Revisiting "The Apu Trilogy" Satyajit Ray’s newly restored masterpiece takes us to the presence of the sublime

When Satyajit Ray began shooting the first film of his Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali, in 1951, he had not yet directed a single scene, his cinematographer (then still photographer, Subrata Mitra) hadn’t shot a second of film, and many of his actors were amateurs. The difficulty of pulling this off in those times cannot be understated, especially making a personal, neo-realist film in India diametrically opposed to the predominant form of cinema which was, as now, the Bollywood musical. What The Apu Trilogy lacks in the elaborateness that continues to help Bollywood thrive, it more than makes up for with its soulful sitar-driven soundtrack, compliments of a then-unknown (at least outside of India) Ravi Shankar, the poetic employment of natural soundscapes, from gusting winds to cawing animals, and the humanistic, compassionate perspective Ray embeds in every frame.

Telling the story of the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of Apu, a boy living in an impoverished village, The Apu Trilogy follows him from the remote corners where he frolicked around the forest with his sister, soaking in the various personalities of his elders – his stern and traditional but loving mother, his sweet, free-spirited (yet often absent) father, and his hilarious, pleasure-seeking hunchbacked aunt – to the bigger cities where he studies and seeks success as an author while scraping by with whatever menial jobs he can find. It is of course, in the literal sense, a coming-of-age tale, but its trajectory is not that of a traditional arc, but of a sine wave. Ray’s depiction is of life not presented as a simple, linear process of achieving knowledge and maturity, but as a pulsating state of constant flux, full of ebbs and flows of varying degrees. Apu’s repeated confrontations with the progressive world of schools and cities, and the peaceful simplicity of his childhood, create a fascinating push-pull dynamic that drives the narrative in unexpected directions.

While The Apu Trilogy can be seen as India’s answer to Italian Neo-realism, beginning 10 years after Rossellini’s Rome: Open City shook the film world (and Ray has noted De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves as a major influence), there is a poetry and flow to these films that is wholly Indian. Ray conveys a lightness of being, a transcendence from poverty, misfortune, and sickness; not through extraordinary means, but through the mere embracing of the physical, material beauty of the world as well as the inevitable pain of existence. The trilogy is full of such dualities – tradition vs. modernity, the practical vs. the poetic, the naïve purity of youth vs. the cultural expectations of adulthood, ritual vs. free expression – that help paint a complex portrait of life in India in the first half of the 20th century, yet Ray’s cinema is not one of portraiture nor is it interested in mere period representation. It is a cinema of pure emotion and empathy, of serene contemplation and abundant vitality. Its historical importance (virtually creating a non-Bollywood filmmaking model in India by itself) and influence pales in comparison to its unrivaled celebration of the joys and agonies of life, and the strength of the human spirit amid unimaginable tragedy.

With Criterion’s upcoming meticulous restoration of the entire trilogy and theatrical runs in New York (Film Forum, May 8), Los Angeles (Nuart Theatre, May 29), and other arthouse cinemas throughout the summer, people will have the chance to see these films in a significantly higher quality than that of the shamefully mediocre DVD copies out there. If films more than 50 years old still require a spoiler warning, consider this your fair notice. But the fortunate thing about great films is that spoilers have little to no effect on them; they are great not because of their content, but because of how that content is conveyed. The The Apu Trilogy is no exception.

Pather Panchali: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth

“Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

After several brief shots introducing the small, impoverished village where the film is set, Pather Panchali ostensibly begins with a shot of Durga playfully waking her younger brother, Apu, by first tickling him, then prying his eye open before he quickly rises and chases her around the yard as Ravi Shankar’s sitar furiously rises in the background. It is a moment, like many embedded in this trilogy, that resonates on a personal and universal level – a simple, ordinary action simultaneously achieves emotional and symbolic significance through both the literal and figurative “awakening” of the films’ main character. It also is a moment that shows that these children, despite the extreme poverty of their surroundings, still feel a communal sense of joy and companionship – another underlying theme.

We are soon introduced to Auntie, the hunched-over elder of the family who constantly seeks moments of comfort and happiness, only to be met by the constant scolding of the frustrated but loving Sarbajaya, mother of Apu and Durga. Sarbajaya is representative of the suffering mother, left to run the household as her poet husband leaves for weeks, sometimes months, at a time, sending money barely often enough for her to feed the family. In the midst of this daily struggle, Durga takes to stealing the neighbor’s fruit from the orchard that belonged to their family until they had to sell it. The neighbors openly talk about her within earshot of Sarbajaya, who must silently take the passive-aggressive criticism that her children aren’t well-raised. While Apu is the focus of the trilogy as a whole, in Pather Panchali, he often is not a part of the action, but rather the action is experienced through his gaze, filtered through his innocence and purity even in the toughest of circumstances.

Many extended wordless sequences consisting of either sounds of nature (as in the powerful montage when Durga passes away), or Shankar’s sitar, often lend Pather Panchali the feel of a silent film. Close-ups and gestures dominate, and the power of a glance or the neighbor lady’s touch of the hand when she realizes Sarbajaya’s daughter has died is heightened in their isolation. These quick close-up shots are virtual portals into the emotional worlds of Ray’s characters. He takes us there not with words or histrionic acting, but pure image. The number of savvy shots are too numerous to list, but the most iconic is of Apu and Durga running through a field to catch a train, which is coming by for the first time, and the camera pans back to reveal the train cutting across the horizon, essentially bringing the outside world into their little village for the first time. Another remarkable scene is when their father returns after a lengthy trip not realizing his daughter, Durga, has died. He sits behind his grieving wife, taking out gifts for every family member, and the second he takes out the sari for Durga, the camera pulls quickly back from a close-up on the dress to reveal Sarbajaya collapsing in tears, followed by her husband’s horrified reaction as he realizes the great misfortune that transpired while he was gone.

The extremity of these two sequences, from unadulterated discovery to utter tragedy, encapsulates the emotional pitch of Pather Panchali, which swings delicately from one end of the spectrum to the other. As Apu’s teacher in the next film harps on the meaning “synecdoche,” so does Ray eloquently infuse this film, and the trilogy, with these smaller elements representative of larger and greater national and universal truths. The innocence and purity of the film’s thematic preoccupations is mirrored in Ray’s filmmaking, unassuming and not hinged to any cinematic training or national style. In this sense, it is a work of total originality that can only be conjured by an amateur, yet crafted with the skill, assurance, and graceful beauty of a master. At the end of Pather Panchali, following Durga’s death, they leave the village – the father’s dreams of being a writer and educating his son are dashed and realism has, at least temporarily, defeated idealism. It is a sobering moment, but like most closing moments of youthful innocence and bliss, there is a whole new world to be discovered.

Aparajito: Mother & Son

“…And she loved a little boy very, very much – even more than she loved herself.”
– Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree

Set several years after Pather Panchali, once the family has settled in the densely populated Bengal, Aparajito is a transitional film in every sense of the word, from being the second film in the trilogy to being set through Apu’s transition from childhood to adult (the film is split almost 50/50 in its time with Apu as a young boy and as a 17-year-old) and being stuck between the unbridled joy of youth and the very real responsibilities of family and community. If Pather Panchali is seen through the gaze of a young Apu, Aparajito is seen through the eyes of his mother and, even more specifically, a mother who has lost her only other child. The tragedy of his sister’s death is echoed near the beginning of the film – Apu, briefly excited by the train passing by their new home, quickly becomes morose after being reminded of the time he went with Durga to see one for the first time – and it is clear that while this has caused Apu’s mother to cling more tightly to him, it has sent him in the other direction as he begs for a chance to go to school so he can make something of himself.

In the first half, a 10- year-old Apu gets his chance at formal education and, as his father suspected, he succeeds admirably, but the centrifugal force that drives the relationship between Apu and his mother throughout the rest of the film is the sudden death of his father. Like the deaths in Pather Panchali, this one again changes to the dynamic between Apu and everyone around him, but leaves him inextricably linked to his mother, not merely as a son who she wants around merely to love, but one she needs around for her own survival. Later in the film, there is a wonderful deep focus shot of his mother in chiaroscuro close-up with the now 17-year-old Apu in background disclosing his desire to go to a school several hours away. The frame contains both the fear, hurt, and anger of his mother and the will and determination of Apu to go his own way whether or not his mother consents – years of love and conflict beautifully painted on two faces in a single shot.

After his mother consents, Apu leaves home, promising to visit regularly. The scene that perfectly encapsulates the shift in their relationship occurs when Apu returns home for a brief two-day holiday and tells his mother to wake him at sunrise so he can make the train back to school. The next morning, she looks at the rising sun in the distance with an expression of hesitation and unease. Apu is dead asleep and her hand enters the frame and gently shakes him. After he doesn’t wake up, it cuts to a shot of her backing away with a look of hesitation, neither wanting to disappoint him by making him late nor wake him and let him leave. Apu wakes up soon after and rushes out in anger, making it to the train on time, but is compelled to return home to his mom for the day, understanding how hard it is for her to be without him. This push-pull between the two is central to their relationship, but it is also depicted in such a subtle, delicate fashion that it feels heartfelt and true rather than maudlin and clichéd.

Aparajito continues to follow the teenage Apu, but like the first film, ends with an intensified montage and a heightened emotional climax. The now almost completely independent Apu is cross-cut with his sickly mother waiting for him to come home. He has another break coming up, at which point he expected to return home, but instead, he sends money after deciding to stay one day longer to focus on his studies. The now feverish mother believes she hears Apu calling outside after the train has passed and struggles to limp out to the back yard. She opens the door to nothing but the oppressively loud sounds of nighttime animals, the haunting shimmer of the stream and delicately blinking fireflies barely lighting the darkness. Rarely has nature been so cruelly empty and unsympathetic (“the cruel indifference of nature” as Werner Herzog would say), a void, a nothingness that exponentially multiplies the pain she feels. And, as if engulfed by this emptiness, she dies a day before Apu finally returns to visit, mirroring his father’s absence when his daughter died. It is a brief scene, but is perhaps the most mysterious and heart-wrenching in the entire trilogy and a remarkable statement on the unavoidable costs of simply growing up and developing one’s own identity.

The World of Apu: Synecdoche, Calcutta

“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.”
– Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason

By the time The World of Apu was released in 1959, Satyajit Ray was an international sensation. Not only had the first two films of The Apu Trilogy made waves at all the major festivals, but his equally brilliant film from 1958, The Music Room, showed Ray had plenty of directorial range and more tricks up his sleeve. The World of Apu once again jumps ahead a few years in time, with the now fully educated Apu struggling to write a novel while also working menial jobs that barely provide him enough money to pay his rent. As always, his demeanor remains light-hearted as he jokes with his landlord about his being three months behind on rent. His poverty is a reality, but one that is perfectly manageable in his mind as long as he’s able to write.

Here, Apu is orphaned and alone, aside from his long-time friend and former classmate, Pulu, who continues to encourage Apu in his writing endeavors. But just as it appears Apu may reach the artistic success his father so desired, a cultural road bump presents itself. At the wedding of Pulu’s cousin, Aparna, the groom arrives quite nervous and mentally unstable to the degree that the other family cancels the wedding. However, religious and cultural conventions suggest that if the bride is not married within a brief period of time, she will remain unlucky and alone for the rest of her life. As Apu is the only suitable stand-in, he ultimately steps in to marry Aparna without ever having met her or her family.

It is the one scene in the trilogy that seems absurd without prior knowledge of Indian culture (a friend of mine found this to be the weakest film in the trilogy almost solely because he found it so difficult to accept), but in early 20th Century India, such adherence to customs was a regular occurrence. As time passes, Apu and Aparna grow to love one another and, during a particularly moving scene, he frets about working more hours so she may live a happier life with less poverty. For her part, she delicately rests her head on his shoulder and says she’d rather he work even less so they may be together more.

The film begins to move toward its apex with, of course, another death. This time it is a pregnant Aparna who, after leaving Apu to stay with her family until the child is born, dies during childbirth. As if an aneurysm struck his brain, the tragedy is finally too much for Apu to bear. He not only shuts down physically and emotionally, but refuses to see or even acknowledge his son. Soon after, there is a shot of Apu standing by the train tracks, moving from a tight close-up of his face and panning to the white, negative space in the background and, as the train whisks by, panning back to Apu’s face. The train, which has since Pather Panchali represented hope, progress and the future – and remains the trilogy’s most potent use of symbolism – was briefly considered as an instrument of violence and, as if the train whizzing by snapped him back to reality, Apu decides to rebuild his life, first by going back to his roots, the simplicities that made him happy as a child, then by throwing all the pages of the novel he was writing from a cliff into the forest of his childhood and, ultimately, returning to reunite with his son.

The world of Apu is the world itself, and despite the drama and narrative, Ray commits not just to simply create a character study or a singular perspective of the world, but rather crafts a holistic cinematic vision of the human experience in all its shades, from its most terrifying inevitability to its most dazzling surprises. Nature is seen as a place of balance, order, and peace, yet modernity is never vilified, only expressed as a viable counterpoint with a whole new set of values, problems, and beauty of its own. The trilogy is perhaps most remarkable for its scope of emotions, but also for its ability to capture the passage and feeling of time itself and all of the momentum the past carries with it. Ray’s forceful, dynamic punctuations in the form of iconic shots and jaw-dropping sequences don’t simply connect us to his characters, but reach into the deepest corners of our reservoir of emotions and touch us at the core of our being. He is the rare filmmaker able to tap into the essence of life, doing so not through exorbitant or pretentious means, but through the mundane interactions and occurrences of daily life. The synecdoche works both ways, from small to big and big to small, and it is via that route that Ray takes us repeatedly to the presence of the sublime.

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