Cinema, around the world, owes its stature and respect today, to few names who struggled in their times to produce masterpieces that would influence and inspire the works we see today. The late 1940s and the 1950s was the period when the foundation of real cinema was laid. France, Italy, Britain, Japan and also India contributed to this movement with sincere and soul moving cinema. In the context of India, the name that is without a doubt the most prominent and consequential in the global movement is Satyajit Ray.
Ray assisted Jean Renoir in his 1951 film The River. After this, he returned to India, and made the landmark decision of making his own film based on the couple of novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. The novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito were landmarks in Bengali literature and portrayed the times when they were written beautifully by following the life of its protagonist Apu.
In this article, we do not wish you to tell the history of all that happened, you can easily find that anywhere on the internet. We would rather like to focus on a particular segment of the making of Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), the struggle and uncertainties involved, Ray's devotion and non-compromise even when the chips are down and his gifted art to extract the best performances out of amateur and non-professionals.
Ray got the rights to the novel from Bibhutibhushan's widow in 1951. He was looking for a financial backer, but in vain. He started shooting the film using his own savings in 1952. He started with the hope that once he started shooting, he would get some financial backing during the shoot, but such backing never came. The film finally released in 1955, leaving behind a story of struggle, uncompromising attitude, love for cinema and of course, in the end, triumph! Let us talk of the certain key aspects of the making;
Ray made his team of technicians out of amateur people. Subrata Mitra, his cinematographer, was a still-photographer and had no experience in cinematography. Yet, as he grew with Ray, very soon, in just the next part of the Trilogy- Aparajito (The Unvanquished) he made the path-breaking introduction of "bounce-lighting" into cinema. Bansi Chandra Gupta was Ray's Art Director. Both of these, then amateur technicians, became big and notable names later.
Just like the technicians, the cast with which Ray made the first two editions of the Trilogy were amateur. Most of the support cast had either done short time roles in cinema or were part of the Bengali theater scene. Surprisingly, the lead character, Apu, his mother and the other villagers had no prior experience in acting. Yet, their performances were unquestionably moving. This attribute of extracting performances remained a major attribute of Ray's cinema.
Pather Panchali was majorly shot in the outskirts of Calcutta. When Ray could not find any financial backing for his film, he decided to shoot some sequences and then hoped he would get backing. After borrowing a sum mortgaging his insurance policy, Ray shot his first scene. It was the famous train sequence in the field of Kash flowers. As Ray was still working, the shooting was done only on Sundays. An interesting happening depicting Ray's perfectionist attitude happened when the cattle ate away all the Kash flowers and the crew found that out next week when they arrived for shoot. Ray waited a whole season till the flowers arrived again and the sequence was then completed!
Throughout the making of the film (which took 3 years), the financial backing was uncertain. Ray carried his notebook of scene sketches and dialogs to the production houses. And he got turned down everywhere. In 1953 however, he found a producer in Ana Dutta. With his backing, Ray took a month's unpaid leave from his job and started shoot with vigor. The funds ran out. Dutta couldn't fund further as his previous film was a disaster. Ray's wife's jewellery had to be pawned. Shoot continued. Finally, in the end, after everything ran out, the West Bengal Government backed the making of the film. During this sudden turn of happy times, Ray was gifted with a son, Sandip Ray (who is currently one of the leading Bengali art house directors).
Pandit Ravi Shankar was approached for the background score, who in spite of his tight schedule managed to see half of the film. The score was recorded in a marathon session of 11 hours and the outcome was something that pleased all. The music continues to be one of the classic scores used in cinema and beautifully encompasses the emotions attached to every frame of the film.
The making of Pather Panchali is not just inspiring because the outcome of it was such a huge critical and financial success (not only did it win National awards it also won awards at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Edinburgh, San Fransisco and other major film festivals), but it is worth knowing because it showcases the hardships that went in to make a first film. And despite of the fact that Ray was not getting financial back up, he refused many such willing backers, who wanted a change in the script or a presence on the sets. This uncompromising character in a film-maker is what makes him a legend.
Interestingly, Truffaut (then critic), the legend of the French New Wave, had said during the euphoria Pather Panchali had created in the west, that, "I do not want to see a film that shows peasants eating with their hands." Well, the neo-realism that Ray portrayed in his work went on to become the favorite recipe for international acclaim later. Truffaut himself, in his 1959 masterpiece The 400 Blows portrayed neo-realism of his world and became one of the biggest names in cinema. (To a great extent, we feel, Ray and Truffaut had a very similar initiation into cinema, but more on that in a later post)
Ray, thus, with his worthwhile struggle, patience and love for the art, composed his unforgettable "song of the little road".