The two well-defined pathways that are shown to be prominently altered in a variety of cancers are the cell cycle regulatory pathways led by either p53 or Rb genes. The present study is undertaken to find the pathway that is more altered in oral carcinoma at protein level, with special emphasis on its prognostic significance. The expression pattern of key molecules of the Rb and p53 pathways, such as Rb, cyclin D1, CDK4, p16, p53, p21 and Bcl-2 and the proliferative marker PCNA were analysed in 348 oral carcinoma specimens by immunohistochemical technique. The expression index of these molecules and various clinicopathological factors were statistically correlated with treatment end points to assess its prognostic efficacy after following up these patients up to a maximum of 48 months with a median of 23 months. Rb pathway proteins, Rb (P=0.016), cyclin D1 (P=0.0001) and p16 (P=0.012) showed significant association with disease-free survival, and p16 (P=0.041) and cyclin D1 (P=<0.0001) with the overall survival. Among p53 pathway proteins studied, only p53 expression index showed association with both disease-free survival and overall survival. Multivariate analyses confirmed that the biological variables, cyclin D1 and p16 and the clinical variable, 'stage of disease' were independent predictors of disease-free survival and overall survival. Subgrouping of the patients on the basis of p16 and cyclin D1 expression revealed that the subgroup having downregulation of p16 and overexpression of cyclin D1 exhibited the worst disease-free survival and overall survival compared to the other subgroups. The present data showed that disabling of the Rb and p53 pathways were frequent events in oral carcinoma. The study also demonstrated that the Rb pathway proteins are comparatively more important than p53 pathway proteins for the prognostication of oral carcinoma patients. The combined evaluation of p16 and cyclin D1 in oral carcinoma could identify a group of patients with the worst survival who might therefore need alternate or more intense treatment strategies.