The Apu Trilogy, Satyajit Ray
The story of the Apu Trilogy, at least in 2015, cannot be told without discussing the exhaustive restoration that The Criterion Collection undertook in order to let a worthy print see the light of day. Below is a short video that summarizes the restoration, but I recommend you watch the longer and more comprehensive piece on the Apur Sansar disc. It shows the tragic condition of the burnt prints, and we hear from the people who were instrumental throughout this painstaking process. This was my second viewing of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, and the print was night and day compared to what I initially saw. Not enough can be said about the tremendous work that Criterion has put into not just the box set, but the visual presentation.
These posts will include spoilers of major events in the trilogy.
PATHER PANCHALI, 1955
Both Apu’s cinematic story and Satyajit’s career began with Pather Panchali. Many consider it to be the crowning achievement of the series, and it currently sits at number 41 on the BFI Sight & Sound Poll (Apur Sansar is 245 and Aparajito is not on the list.) Ray, influenced by Italian Neo-Realism and Poetic Realism, wanted to portray a different type of India than had been seen before. The fact that we are still talking about the trilogy sixty years later proves that he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The debut may not be as fine-tuned as the two that would follow, but it portrays an innocence and simplicity hardly seen before or since.
The first major character that we identify with is young Durga, Apu’s older sister, although we first meet her before meeting Apu. She is mischievous, like her younger brother will eventually become, but she is also benevolent. She is a thief, whether she takes beads or fruit, but she has a big heart. She shares food with her aging Auntie. When her younger brother enters the world, she takes him under her wing and shows him that there is a magnificent world lurking beyond their impoverished village.
The Ray family is situated in their rural, ancestral home. It is in a small village, but aside from a select few, we barely get to meet any of their fellow neighbors. It is almost as if the family is in their own little corner of the forest, away from the trappings of society. They are also living in poverty, barely able to subsist during some seemingly insurmountable economic challenges. This may be why Durga steals — not out of an innate need to misbehave — but as a means of survival. We see her watch others eat, and we see the hunger pains on her face. This is a girl that has often gone to bed hungry.
Apu is what you would expect a young boy to be. Despite the same challenges that Durga and the rest of the family face, he has a lust for adventure. He is mischievous and full of energy, playing often and disrupting the peace and quiet of his parents. Early on, after catching him in some misadventure, his mother tells him, “You were not born to survive.” This quick line of dialog would prove fateful and perhaps motivational. Apu was unequivocally born to survive, as we would learn throughout the trilogy.
The Ray parents love their children, but they are faced with difficult decisions as to how to provide for them. Harihar, the father, is not making ends meet in the village and must look elsewhere for work. That ends up being a lengthy journey where he loses touch with his family. Rather than being an absent father, his motivation is out of love. He is trying to find a way to provide for his family, and hoping that the village will provide for them while he is away. Things are trying and much of the film consists of the trio — mother, son and daughter — trying to persevere, hoping for a sign of better things to come.
There are emotional highs and lows. As mentioned before, Durga loves to show Apu the wonders of the world. One of the most memorable moments is where he witnesses a train passing, which would be a reoccurring and among the most recognizable motifs of the series. Having not seen a train before, he is overwhelmed with joy as this marvel of technology, this behemoth, passes by in an instant. He runs through a field trying to get a better glimpse, and he seems to be gliding along with the black locomotive.
The lows are tragic. Durga and Apu find themselves in a torrential rainstorm. What begins as Durga playing in the refreshing rain, ends up being miserable discomfort. As a dutiful older sister, she shelters her brother from the rain without thought of herself, and the consequence is tragedy. We experience tragic events throughout the series, yet Ray is not manipulative. There are few anguished death scenes. In fact, many of the deaths happen off-screen. The tragedy is in the reactions, and that is why these films are so affecting. We understand the emptiness of loss, even if we are not as unfortunate as the Ray family. We also understand and respect resilience and fortitude, which are qualities in many of the characters, most notably Apu.
While Pather Panchali is Ray’s inaugural film and perhaps not as technically proficient, he makes use of film language to accompany the dramatic events as they unfold. He uses interesting camera angles, and blocks his actors in locations so that we see more than just traditional close-ups and shot-reverse-shot. The filmmaking allows us to see them in their element, as part of their surroundings, and the plot unfolds realistically and naturally.
The world of Apu shifts gears after the death of his sister. Prospects look brighter as his father has found sound employment in a large city along the Ganges river. If the railroad were a new world, this is like a new planet. As a young boy, Apu roams along the banks of the Ganges, finding spiritual rituals, physical demonstrations of vitality and strength, and even wildlife in monkeys — which he had been compared to by his mother.
This middle chapter is fragmented, almost as if it is two films, each with a tragedy to overcome. Apu’s personality and future are shaped more by what happens during Aparajito than Pather Panchali, and it functions as an effective connection between the adolescent and the grown man.
The middle chapter is centrally about Apu, but the most important element is the changing dynamic between mother and son. After they are left alone in the world and forced away from Benares, their relationship evolves. They begin this new life (again) dependent on each other, but as become entrenched, they drift apart.
I haven’t discussed the acting so far, but I’ll say that, in my opinion, the finest performance of the series is Karuna Bannerjee as Apu’s mother. There are many other great performances in the trilogy, such as Chunibala Devi’s take as Auntie in Pather Panchali, or Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu in Apur Sansar, among others, but Bannerjee is the one that has stuck with me the most.
Often her performance does not require dialogue, as brief glimpses at her facial expressions reveal (or betray?) her emptiness. She remains a mother and tries to nurture her child, urging him either on a career as a priest, or begrudgingly as a student. She supports him to the detriment of herself, even though she selfishly despairs. She wants to force him to remain close, against his will, but that is like taming a caged tiger. Apu is a survivor and his youthful ambition is unstoppable. Her reluctant sacrifice and Apu’s apathy makes her the most endearing.
Apu is played by two different actors, as the film encompasses two chapters of his life. Again, the film can be seen as an extension of the beginning and ending. The early Apu is more like his Pather Panchali self, a little older, but still adventurous and mischievous. The Apu that occupies the latter half of the film resembles the character we meet in Apu Sansar. We see an intelligent, literate young adult, who devotes himself to learning and understanding the world. His prized possession is a globe that his school has given him.
The reality is that children grow up and leave their parents behind. I don’t believe that Apu loses the love he holds for his mother, but her loneliness is an impediment to his ambition. He struggles at school, and the constant reminder of her emptiness, usually in the form of letters, is a distraction. When he does visit, he is tentative and not all there. Later he laments that when he is home, he does not get enough studying done. What is left unsaid is that is because he has to fulfill the emotional needs of his lonely mother. It is tragic in an existential way, as is much in the series. Both characters are imperfect, and we understand the motivations for both of them without much judgement. Even though it is tough to see, the film portrays it in a realistic manner that, again, it earns the stirring moments.
Even though in hindsight, Aparajito is seen as a transitional piece, it stands on its own. In fact, when it was finished, Satyajit Ray did not intend to make another sequel. Fortunately for us, he had a change of heart, and wrapped the series up with another masterwork that does provide some resolution.
APUR SANSAR, 1959
Trains no longer impress Apu. They are now an annoyance. This was established in Aparajito, but is hammered home in the final film. They are a nuisance, a necessarily means of transportation, and even a harbinger of dire things to come. Apu is no longer thrilled with the train. Apu is no longer thrilled with life. His mother was alone in the last film, but now, years later with an impressive education, it is Apu that is alone in his world. However, unlike his mother’s loneliness where she felt abandoned, his is self-imposed. He comes to resent this cruel world.
We first encounter Apu as a young intellectual that retained some of the ruthless abandon of his adolescent self. He lives in a small apartment and finds that he is overqualified for suitable employment. Instead he is a hopeless romantic. He plans to eventually write a novel, but for this period of his life, he is content living in the moment and enjoying his freedom.
Apu’s indolent existence is contrasted by his old school buddy, Pulu. Even though they are old school buddies, the seeds of class difference are planted in Aparajito and more pronounced in Apur Sansar. However friendly and loyal to his old friend, Pulu is from an upper class family. He does not have to write a great novel someday. He is more pragmatic, as he will inherit a capitalistic advantage. In this respect, he and his friend diverge in their outlook in life. If not for chance, they may have lost touch and gone separate ways, but they become linked in a familial way by accident.
Despite their differences, Pulu sees that Apu is sharp and deserves a chance at life. He is ultimately a good person. Due to a mix-up at a wedding for Pulu’s cousin that Apu attends, the bride is left without a groom. They believe that if she is not married, she will be cursed, and the old friend coaxes Apu to be a stand-in groom. At first he resists, and something comes over him, and he relents. This may be motivated by his romanticism and thirst for experiencing all that life has to offer, or he may simply have been lonely. He becomes married to a person that he has never met before. In an instant, his loneliness is over.
The class differences emerge again when Aparna, coming from a wealthy family, must live with a man with hardly any quality of life to offer. It is a rough transition, but he is a fine match personally, and a genuine and insatiable love overcomes them. The joy that older Apu feels with Aparna is reminiscent of the joy that the younger Apu experienced with the train. This is a new world for him, and despite their lack of means, they make the best of their situation. In this respect, they embody the poverty-stricken innocence from Pather Panchali. She enters this world and feels comfortable.
One of the most memorable scenes is where they are riding together in a carriage, professing their love toward each other. The scene is written, acted and shot beautifully, even if it is in shot-reverse-shot style with a hint of darkness. Their love seems childlike and adorable. Unfortunately, at least to this point, glee and joy are not emotions that will remain. Tragedy strikes yet again, and this time is it too difficult for Apu to overcome. He descends into a life of self-pitying, wandering, bitterness.
From a filmic and stylistic standpoint, Apur Sansar ties a bow around the previous two films. There are many motifs, whether visual, mise-en-scene, or character-based that draw from its predecessors. Even though the final film is more overt with some of the symbolism (although not with all), it actually enhances the prior two films. I discovered many elements that helped me appreciate my second viewings of the earlier films. Some of them are notable, such as the mirror shots, the close-ups through a hole cut in cloth, and of course, the duality of the magnificent and dreaded trains. There are others. We can find simple mannerisms of the character in all three films, that become accentuated in Apur Sansar. The stoic disconnection that the character experiences is also a stark contrast to the Apu we had known. Since this is all filmed with convincing neo-realism, the character evolution is convincing and that much more affecting.
How would the tragedies that Apu experiences transform other people? If I were to wager a guess, many would resemble the older Apu in some respect. I cannot imagine how my world-view would be dismantled if I experienced the same type of despair. The fact that Apu’s plight is about as low as imaginable makes the final payoff all the more powerful. It hurts to see someone in despair, locked away from the world and shut off from its charms — especially someone who was so quick to smile during earlier, dire circumstances.
The ending of the trilogy is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful moments in film history. Ray waits until the absolute last minute to give us a glimpse of hope. We barely have time to absorb it until we are to wonder where Apu’s adventures will take him next, but we are given a sense of optimism. Again, this is not a manipulative and sentimental happy ending. We may not be convinced that things are going to be just dandy. Apu will undoubtedly face further challenges in his life. The final moments are so powerful because he has been to the abyss and partially come back. Even if he has not fully entered back into society, he has regained something to cling to that will give his life meaning. Hopefully his fortune will turn and he will not lose something dear to him again, but if so, we are reasonably assured that he has the tools to live a fruitful life. For this reason, the ending, however optimistic, is pure beauty.
The Criterion Collection edition of The Apu Trilogy comes with gorgeous restorations of the three films, a number of supplements, and a nice booklet. I recommend that rather than watching the supplements for each film one at a time, to watch the films first and then go back and watch them disc-by-disc. The supplements speak to a degree about the particular film, but are best experienced having experienced the entire trilogy.
The interviews were informative. They gave a glimpse of the experience of working with a film legend in his early years. We even hear from the man himself, and find that he had an indelible charm and kind authority. In one supplement he reads from an essay, but in such a commanding and hypnotizing voice that it is apparent that film is not the only vehicle in which he told stories.
From the interview with Soumendu Roy and all the actors, we learn of the project’s meager beginnings. It was essentially an independent film, and Pather Panchali had many of them learning on the job (although Mitra and Ray had previously apprenticed with Ray on The River.) Given the obstacles, both financial and logistical, it is a marvel that the project was not only made, but was such high quality that it has endured.
My two favorite supplements are on the Apur Sansar disc. The visual essay with Mamoun Hassan is a comprehensive journey through the production and themes of the trilogy. Finally, the aforementioned restoration documentary by Kogonada is the crowning achievement. Even though it clocks in at under 15 minutes, it unveils what is the true gem of this set — the quality of the films. Without the efforts of all of these individuals, for all of these years, such art would not be seen as it should be. This is certainly the release of the year. However long Criterion operates as a company (hopefully for a long time), this is a release that they will look back at with pride as cinephiles, young and old, discover and rediscover this mesmerizing piece of art.
Thank you, Criterion.