East Meets West

Satajit Ray at Cannes

The story of the sensational release of Pather Panchali and Satyajit Ray’s rise to prominence in the 1950s is a truly global one. It is the head-spinning tale of an Indian filmmaker who, encouraged by one of the world’s great French directors, pursued his love of film, discovered Italian cinema while temporarily living in London, and returned to his native Bengal to make his first film, which, after being discovered by New York tastemakers, was invited to screen at the legendary Cannes Film Festival. In terms of Ray’s career, the rest is history.

In 1949, when he met and befriended Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), who was in Kolkata scouting locations for his drama The River, Ray already wanted to become a filmmaker, but the French legend’s encouragement was crucial to his pursuing a career in cinema. A year later, Ray moved to England for six months to work in his advertising agency’s London office; while there, he saw ninety-nine movies, including, most fortuitously, Italian director Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. That neorealist masterpiece showed Ray new possibilities for making films in an authentic and inexpensive way, and his debut, 1955’s Pather Panchali, was deeply informed by the tenets of Italian neorealism: outdoor location shooting, the use of nonprofessional actors, a focus on everyday lower-middle-class life.

The film was not quite finished when, in 1954, Monroe Wheeler, chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was visiting Kolkata and met Ray. The two men hit it off, and Ray showed Wheeler some stills from his film, piquing the American’s interest. Six months later, on behalf of Wheeler, director John Huston, location scouting in Kolkata, paid Ray a visit. Ray showed him half an hour of roughly cut together film, without sound. Eventually, Ray received a letter from Wheeler saying, “If John Huston likes it, his word is good enough for me.” At the end of April 1955, Ray sent an unsubtitled print of Pather Panchali to Wheeler at MoMA, and it was screened there on May 3. The screening was well received and resulted in a U.S. distribution deal for Ray, but perhaps more importantly, it led to word of mouth that ultimately helped get the film accepted into the Cannes Film Festival the next year.

Indian films had shown occasionally at Cannes over the years, including works by Chetan Anand, Bimal Roy, and Raj Kapoor, but Pather Panchali was a true revelation, one that opened Western viewers’ eyes to the possibilities of Indian cinema. At first, though, it seemed as if it might escape notice; the only scheduled screening was late in the evening and poorly attended, with few of the festival’s jurors showing up. Those there, however, saw something deeply compelling: a portrait of Bengali life in a style informed by the masters of European cinema (not only Vittorio De Sica and Jean Renoir but also Roberto Rossellini), with a humanist approach to character that rendered a potentially exotic subject intimately knowable to viewers from anywhere in the world. At the insistence of the handful of critics who saw it, another screening—this one highly attended and hugely successful—was quickly arranged. Ultimately, Pather Panchali won the thirty-five-year-old Ray Cannes’s newly created award for Best Human Document.

The arrival of Pather Panchali at Cannes and the subsequent embrace of The Apu Trilogy around the world was a watershed moment. It was an early expression of a postwar cinema culture that was acquiring an increasingly global perspective. Festivals like Cannes allowed for the kind of cultural cross-pollination that would not only create the golden age of art-house cinema but also define the second half of the twentieth century. In the story of Apu and his family, the world was reminded of the universality of the human spirit.