(Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1955, 56, & 59)
From 1955 to 1959, revered Bengali director Satyajit Ray released three films based on two novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparjito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). Together the three films are known as the Apu Trilogy.
Boyhood: Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
Inspired by his meeting of acclaimed French filmmaker Jean Renoir during the shoot of Renoir’s The River on location in India and a screening of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that would change his life forever, the young Satyajit Ray decided to venture into filmmaking himself. But, defying the pervading trend of elaborate, melodramatic Hindi films popular in his native India at the time, Ray set out to channel the Italian neorealism that captured him with de Sica’s classic tale of poverty and loss. Adapting author Bandyopadhyay’s popular bildungsroman for the screen, Ray released his debut Pather Panchali in 1955. Indian cinema would never be the same again.
The film tells the story of the Roy family living in a rural Bengali village struggling to make ends meet. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) earns very little as a local priest, but his intrinsic optimism propels him to dream of becoming a poet or playwright some day. His wife Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) shares little of her husband’s outlook as she’s left to care for their dilapidated home, an elderly cousin, and two young children. The older child Durga (Uma Dasgupta) frequently gets into trouble and takes a liking to her aged relative Indir (Chunibala Devi) for whom she sometimes steals fruit from a neighboring orchard. The trials and tribulations of the poverty-stricken Roy family are seen through the eyes of the family’s youngest member five or six-year old Apu (Subir Banerjee).
Pather Panchali, then, is his story. And, Ray so effectively shows us the world from the perspective of a young boy. The surrounding world is all a wonder to him – the mysteries of the jungle, the wrinkling skin of old Indir, the beguiling spectacle of a traveling theatre troupe, the overwhelming sensation of a distant passing train – and Ray captures the beauty imbedded in the small, mundane pockets of life. There’s an innocence to the sheer wonder Apu wears upon his face that leads us to delight in the adventures that he and his sister embark upon over the course of the film, no matter how seemingly trivial. Perhaps this accounts for some of the criticism initially leveled against Ray’s humble film citing a presumed romanticizing of abject poverty. To be sure, Pather Panchali is full of moments both humorous and touching, but the film’s second half assuredly dismisses any claims that Ray may have intentioned to so naively look upon the very real situation of villagers living in Bengal in the 1920s.
For though the film draws its viewers in with a winsome simplicity, especially in its first half, it’s deceptively so; if Pather Panchali is a portrait of childlike innocence, it tragically tells a story of innocence lost as well. Forced to leave for the city in order improve his family’s financial situation, Harihar leaves his wife to care for the two children and Indir by herself. After playing in the rain far too long, stubborn Durga comes down with a serious fever. Without proper medical care or better infrastructure, young Durga succumbs to her illness and passes away before her father returns home. In one heartbreaking scene, he walks in the door to proudly tell his wife of all the goods he procured from the big city only for her to break her silence, falling at his feet overcome with sorrow over the loss of their daughter.
All the while, little Apu watches on, saddened by his sister’s death, and yet far too young to understand what it all means. Ray reminds us of the film’s central voice as the boy bids farewell to the home of his childhood as his parents resolve to pack up and move to the city in hopes of a better life. By the end, Ray’s characters are devastated – leaving behind the home of their ancestors and the memory of their feisty little girl – yet there’s a glimmer of hope (no matter how faint) that the Roy family will regain their determination to live and provide a better future for their remaining son.
Pather Panchali, primarily a coming-of-age story traversing the days of one child’s boyhood, is on the surface the trilogy’s simplest chapter, but it’s also its most defining. Though it’s certainly not recommended, it’s the only film of the three that could stand on its own – an honest portrait of the human will to stand against the unrelenting forces of poverty. And, buoyed by Ravi Shankar’s rather inspired sitar-based score, seen through the eyes of this charming young boy, it never slips into unbearable despair. There are moments of bona fide filmmaking here too: namely the famous train sequence when Durga and Apu chase a passing locomotive through a field of tall grass swaying in the wind. When they return home, they discover Indir has finally died due to old age. The juxtaposition of these two captivating scenes – the childlike wonder of complex machinery at work against the childlike naivety of a complicated concept such as death – beautifully synthesize Ray’s main concerns with his masterstroke of a debut. As Apu matures into adulthood, he will go on to experience even deeper pain and much greater joy, but Pather Panchali is a fitting reminder of what it’s like to be young and learning of the mysteries of the world for the very first time.
In the Middle: Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
After the international success of Pather Panchali, Ray began work on its sequel almost immediately. Though there was ample material from the story’s source (Bandyopadhyay’s own literary sequel), Ray had not initially set out to shoot a sequel to his stunning debut. But, the chance to tell more of Apu’s story won him over. Aparajito, then, picks up where its predecessor left off. A few years have gone by, but the Roy family has settled in the city of Varanasi and Harihar continues his work as a priest. Kanu and Karuna Banerjee reprise their roles as Apu’s parents (adding believability to Ray’s characters), and Pinaki Sen Gupta steps in as Apu at about ten years old. The young boy has traded in the natural playground of the jungle for the concrete sprawl of this great city on the banks of the sacred Ganges. The family seems to get along in their new environment just fine, but Sarbajaya’s subtle unease suggests that the three aren’t quite at home either.
The relative peace the Roy family experiences soon evaporates when Harihar unexpectedly falls ill and eventually dies in the arms of his terrified wife who’s now left with no immediate means of caring for herself and her only son. In this initial section, Apu takes somewhat of a backseat to the ongoing story of his parents, which is perhaps what makes the film’s second half more engaging and ultimately satisfying. The narrative returns primarily to Apu as he and his mother move once again back to rural Bengal to live near Sarbajaya’s uncle. Apu rediscovers the wonders of the countryside, but he’s soon captivated by the prospect of joining his peers at school. Sarbajaya reluctantly begins working as a maid to pay for Apu’s education, as it seems his thirst for knowledge will not subsist. The young boy studies diligently and excels in schoolwork, and his determination does not go unnoticed by his schoolmaster. As the boy ages (now played by the teenage Smaran Ghosal), he receives a scholarship to continue his studies in Calcutta – far from both his mother and the comfort of his rural life.
Sarbajaya is hurt by her son’s decision to leave, but agrees to let him go nonetheless. Working at a printing press to pay his way through school, Apu tries to balance work, his studies, and a precarious relationship with his distant mother who struggles with feeling abandoned by her only surviving family member. The heart of Aparajito lies in this central relationship between mother and son recalling the fascinating, yet atypical bond between father and daughter in Ozu’s seminal Late Spring. While Shukichi and Noriko navigate the strains on their once tranquil relationship due to societal pressures in Ozu’s film, Sarbajaya and Apu attempt to maintain their own fragile relationship despite the chasm that has grown due to Apu’s crucial life decision. Outside forces clash with the culturally abnormal desire of Shukichi and Noriko to remain life companions, but the turmoil and visible strain on mother and son in Aparajito challenges the traditional notion of familial devotion – an aspect of the film that Ray attributes to the generally cold reception in his native India in contrast to the warm and enthusiastic reaction to its prequel.
The poignancy in Apu and his mother’s relationship reaches its apex in the film’s tragic (albeit predictable) final moments when Sarbajaya falls ill but refuses to send for Apu despite her expressed desire to have her son by her side while she suffers. As his mother nears the end of her life, a relative sends word to Apu against Sarbajaya’s wishes. But, when he returns home, it’s too late. The third and final member of Apu’s small family has succumbed to early death. By seventeen, the boy has lost his sister, father, and mother. And, while Apu shed few tears for the confusing deaths of his sister and father, he drops to his knees and openly sobs in front of his uncle when the news of his mother sinks in. Perhaps the reality of now being an orphan has hit him, or maybe the lack of any resolve with his mother overcomes him, but either way he understandably mourns this terrible loss despite the casual condolences of his uncle.
The film ends on a rather sour note like its predecessor, and yet the finale of Aparajito is even more devastating given all that this young boy becoming a man has lost. His innocence has been completely stripped from him, and the ugliness of a broken world confronts him head on. But, as with Pather Panchali, Ray offers a brief glimpse of hope. Despite his mother’s recent death, Apu determines to return to Calcutta and sit his exams and continue his studies – a less sentimental, but no less important, display of a human desire to keep on living. Thus, Aparajito is an apt follow-up (not to mention boasting a perfectly fitting title) to Pather Panchali, even if somewhat less rewarding. It’s a crucial chapter in this three-part story of Apu, capturing a boy in the middle of his transition to manhood, and remains an impressive sophomore feature from a filmmaker honing his craft.
Love and Loss and Life: Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)
While shooting Aparajito, Ray initially had no intention of turning Apu’s story into a trilogy. Thus, he went on to film two other films – The Philosopher’s Stone and The Music Room – after completing Aparajito. It was only while making the festival rounds for that film that Ray took seriously the suggestion of others to finish the story of Apu. For his fifth feature, then, Ray returned to the life of Apu adapting the final section of Bandyopadhyay’s second novel for this third installment. Again, Ray allowed some time to pass between films, and we meet Apu in Apur Sansar as an adult (Soumitra Chatterjee), now an intermediate school graduate, looking for work amidst the hectic bustle of Calcutta. From the film’s very first scene, we learn that the young man struggles to pay rent and has searched the city far and wide for employment, but he seems to have inherited some of his father’s optimism and remains hopeful that he can and will find a suitable job.
Though he’s willing to take on just about any job at this point, his true passion – again passed down from his late father – is to be a writer. He’s diligently written pages and pages of a semi-autobiographical novel – much of it mirroring his own personal loss as he transitions from the country to the city – and he finally finds a reader when his old school friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) comes to town for a visit. Pulu tells of his recent professional success, and Apu confesses to having none. Without the obligation of a job yet, Pulu convinces his friend to accompany him to a cousin’s wedding in rural Bengal. He conjures a portrait of idyllic country life for his friend in order to coax him into coming, but Apu just knowingly smiles presumably remembering the familiar sights and sounds described from his own distant past.
Apu seems to have stumbled into more than he bargained for when he arrives at the village and meets Pulu’s extended family. When the groom arrives to marry Pulu’s young cousin, he’s found to be insane – whether this is a recent development or a dirty secret hidden by the groom’s family, the film does not divulge. Either way, in an act of desperation, Pulu implores Apu to step in at the last minute as the groom. Not only is this request utterly offensive to our Western sensibilities – prizing individual freedom over most things – it comes as quite a shock to Apu as well who initially scoffs at the idea, alienating Pulu and his family. But, either from some sense of duty or devotion to his friend, Apu relents and takes young Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) to be his bride. He later jokes that his neighbors back home will laugh – he left to attend a wedding as a guest, and will return with the bride.
If there is a relationship at the core of each of these films – brother and his sister in Pather Panchali, mother and son in Aparjito – the relationship between the unexpected husband and wife at the heart of Apur Sansar is the most affecting of the three. Ray beautifully captures their blossoming romance in a most subtle fashion, carefully adhering to the strict regulations of the Indian film industry regarding contact between male and female costars. If anything, the intentional distance between the two performers only adds to the timidity with which both approach their new life together. Apu had not expected a wife so soon, and Aparna had prepared for another, but they grow to love each other deeply all the same. In one touching sequence, Apu becomes self-conscious over their meager existence and the small apartment they inhabit, but Aparna sweetly tells him that what would make her happiest would be if he quick his job so he could spend more time with her.
The build-up of their loving romance as newlyweds only serves to intensify the tragedy that awaits them in the film’s second half. The couple is forced to part ways for a time as Apu must stay in Calcutta to work while Aparna returns home to be near her mother after they discover her pregnancy. The two must settle for love letters here and there until they can meet again. But, when Apu’s usual messenger arrives one afternoon trembling and hesitant, it’s almost too much for the audience to bear what we can infer he has to say given how much loss this young man has already endured. The death of his sweet, young wife proves to be the most devastating loss Apu’s suffered yet, for the last person he’d given his heart to fully is now gone.
While both of Apur Sansar’s predecessors ended on a similar note, Ray reveals there’s still more of Apu’s story to tell. We learn that the couple’s son survived the birth, but Apu, blaming his child for the death of his wife, never ventures to the country to meet his son. Instead, he leaves Calcutta, scatters the pages of his novel in the blowing wind, and loses his will to live in this world any longer. Five years pass, and mischievous little Kajal (Alok Chakravarty) gets into all sorts of trouble in his village and burdens his tired grandfather without a father to parent him. Pulu hunts his friend down who he finds in central India working in the mines. He’s been roaming the country aimlessly ever since the death of Aparna, but Pulu implores him to return home and assume his fatherly responsibility.
Though these three heart-wrenching films depict a life of so much hardship, pain, and loss, the story of Apu is ultimately not a tragedy. In the trilogy’s final moments, Apu does return home, and though it proves difficult to convince his jaded little boy of his intentions to be the father he never was, Ray achieves genuine pathos as father and son are reunited with the boy’s promise to join his father in Calcutta, and the father’s promise to never leave his son again. Apu faces seemingly insurmountable adversity over the course of these three films – as a boy, a teenager, and a man – but Ray reveals that the story of Apu is ultimately a story of hope. Taken together, the Apu Trilogy is a harrowing portrait of the triumph of the human spirit. There is perhaps no other cinematic feat so life-affirming in all of film history. As Apu asserts to his friend early on in Apur Sansar, “the point of life is to live it!” He may have stumbled along the way, lost hope at times, but the most beautiful notion is that in the end he chooses to live.