The saga of Ray began in 1954 with his first movie, Pather Panchali. The movie was based on Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay's epic novel of the same name. It was allegedly an influential encounter with Jean Renoir in Calcutta that inspired him to make his first movie. It did not prove easy for the fledgling director to get his first project off the ground. Approaches to the major and minor producers of Calcutta proved of no avail with no one, from B.N Sirkar, a sort of Bengali "Louis B. Mayer", to the seedy Das operating out of a dingy hotel room, showing any interest.
Undeterred, Ray went ahead on his own with a hand-picked crew and cast consisting mostly of newcomers to the field. His cameraman, Subrata Mitra, for instance, had not handled a movie camera before. And the only shooting equipment Ray had ever handled was a second-hand Leica. Finances too were a major problem which Ray solved in part by pawning his western classical music collection and his wife's jewellery. But the project only really took off when his mother, Suprabha Ray got the then Chief Minister, Dr. B. C. Roy, to provide state funding. It was through Mrs. Bela Sen, a close personal friend of his that she got through to him. But with them came a request from the then Director of Information in the state, a request that Ray could not fulfill. He was asked to play down the poverty bit, show some rural prosperity at the end....a happy ending....a green paddy with fieldstalks of rice swaying in the breeze. Fortunately his refusal did not affect the funding of the project.
Ironically, Pather Panchali received much critical acclaim from abroad before it was released for public screening in India and hailed as a masterpiece here. In the fall of 1954, Monroe Wheeler, a director at the Museum of Mordern Art(MOMA) in New York, met Ray in Calcutta. He was shown some stills and immediately asked for the movie to be sent to an exhibition opening at MOMA the following year. John Huston, in Calcutta scouting for locations for "The Man Who Would Be King", commented, "A grim and serious piece of film making which should go down well in the West" after seeing a half-hour of rough cuts of the visual highlights- among them the scene of a running train in a field of white Kaash. Wheeler was even more enthusiastic on getting glowing reports from Huston and a hastily finished print was sent to New York in May 1955. Here it was screened without subtitles to an adoring audience moved by the film's humanist appeal and imaginative photography.
Back in India, Dr. Roy, moved by the film, arranged for a special screening for Pundit Nehru. He saw it at Cacutta's Lighthouse Miniature Theater with Dr. Roy and Ray sitting on either side of him, with Ray occaionally doing a bit of translation. Nehru, much impressed by the film, swept away all opposition to it's proposed entry to the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
Officials attending the festival did precious little to publicize or promote the film. The screening took place on a holiday at midnight. The result.... most jurors did not show up. Amongst those who did were Ray aficionados....Lindsay Anderson, Lotte Eisner, Andre Bazin, George Sadoul and Gene Moskowitz. They persuaded the Festival Committee to organize a second screening with all the jurors present. Pather Panchali went on to receive the Special Jury Prize for the Best Human Document. Later the film received a dozen or more national and international awards.
Pather Panchali was screened for the Bengali audiences in August 1955. Drawing on his expertise in publicity obtained during his tenure as an executive at D.G. Keymer & Co., a British Advertising firm in Calcutta, Ray designed five billboards for the film. The response was gratifying, to say the least, with Ray later commenting, "For the first time I tasted triumph, with unknown young people elbowing their way through the milling crowd to kiss the hem of my garment as it were." The film was a box office hit from day one. If it ran for only six weeks, then that was due to the fact that the theater showing Pather Panchali was booked in advance for the screening of "Insaniyat", a film by S.S. Vasan, a renowned South Indian director. Ray was further honoured when Mr. Vasan himself came to his door early one morning and said, "You! I had been to see your film last night. If I had known that that was the film Insaniyat was going to replace, I would certainly have withheld my opening. You have made a great film , Sir."
As the master himself put it.....
Not only had Ray made a great film, he had also laid the foundation for the now world famous "Apu Trilogy". Pather Panchali is about Apu in his early years, born into a poor family in a Bengal village, struggling to make ends meet. It tells the story of how he forms a bond with his elder sister and how they roam about, exploring the world around their village and ends with the family moving away after the death of Durga, his sister. The second movie in the trilogy is Aparajito, which is basically about Apu growing up and growing away from his mother. The highlight of the film is the mother-son relationship and conflict. The last movie in the trilogy is Apur Sansar. It is about Apu's struggle to survive in a big city. How he goes to the countryside on a visit and ends up marrying a woman who he had never seen. How he is shattered after her death in childbirth and rejects his own son and the eventual reconciliation in the end.
It was precisely recognition such as this that made Ray decide to take the plunge and turn to making movies as a full time career. And thus, a legend was born.