Ray also believed that Hollywood presented a world that was completely foreign and at odds with the reality of life in India. Why, then, had so many previous Indian filmmakers attempted to copy the Hollywood style? The result could only be failure. It was for this reason that Ray decided to turn his back on the Hollywood aesthetic altogether - and the result was Pather Panchali. Rather than the stylistic gloss that Hollywood coats its product with, Ray allowed a significant degree of "dirt" in to his film as a way of arguing with the dominant aesthetic.
In doing so, Ray purposefully chose a "rambling" novel to adapt for his first film. "The script," he later explained, "had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble" (Ray 33). Indeed, rather than attempt to conform to the Hollywood entertainment model of a movie, in which the story is filled with exciting "action" that gradually progresses towards a cliche climax, Pather Panchali at times feels as though it is going nowhere. Rather than boring the viewer, however, this has the opposite effect. It gives us precise insight in to the banality of life in a small Indian village in the 1920s, while underlining the devastating nature of the characters' lives. In this sense, Pather Panchali is very true to life. It focuses on the humanistic quality of life, rather than some pre-ordained plot that is guaranteed to entertain its audience for a couple of hours.
Humanism was obviously what Ray was attempting to capture in his film. Perhaps the reason why he was able to paint such a moving, realistic picture of humanity is because he treated his actors in such a humanistic fashion. He would later recall,
Another important factor - and I would not want to generalize on this - was the human one. In handling my actors I found it impossible to get to the stage of impersonal detachment where I could equate them with so much raw material to be moulded and remoulded at will. How can you make a woman of eighty stand in the hot midday sun and go through the same speech and the same actions over and over again while you stand by and watch with half-closed eyes and wait for the precise gesture and tone of voice that will mean perfection for you? This meant, inevitably, fewer rehearsals and fewer takes (Ray 34-35).
Again, we are reminded of the purposeful "lack of polish" that remains one of the most stunning features of the film. Rather than aiming for perfection, Ray aimed for capturing authenticity.
The privileging of authenticity over perfection put Ray firmly in line with the recent evolution of realist filmmaking - in particular, Italian neo-realist filmmaking. Ray acknowledged his debt to the film the Bicycle Thief early on, going so far as to say that it was his viewing of this film in London that enabled him to make Pather Panchali. It is thus worth turning to the Bicycle Thief to analyze the similarities and differences between the two films in terms of both plot and style.
The Bicycle Thief explores the life of one Antonio Ricci, played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a poor worker without a job attempting to support his family in the depressed era of post-Word War II. One day, he is lucky enough to land a job in the nearby city of Rome. In order to do the job, however, he will need a bicycle. Unfortunately, Antonio's bicycle is broken. He cannot afford to get it out of the shop. His wife, Maria, thus decides to sell her bed sheets, which were given to her as part of her dowry, in order to finance the repair of the bike.
Things seem to be going well for Antonio at his new job, which is putting up posters around Rome. But then, on his first day, something terrible happens - the bike is stolen. For the remainder of the movie, Antonio will travel around Rome with his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), in search of the bike. Eventually, they are able to track down the thief at his home. Of course, the bicycle has already been sold by that point, and when the police are summoned, Antonio finds that he has no way of proving that the thief actually stole the bike from him. Thus, he realizes that he cannot press charges against him. With the thief's neighbors plotting against him, willing to give the thief a false alibi in order to protect him from the police, Antonio realizes that his cause is completely hopeless, so he walks away.
Out of desperation, Antonio then attempts to steal a bicycle himself in order to keep his job. The effort fails, however, as Antonio is immediately caught. He is then humiliated in front of his young son. The owner of the bicycle decides not to press charges once he sees that Antonio's humiliation is punishment enough. By the time the film ends, we realize that Antonio's future will be very tough indeed.
As with Ray's film, the Bicycle Thief makes no effort to give us a Hollywood-style happy ending. True, life is not always so miserable - and both films contain some light moments. But ultimately, the harder side of reality wins out, as both films are meant to drive home the idea that poverty has a detrimental effect on the human soul. It is interesting to note that both films emphasize the idea that poverty drives people to commit crimes. In Pather Panchali, the mother savagely beats her daughter when the daughter is accused of stealing from a neighbor. She is thus committing a crime as a means of retribution for her daughter's committing a crime. Of course, the daughter would never have committed the crime were she not in such a disadvantaged socio-economic position as the friend she stole from. And in the Bicycle Thief, Antonio himself - the victim of a crime - is turned in to a criminal, out of desperation.
It is also interesting to note that in both films, the children become disturbingly cognizant of their lot in life. In Pather Panchali, the daughter is constantly grappling with the fact that are good friend is from a richer family. When her friend's marriage is arranged, it suddenly dawns on her that she might never get to enjoy marriage. After all, no family would want their son to take a girl from such a poor family as a bride.
In the Bicycle Thief, Bruno realizes the discrepancy between him and his father and a wealthy family in the famous pizzeria sequence. As they sit down to order, Bruno cannot help but look at the deluxe meal that another little boy is getting to enjoy at a nearby table. Bruno and his father only have enough money to order some bread with mozzarella on it; the rest of the money Antonio insists on spending on a liter of wine, as he wishes to get drunk in order to forget his ill fortune. Antonio encourages the boy to drink with him, but Bruno is not interested in getting drunk. He only wants to eat a meal as nice as the boy his age at the next table. But he knows that he cannot.
Another thing that the two films have in common is the fact that they both featured casts of largely non-professional actors. Maggiorani, the actor who played the lead role in the Bicycle Thief, was a factory worker who had no previous experience with acting prior to this film. The actress who portrayed Sarbajayaba in Pather Panchali had been an amateur theatre actress prior to acting in the film. The role of Apu was cast after Ray's wife spotted a boy in their neighborhood who looked like he could play the part; he had had no prior acting experience, either. A few of the other performers had experience acting with amateur theatre groups, but the vast majority of them were newcomers to film.
The idea behind using untrained actors seemed to be a deliberate ploy at undermining the "polish" of the Hollywood system, as it has been defined by Ray in his essays. This makes the process of filmmaking a lot more vital - not to mention risky:
Sometimes you are lucky and everything goes right in the first take. Sometimes it does not and you feel you will never get what you are aiming at. The number of takes increases, the cost goes up, the qualms of conscience become stronger than the urge for perfection and you give up, hoping that the critics will forgive and the audience will overlook. You even wonder whether perhaps you were not being too finicky and the thing was not as…