A faraway train belches smoke against a field of feathery white kaash flowers. The waterskaters and dragonflies skitter over the surface of a village pond. Little kids and a dog trail a sweet seller. More than 50 years after it was made, Satyajit Ray’sPather Panchali still feels timeless, and if the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) has its way, it’s going to find a few more fans this year. As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the festival brings Pather Panchali back to the big screen.

In a way it’s just going back to its roots. “It’s a very special film to the festival,” says creative director and festival historian, Miguel Pendás. Pather Panchaliscreened at the very first San Francisco Film Festival in 1957 where it picked up the Golden Gate Award for best film and best director. Unfortunately, no records survive from that historic first festival though it is known that the Indian consul threw a cocktail party for the film. But no one knows where festival founder Bud Levin (who passed away in 1996) first encountered Pather Panchali. Pather Panchali, funnily wasn’t even supposed to be in the festival. Levin had actually wanted to show the second film in the Apu trilogy, Aparajito,which had just come out.

But for some reason Aparajito didn’t reach San Francisco. Pather Panchaliwas brought in at the last minute as a substitute. Pendás says that it was certainly no cakewalk for Pather Panchali that year. Ray’s competition included heavyweights such as Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Andrzej Wajda, all of whom later received their own Lifetime Achievement Academy Awards. “The festival was founded at a time when these legendary auteurs were emerging on the world scene,” says Graham Leggat, the festival’s executive director. “And Ray really opened people’s eyes to the beauty as well as the intimacy of world cinema.”

That was the start of a long love affair between the master director in Calcutta and San Francisco though there is no record that he ever actually attended the festival. The Bancroft library at UC Berkeley still has correspondence between Ray and festival program director Albert Johnson. But the Ray fan society went beyond the festival staff. Charles Fracchia, founder of the San Francisco Historical Society, remembers a special events committee he was part of as an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco cosponsoring Ray’s Aparajito in 1958. The students came up with an ingenious idea to celebrate Indian film. “Some friends who knew the head of the zoo got us an elephant,” remembers Fracchia. The elephant posed in front of the movie theater and generated huge publicity. “On the night of the screening I remember hundreds of Indians from all over California descended on the theater, some from as far away as Fresno,” recalls Fracchia.

Pather Panchali showed up at the festival again in 1997 when director Philip Kaufman chose it as his showcase film as part of an Indelible Images program. “It really popularized the idea of a foreign film as both specific to a culture but still be something everyone could relate to,” says Pendás.

Pather Panchali certainly did have that hum of universal resonance. When it first screened at the MOMA in New York it did so without any subtitles. Now it is hard sometimes to imagine the kind of risks Pather Panchali took with its cast of unknowns, shooting on location, scraped together on weekends, with no money for usually more than two takes (except for 11 for the scene with a dog running behind the children and the sweetseller), breaking every rule of the studio-bound Bengali film.

Even more astonishing, the quintessential film of village Bengal was made by an urban man with little firsthand knowledge of village life. The first time after he shot the unforgettable scene of the train whooshing through the field of swaying white kaash grass, Ray went back with his crew to find all the grass gone because the buffaloes had come to graze. In despair he even contemplated having the children see their first train from a paddy field.

Years later Ray would say Pather Panchali was the product of three miracles—”One, Apu’s voice did not break. Two, Durga did not grow up. Three, Indir Thakrun did not die.” 80-year-old Chunibala, who played the widowed Indir Thakrun, did faint once when she didn’t get her daily dose of opium but everything else fell into place, even Ravi Shankar’s magical score which he recorded in an all-night 11-hour session.

“I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it,” said Akira Kurosawa. Fittingly, the festival presented Ray with the Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Directing in 1992 but the filmmaker passed away just weeks before the ceremony. “He was a towering figure for the festival and the world,” says Leggat. “And in Pather Panchali you can see the signature of a master craftsman and great director.”

The festival has certainly honored Ray over the years. Thirteen of Ray’s features have shown at the festival, more than any other director. In fact, Ray looms so large that sometimes it seems other Indian filmmakers get overshadowed. The number of Indian films have been dwindling at the festival. There were none in 2006, and only one this year, Vanaja. Leggat says many Indian films have less impact because Bay Area theaters like Naz have already screened them or they have been widely available in the DVD market.

“But we are not pleased that we didn’t have any films last year,” he says. “I hope in the coming years we’ll see some other towering figures of Indian cinema.”

But for now audiences will get a chance to run down memory lane with Apu and Durga one more time. Pendás, for one, is looking forward to it. “The humanity, the loss, the shame you feel when you think you are a burden on the family—he just went right to the most human traits,” he says. “I just get very emotionally involved every time I see it.”

South Asian films at SFIFF:

Pather Panchali (India, Director: Satyajit Ray). Sunday, April 29, 5:30 p.m. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Vanaja (India, Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli). The spirited young daughter of a poor fisherman, Vanaja hopes to become a great dancer. Flirtation with her landlady¹s son soon hurls her up against the walls of class, gender and family. A powerful coming-of-age film, both modern and graceful. Saturday, April 28, 5:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; Wednesday, May 2, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Cinemas Kabuki; Friday, May 4, 4:15 p.m., Sundance Cinemas Kabuki; Sunday, May 6, 3:30 p.m., Landmark¹s Aquarius, Palo Alto.

Opera Jawa (Indonesia, Director: Garin Nugroho). Siti and Setio¹s marital bliss is threatened by Ludiro¹s fiery writhings in Garin Nogroho¹s gorgeous postmodern musical‹commissioned by Peter Sellars for his New Crowned Hope festival in honor of the 250th anniversary of Mozart¹s birth that updates an ancient Sanskrit epic with gamelan melodies and Indonesian dancing.Friday, April 27, 4:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; Sunday, April 29, 12:30 p.m., Castro Theatre; Monday, April 30, 3:45 p.m., Sundance Cinemas Kabuki.

Zolykha’s secret (Afghanistan, Director: Horace Shansab). Horace Shansab¹s remarkably assured and deeply humane feature debut is a moving story about a close-knit family in Afghanistan trying to survive under vicious and oppressive Taliban rule. Saturday, May 5, 5:45 p.m., Sundance Cinemas Kabuki; Sunday, May 6, 5 p.m., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tuesday, May 8, 4:15 p.m. Sundance Cinemas Kabuki.

Venues: Sundance Cinemas Kabuki, 1881 Post St., San Francisco; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street, San Francisco; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley; Landmark¹s Aquarius, 430 Emerson St., Palo Alto. Tickets: $12, $10 students, seniors, persons with disabilities, $9 San Francisco Film Society members. www.sffs.org