Ray and his crew worked long hours on post-production, managing to submit it just in time for Museum of Modern Art's Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India exhibition of May 1955. The film, billed as The Story of Apu and Durga, lacked subtitles. It was one of a series of six evening performances at MoMA, including the US debut of sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and the classical dancer Shanta Rao. Pather Panchali's MoMA opening on 3 May was well received. Subsequently, the film had its domestic premiere at the annual meeting of the Advertising Club of Calcutta; the response there was not positive, and Ray felt "extremely discouraged". Before its theatrical release in Calcutta, Ray designed large posters, including a neon sign showing Apu and Durga running, which was strategically placed in a busy location in the city. Pather Panchali was released in a Calcutta cinema on 26 August 1955 and received a poor initial response. But because of word of mouth, the screenings started filling up within a week or two. It opened again at another cinema, where it ran for seven weeks. A delay in subtitling led to the postponement of the UK release until December 1957. It went on to achieve great success in the US in 1958, running for eight months at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York.
In India the film's reception was enthusiastic. The Times of India wrote, "It is absurd to compare it with any other Indian cinema ... Pather Panchali is pure cinema". Chief Minister Roy arranged a special screening in Calcutta for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who came out of the theatre impressed. Despite opposition from some within the governments of West Bengal and India because of its depiction of poverty, Pather Panchali was sent to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with Nehru's personal approval. It was screened towards the end of the festival, coinciding with a party given by the Japanese delegation, and only a small number of critics attended. Although some were initially unenthusiastic at the prospect of yet another Indian melodrama, the film critic Arturo Lanocita found "the magic horse of poetry ... invading the screen". Pather Panchali was subsequently named Best Human Document at the festival.
Lindsay Anderson commented after the Cannes screening that Pather Panchali had "the quality of ultimate unforgettable experience". In subsequent years, critics have given positive reviews. A 1958 review in Time described Pather Panchali as "perhaps the finest piece of filmed folklore since Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North". In her 1982 book 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote, "Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen". Basil Wright considered it "a new and incontrovertible work of art".[f] James Berardinelli wrote in 1996 that the film "touches the souls and minds of viewers, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers". In 2006 Philip French of The Observer called it "one of the greatest pictures ever made". Twenty years after the release of Pather Panchali, Akira Kurosawa summarised the effect of the film as overwhelming and lauded its ability "to stir up deep passions".
The reaction was not uniformly positive. On seeing the film, François Truffaut is reported to have said, "I don't want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands." Bosley Crowther, the most influential critic of The New York Times, wrote in 1958, "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", even though he praised its gradually emerging poignancy and poetic quality. The Harvard Crimson argued in 1959 that its fragmentary nature "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." Early in the 1980s, Ray was criticised by Nargis Dutt, parliamentarian and former actress, for "exporting poverty". Darius Cooper writes that while many critics celebrated the Apu trilogy "as a eulogy of third-world culture, others criticized it for what they took to be its romanticization of such a culture".
In the 1990s, Merchant Ivory Productions, with assistance from the Academy Film Archive and Sony Pictures Classics, undertook a project to restore the prints. The restored prints, along with several other Ray films, were released in select US theatres. As of May 2016, the film has a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on an aggregate of 39 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads, "A film that requires and rewards patience in equal measure, Pather Panchali finds director Satyajit Ray delivering a classic with his debut." Pather Panchali is available in DVD in Region 2 (DVD region code) 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.[a]
In 2013, the video distribution company The Criterion Collection, in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Film Archive, began the restoration of the original negatives of the Apu trilogy, including Pather Panchali. These negatives had been severely damaged by a fire in London in 1993, and all film cans and fragments belonging to the Ray films were sent to the Motion Picture Academy for storage, where they lay unseen for two decades. It was discovered upon reexamination that, although many parts of the films were indeed destroyed by fire or the effects of age, other parts were salvageable. The materials were shipped to a restoration laboratory in Bologna, Italy: L’Immagine Ritrovata. Over a thousand hours of labor by hand were expended in restoring and scanning the negatives and, in the end, about 40 percent of the Pather Panchali negative was restored. (For those parts of the negative that were missing or unusable, duplicate negatives and fine-grain masters from various commercial or archival sources were used.) The Criterion Collection’s own lab then spent six months creating the digital version of all three films, at times choosing to preserve the distinctive look of the films even at the cost of retaining some imperfections.
On 4 May 2015, the restored Pather Panchali premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, a little more than 60 years to the day after the film’s world premiere at the same venue. Several days later, all three films opened at New York’s Film Forum, where they were originally scheduled to run for three weeks. Because of overwhelming public demand – with one writer commenting that "audiences can’t seem to get enough" – the films were held over at that theater until June 30. The trilogy was then sent to be exhibited in many other cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. The restoration work was widely acclaimed, with commentators calling the look of the restored films "gorgeous", "pristine" and “incredible”.