November 13, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali. 1955. India. Written and directed by Satyajit Ray

These notes accompany screenings of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali on November 14, 15, and 16 in Theater 2.

“Third World” cinema was pretty much nonexistent for Western audiences until the 1950s. In 1951, with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Japanese films began to appear on a very limited basis. Whatever other depictions of Asia or Africa available remained, as they had always been, the products of exploitative White imperialists, like the Hungarian-turned-British Korda brothers (Elephant Boy, The Drum, Four Feathers) or Hollywood studio exoticism (Trader Horn/Tarzan/”documentaries” by Martin and Osa Johnson, Clyde Beatty, or Frank Buck.) Although Japan and India both had booming film industries, the films seemed only to be for the home market. The acceptance of subtitles in America spread with the popularity of postwar Italian and French films, and this led to a slightly greater inclination toward risk-taking by distributors. Non-theatrical companies like Brandon Films provided a market for these films after they completed their limited theatrical runs. Film societies and classrooms could more easily manage the transport and projection of the less cumbersome format of 16mm and, in fact, MoMA joined the trend through its film circulation program.

With regard to Pather Panchali—and ultimately making Indian films slightly more available in America—the Museum played a much greater role. Satyajit Ray (1921–1992) was an aspiring Bengali filmmaker who had been born into an intellectual family in Calcutta. He worked mainly as a graphic designer but co-founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. This led him to serious independent study of film and, fortuitously, Jean Renoir showed up in 1949 in search of location advice for his film, The River (which critic Andre Bazin later said shared “the same spiritual tone” with Pather Panchali). Through Renoir, Ray was able to arrange a trip to London, where he saw a huge number of films that confirmed his determination to make movies. He was heavily influenced by films like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, leading critic J. Hoberman to call Pather Panchali “the last masterpiece of Italian neorealism.”

Ray embarked on filming a 1928 novel, for which he had illustrated a children’s edition a decade earlier. After three years, he was still struggling to find funds to complete the project, but finally, through government subsidy, some money was obtained. Through contact with Monroe Wheeler at MoMA, arrangements were made to hold the world premiere here in May 1955, in conjunction with the exhibition Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India. (A short film by Charles and Ray Eames was made about the exhibition, and it remains in the Museum’s collection.) Wheeler also seems to have provided Ray with some museum funds to aid in the purchase of the print to be shown, and with access to raw film stock shipped from London that was not available in Calcutta. The presentation of Pather Panchali in this series marks its return MoMA. The print being shown is a new acquisition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has preserved it because Ray received a lifetime achievement Oscar just before his death. After Ray’s film was shown at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, his reputation was established and his career as a director was launched—even though the film did not begin its record-breaking run at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York until 1958. It had been an enormous critical and commercial success in India. In 1981, with Ray present and participating, MoMA embarked on a complete retrospective of his work as part of its massive Film India exhibition.

Pather Panchali is, of course, the first in Ray’s “Apu trilogy,” succeeded by Aparajito and Apar Sansar. Together they provide a peasant-family saga of astonishing realism and truth. A Bombay (home of anti-realist Bollywood and Hindi-language film) critic, conscious of the revolution Ray was provoking, wrote: “It is banal to compare it with any other Indian picture…Pather Panchali is pure cinema. There is no trace of theater in it. It does away with plot, with grease and paint, with the slinky charmer and the sultry beauty, with the slapdash hero breaking into song on the slightest provocation or no provocation at all.”

It seems to have taken 15 years for Hindi cinema to begin to follow Ray’s example. Meanwhile, as we will see in his Rabindranath Tagore adaptations, like Devi and Two Daughters, he began to make more complex, if not less humanistic, films.