Satyajit Ray: The Apu Trilogy

Sooner or later, all movie lovers must come to Satyajit Ray. His gentle meditations on Bengali life are unequalled, and the three films that make up the Apu trilogy are his best:

Pather Panchali (Song of the Road)
Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)

 

Satyajit Ray: Aparajito


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With New Year’s Day 2004 falling on Thursday, I spent an extended weekend in Los Angeles to catch as many worthy year-end film releases as possible. However, the real treat was no 2003 Oscar candidate, but came from an American Cinematheque retrospective at the historic Egyptian Theater on Satyajit Ray and his incomparable Apu Trilogy. Not living in a locale with an active cinema arthouse in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I never had a chance to experience Ray’s work when it first played in the U.S., and somehow his films had been lying low under my radar since then. Yet, just as Roger Ebert firmly states that “sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu,” exactly the same applies to Ray. No one has ever poignantly captured the spirit of Bengali life as artfully, yet Ray’s work is more universal than anything collectively produced by Hollywood and Bollywood.

Born into a family of artists and intellectuals in 1921, Ray graduated from his local Calcutta University in economics, studied over two years in the arts at Santiniketan until the Japanese bombed Calcutta, and then became a commercial artist. While working for a British advertising firm, he developed a fondness for Western classical music and Western films, and he began to draft film scripts—a Bengali adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda, for example. Not surprisingly, he soon grew to appreciate directors like John Ford, Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitch, but his film career began in earnest during a six month business trip to London in 1950. Ray devoured 99 films, taking copious notes on cinematography, use of music, editing, and other technical observations. The real turning point came when he saw The Bicycle Thief, however. Now convinced that he could create the kind of cinema he had dreamed of, DeSica’s Italian neo-realistic masterpiece confirmed that he could use rough film stock, non-actors without make-up, and shoot in the rain. Indian film has never been the same.

Still it would be five years before his cinematic vision would reach fruition. Inexperience, funding, and financial swindles handicapped the project, but Ray was determined to turn his script of Bibhuti Bhusan’s Pather Panchali into a film. Putting up his own money to shoot one scene (where Apu and Durga run through the Pampas grass to see a passing train), Ray began. Fortuitously, legendary director John Huston saw the footage while scouting locations for The Man Who Would Be King. Between Huston’s promotion and the Bengali agency for road improvement, Ray received the necessary financial backing and was able to book a screening for his first film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

This led to Cannes, and the beginning of a fertile career that ranks Ray as India’s premier cinematic auteur. Not only did Ray direct twenty-nine feature films, but he also wrote the scripts, composed much of the music, and participated directly in the art direction, casting, and cinematography. More than any other Indian director, Satyajit Ray reaches into the heart of his native country and gently pours out unsurpassed visual poems that convey India’s transition from traditional ways into twentieth century life. Like Orson Welles, his greatest work is his first project. Fortunately, we can consider all three of his first films as a single entity, as they trace Apu’s life from birth to manhood in the preeminent “coming of age” epic ever created on celluloid.

Ideally, the Apu Trilogy should be experienced in one sitting (with short breaks since six hours may be stretching endurance beyond reasonable cinematic asceticism). I didn’t have that bounty the first time I was able to watch the three films--Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar. The retrospective was screened on three separate days in L.A. (accompanied by a really ineptly conceived 90-minute documentary that was little more than a slide show made bearable only by a few film clips from Ray’s films), and I had to leave town before the final film. Although these films and other Ray films were championed by arthouse patrons and critics like Pauline Kael, they generally only screened at festivals and rare arthouses in the late 1950’s and during the 1960’s. Since then, only Parisian cineastes have had access to them, and many copies had fallen into disrepair.

Merchant-Ivory Productions has come to the rescue and preserved the Apu Trilogy as well as humanely possible, and the films have just been released on DVD. This has allowed me to watch the final chapter of Apu’s epic journey, as well as afforded me the chance to see all three films a second time within a 24-hour period. Serving as a virtual love poem to rural India and Calcutta, Ray’s trilogy contains absolutely no pretense as it follows Apu’s journey to manhood. This is so different from the experience I had watching Conrad Rooks’ adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, a beautiful looking film that just doesn’t translate Hesse’s profundity adequately. I thought that these concepts are far too abstract to be portrayed cinematically, but Ray proves me wrong. This trilogy really covers much the same territory, yet achieves it so subtly that it feels like an amiable hug, and does so with real people that we get to truly care about and share in their joys and sorrows. Played by various non-professional (at the time) actors from the age of six to twenty-four, Apu is very much like his father—a peaceful, optimistic idealist. Yet he has ambitions to go beyond his father’s traditional priestly duties. Apu dreams of seeing beyond the confines of his village, and has vague notions about becoming a scholar, specializing in the sciences, and even penning his own novel. To do so requires experiencing Life in all its facets, and the Apu trilogy breaks down his childhood, youth, and adulthood as follows:

Satyajit Ray: Pather Panchali Pather Panchali (Song of the Road)

Born into the prestigious Brahmin caste doesn’t insure material wealth, especially when living in his father’s ancestral village. To pay off his own father’s debts, Harihar Ray (Kanu Bannerjee) has bequeathed the family orchard to the neighbors, which troubles his more practically minded wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee). She argues that they could live far more comfortably in Benares on the banks of the Ganges, where her husband could regularly perform priestly rituals. But with a loving wife, an energetic daughter named Durga, newborn son Apu, and enough food to survive Hari feels content.

Filled with idyllic images and very human sequences where the children and ducks parade after the local candy-man in Felliniesque fashion, and brother and sister often lovingly play childish pranks on each other. The real scene-stealer is 80-year old Auntie (Chunibala Devi, one of only three professional actress in the ensemble cast). Durga bonds with the rebellious spirit of her elderly aunt, supplying her with stolen guavas from the neighbor’s orchard that inspire huge toothless smiles to the old woman and responsible scolding from Durga’s vigilant mother.

Two thematic highlights of the first Apu film come from the train and death sequences, both recurring in each chapter of the trilogy. Apu’s obvious fascination with the train foretells change in the family traditions, as he is destined to travel his own path. In Hindu philosophy Death is closely connected with Life, and the concept of Re-incarnation holds that rebirth results from the destruction of this life.

Thus, Apu’s first encounter with Death is very childlike--coming as no surprise to the audience since Auntie hints strongly that she’s not long for this world, Apu can only stare at her with mouth open. A much harder loss for the family comes following a beautifully filmed monsoon sequence, signaled with an abrupt cut to the likeness of the Hindu god Ganesha, a powerful Elephant-like deity of wisdom. With this loss comes a rebirth, as the family cuts its ties to its ancestral past and journeys to new life in Benares.

 

Satyajit Ray: Aparajito Aparajito (The Unvanquished)

Picking up Apu’s story in Benares, the ten-year old must cope with his father’s sickness and death and his over-protective mother before achieving independence and heading for university life in Calcutta. Some beautifully structured sequences demonstrate Apu’s academic gifts and great curiosity about the world, with his excited attempts to explain solar eclipses to his caring but non-comprehending mother and later dresses as an exuberant African native after reading a biography about Livingstone.

The best moments come from Benares, however. And the film’s most memorable moment comes at the moment of Hari’s death--the glimpse in his eye as he takes his last swallow of holy water from the Ganges, coupled with the roof’s pigeons abruptly fleeing, noisily flapping skyward. Had Apu’s father lived longer, it’s possible that he would have continued the priestly traditions as his great uncle desires, but this death again leads to a new life, and it's not the last for Apu.

As a seventeen-year old, he becomes completely independent after his mother weakens and dies, and her dying sequence that begins with visuals of her son's sun dial and continues through the fireflies of the evening is also artfully constructed. Although not reprise here, old Auntie's song from the first film comes to mind:

“Those who come after have already gone
Leaving me behind the poorest of beggars
Not a cowrie to my name.
Night's mantle descends
Row me across to the other side.”
[4.5 of 5 stars]

 

Satyajit Ray: Apur Sansar Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)

In many ways, the final chapter of the trilogy weaves the most compelling story. Apu (now played by Soumitra Chatterjee) remains a true romantic after leaving the intermediate Calcutta University due to lack of funds. He earns a few rupees a month through tutoring, but spends most of his time fantasizing vaguely about the future, playing his flute, and writing his novel—justifying his starving artist lifestyle as necessary for his creativity. Living in a cheap apartment on the top floor overlooking the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Calcutta, he also has to charm his landlord with wit and promises to pay the rent, as he’s three months overdue.

An orphan without family obligations, Apu has detached himself from most of humanity until his closest friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) finally tracks him down, treats him to a good meal, and convinces him to accompany him to see his sister's wedding in a rural village 100 miles from the city. Bizarre circumstances arise, and Apu ends up the substitute groom to prevent Pulu’s family from disgrace.

Although this may seem contrived, Ray prepares the way with at least two foreshadowing references. As soon as Pulu’s mother sees Apu, she declares his face to resemble Lord Krishna, while previously Pulu has chastised Apu for his novel. Easily recognizable as more autobiography than fiction, Pulu becomes incredulous when told that the protagonist will have a love interest. How can this be, he asks since Apu has never been within 10 feet of a woman. He scoffs at Apu’s romantic notions about using his imagination—Pulu is far more grounded in reality.

But now, Apu is forced to mature. No longer can he live only for himself, and Ray tenderly unveils their developing relationship that begins with great trepidation and graduates into playful intimacy and caring. True to the overall theme of the trilogy, death and rebirth must make their mark. After earlier significant deaths Apu expresses curiosity, stoic acceptance, and natural grief before moving on to a new life.

But this is his biggest test, and the young man who has charmed with his good naturedness and easy laugh grows despondent to the point of considering suicide. No longer the easy going romantic, Apu buries his dreams and disbands his novel to seek "peace" through routine work in a remote mine, but once again Pulu brings him to his senses by reminding him of his five year old son. The redemption sequence ending the trilogy is anticipated, yet Ray creatively infuses it with humor and pathos to make it truly memorable.

 

A profoundly moving tone poem to rural India and its people, Ray's artistry is unsurpassed in the Apu trilogy. What truly amazes is how well each tightly constructed story flows naturally like the Ganges River without artificial contrivances. This is all done with an inexperienced filmmaking crew, yet Satyajit Ray loved movies and was a true student of the art. Here he demonstrates his instincts supremely.

Cinematographer Subrata Mitra had never worked with moving images before Pather Panchali, but he was a professional stills photographer. You can see this aspect in virtually every shot—visually rich, remarkably framed, balanced, and composed. Not content with only the visual, Ray is equally meticulous about the sound and music. Notably, Ray enlisted Ravi Shankar to improvise various sitar pieces of various moods and tempos over a marathon 11-hour recording session, mostly without seeing the film. Ray's sound editing and ear for the appropriate music make the trilogy worth just listening to--my favorite single musical moment occurs when water-striders (spider-like insects) are accompanied by a lively raga.

The Apu Trilogy remains one of the most remarkable accomplishments in film history, and the only reason we generally don’t hear as much about it as a number of other neorealistic works is that relatively few people have seen Ray's work. Both Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar can stand independently on their own while the middle section, Aparajito, really needs the opening context. Yet, if you’ve seen just one of these films, I can't imagine resisting the others since they become like a close friend that we long to hear more from. In a day when special effects and spectacular action tend to dominate commercial films, Ray's quiet epic trilogy becomes a refuge against overkill of the senses—a cinematic meditation. The subjects may be Bengali, but the universal film gently reminds all of us about Life’s essentials, and in the process renews our faith in the power of the medium.

 


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