Novel and title
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's novel Pather Panchali is a classic bildungsroman (a type of coming-of-age story) in the canon of Bengali literature. It first appeared as a serial in a Calcutta periodical in 1928, and was published as a book the next year. The novel depicts a poor family's struggle to survive in their rural ancestral home and the growing up of Apu, the son of the family. The later part of the novel, where Apu and his parents leave their village and settle in Benaras, formed the basis of Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), the second film of the Apu trilogy.
Satyajit Ray, working as a graphic designer for Signet Press, created the illustrations for a new abridged edition of the book in 1944. At that time, Ray read the unabridged novel; Signet's owner D. K. Gupta told Ray that the abridged version would make a great film. The idea appealed to Ray, and around 1946–47, when he considered making a film, he turned to Pather Panchali because of certain qualities that "made it a great book: its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth". The author's widow permitted Ray to make a film based on the novel; the agreement was in principle only, and no financial arrangement was made.
The Bengali word path literally means path, and pather means "of the path". The word 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 performance, the jatra. English translations of the Bengali title include Song of the Little Road, The Lament of the Path, Song of the Road, and Song of the Open Road.
Pather Panchali did not have a script; it was made from Ray's drawings and notes. Ray completed the first draft of the notes during his sea voyage to and from London in 1950. Before principal photography began, he created a storyboard dealing with details and continuity. Years later, he donated those drawings and notes to Cinémathèque Française.
In Apur Panchali (the Bengali translation of My Years with Apu: A Memoir, 1994), Ray wrote that he had omitted many of the novel's characters and that he had rearranged some of its sequences to make the narrative better as cinema. Changes include Indir's death, which occurs early in the novel at a village shrine in the presence of adults, while in the film Apu and Durga find her corpse in the open. The scene of Apu and Durga running to catch a glimpse of the train is not in the novel, in which neither child sees the train, although they try. Durga's fatal fever is attributed to a monsoon downpour in the film, but is unexplained in the novel. The ending of the film—the family's departure from the village—is not the end of the novel.
Ray tried to extract a simple theme from the random sequences of significant and trivial episodes of the Pather Panchali novel, while preserving what W. Andrew Robinson describes as the "loitering impression" it creates. According to Ray, "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." For Robinson, Ray's adaptation focuses mainly on Apu and his family, while Bandopadhyay's original featured greater detail about village life in general.
Kanu Banerjee (who plays Harihar) was an established Bengali film actor. Karuna Banerjee (Sarbajaya) was an amateur actress from the Indian People's Theatre Association, and the wife of Ray's friend. Uma Dasgupta, who successfully auditioned for the part of Durga, also had prior theatre experience.
For the role of Apu, Ray advertised in newspapers for boys of ages five to seven. None of the candidates who auditioned fulfilled Ray's expectations, but his wife spotted a boy in their neighbourhood, and this boy, Subir Banerjee, was cast as Apu. (The surname of three of the main actors happened to be Banerjee, but they were not related to each other). The hardest role to fill was the wizened old Indir. Ray eventually found Chunibala Devi, a retired stage actress living in one of Calcutta's red-light districts, as the ideal candidate. Several minor roles were played by the villagers of Boral, where Pather Panchali was filmed.
Shooting started on 27 October 1952. Boral, a village near Calcutta, was selected in early 1953 as the main location for principal photography, and night scenes were shot in-studio. The technical team included several first-timers, including Ray himself and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who had never operated a film camera. Art director Bansi Chandragupta had professional experience, having worked with Jean Renoir on The River. Both Mitra and Chandragupta went on to establish themselves as respected professionals.
Mitra had met Ray on the set of The River, where Mitra was allowed to observe the production, take photographs and make notes about lighting for personal reference. Having become friends, Mitra kept Ray informed about the production and showed his photographs. Ray was impressed enough by them to promise him an assistant's position on Pather Panchali, and when production neared, invited him to shoot the film. As the 21-year-old Mitra had no prior filmmaking experience, the choice was met with scepticism by those who knew of the production. Mitra himself later speculated that Ray was nervous about working with an established crew.
Funding was a problem from the outset. No producer was willing to finance the film, as it lacked stars, songs and action scenes. On learning of Ray's plan, one producer, Mr Bhattacharya of Kalpana Movies, contacted Bandopadhyay's widow to request the filming rights and get the film made by Debaki Bose, a well-established director. The widow declined as she had already permitted Ray to make the film. The estimated budget for the production was ₹70,000 (about US$14,613 in 1955).[d] One producer, Rana Dutta, gave money to continue shooting, but had to stop after some of his films flopped.
Ray thus had to borrow money to shoot enough footage to persuade prospective producers to finance the whole film. To raise funds, he continued to work as a graphic designer, pawned his life insurance policy and sold his collection of gramophone records. Production manager Anil Chowdhury convinced Ray's wife, Bijoya, to pawn her jewels. Ray still ran out of money partway through filming, which had to be suspended for nearly a year. Thereafter shooting was done only in intermittent bursts. Ray later admitted that the delays had 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."
Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, was requested by an influential friend of Ray's mother to help the production. The Chief Minister obliged, and government officials saw the footage. The Home Publicity Department of the West Bengal government assessed the cost of backing the film and sanctioned a loan, given in installments, allowing Ray to finish production.[e] The government misunderstood the nature of the film, believing it to be a documentary for rural uplift, and recorded the loan as being for "roads improvement", a reference to the film's title.
Monroe Wheeler, head of the department of exhibitions and publications at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), who was in Calcutta in 1954, heard about the project and met Ray. He considered the incomplete footage to be of very high quality and encouraged Ray to finish the film so that it could be shown at a MoMA exhibition the following year. Six months later, American director John Huston visited India for some early location scouting for The Man Who Would Be King (eventually made in 1975). Wheeler had asked Huston to check the progress of Ray's project. Huston saw excerpts of the unfinished film and recognised "the work of a great film-maker". Because of Huston's positive feedback, MoMA helped Ray with additional money.
Including the delays and hiatuses in production, it took three years to complete the shooting of Pather Panchali.