Nijenhuis, Emmie te (1976), The Rāgas of Somanātha, Brill Archive, ISBN 9004048731.
  • Ray, Satyajit (2005), Our Films, Their Films, Orient Longman, ISBN 8125015655.
  • Robinson, A (2005), Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema, I. B. Tauris, ISBN 1845110749.
  • Robinson, A (2003), Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker, I. B. Tauris, ISBN 1860649653.
  • Ruberto, Laura E. & Kristi M. Wilson (2007), Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema, Wayne State University Press, ISBN 0814333249.
  • Santas, Constantine (2002), Responding to film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art, Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0830415807.
  • Seton, M (1971), Satyajit Ray: Portrait of a director, Indiana University Press, ISBN 0234772344.
  • Mehta, Ved (1998), "City of Dreadful Night", A Ved Mehta Reader: The Craft of the Essay, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300075618.
  • Wood, R (1972), The Apu trilogy, November Books Ltd, ISBN 0856310034.

External links

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