Pather Panchali was inspired by filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s desire to create more realistic films with actual locations and natural actors about real Indian issues. While traveling in London, Ray saw Bicycle Thieves, an Italian film directed by Vittorio De Sica, which served as an inspiration for Ray to become a filmmaker. Ray took the novel written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay as his source for the story of his first film. On his way to and from London, Ray created a series of notes and images that became storyboards for his film. Interestingly enough, he did not create a script for the film and solely worked from the outline of his storyboards.
Raising funds for the film was a constant problem for Ray, as many producers didn’t believe in a film that lacked stars and action scenes. The author of the novel’s widow was even offered money to allow another producer to make the film with a different director, but she declined as she had already committed to Ray. Ray would have to delay the production for nearly a year, but once back on track, Monroe Wheeler, a powerful representative from the New York Museum of Modern Art saw some of Ray’s footage and encouraged John Huston to check with Ray’s progress. Huston said that he saw the footage and was impressed to see the work of a fine filmmaker. Wheeler would then help to raise additional funds to finish the film.
Ray's first film would also become his best known. The story of a poverty stricken family eking out a life at their ancestral home was greatly inspired by Ray's love of Italian neorealism and also the work of French film director Jean Renoir. Renoir strongly encouraged Ray to make his film when he was shooting his film The River in Calcutta. As Eastern films such as Kurosawa's Rashomon were beginning to receive acclaim in the West, Ray believed that Pather Panchali could have the chance to make a far-reaching impact.
The film's release in India was met with widespread acclaim, and its first screening at the Museum of Modern Art was also met with warmth and admiration. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a particular fan of the film, and despite some governmental opposition—due to its depiction of poverty—helped spearhead an effort to submit the film to the Cannes Film Festival, where it won an award for Best Human Document.