Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of re-watching Satyajit Ray's 'Apu trilogy' at the Film Forum in New York. I recall first watching these films in Delhi in the early '90s, and they continue to evoke that world for me: my faded grey apartment building in suburban Mayur Vihar, fistfights on the cricket pitch, and picnics by the ancient Yamuna River, its placid waters gurgling with pollutants.
The prints of the films were severely damaged over the years and Criterion has restored them by combining image and sound from multiple sources. This must have been an arduous labor of love. The new versions are in 4K resolution, a concept that feels a bit like the emperor's new clothes. But the prints are indeed discernibly cleaner and crisper, even if in the process they have lost some detail in the spectrum of greys.
In recent months, there has been a resurgence of interest in the films and I envy those who will experience them for the first time. The restored prints are currently touring the world and will soon be released on DVD. Recently, the entire trilogy was ranked fourth on a list of "top 10" Asian films at the Busan International Film Festival. (Such lists are obviously suspect, but by granting the magnificent Tokyo Story the top spot, the judges have at least demonstrated that
their tastes are in the right place.)
Apu and Durga in a still from Pather Panchali
The films, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959), were adapted from two autobiographical novels by the Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. The then aspiring filmmaker Satyajit Ray was quick to recognize the novels' modern sensibilities and the cinematic possibilities of the Bengali landscape.
As is now known, made on threadbare budgets with an incredibly inspired cast and crew, they marked the emergence of a new cinema.The films describe the lives of a poor educated family in 1920s Bengal. The British rule India, but in the hinterland you would never know. Ray observes the rituals of daily life in hypnotic detail, as the stage moves from rural Bengal to Varanasi and ultimately to Calcutta.
Like such epic narratives as One Hundred Years of Solitude and A House for Mr. Biswas, the trilogy is concerned with the fates of a multi-generational family. But in contrast to the first, these stories are starkly realist. And compared to the second, Ray's world is a less miserable place, the supporting characters less sinister, the protagonists' inner worlds less tumultuous. But this is not to say there isn't tragedy.
Above all, there is recurring death, which in the hands of a lesser director would become exploitative. Ray recognizes that death's poignancy lies in its inevitability. People die and the living must adjust. In Aparajito, Apu's father is on his deathbed and the young Apu would rather play outdoors with his friends.
But as an adult, Apu is no longer so detached. In Apur Sansar, when his wife Aparna dies in childbirth, he is unable to accept and adjust. The film chides him for spending years in self-indulgent grief, unable to forgive his son whom he holds responsible for Aparna's death. In fact, the final reconciliation between Apu and his son is Ray's fabrication; the original novel ends in abandonment.
A still from Aparajito.
Death remains present even in its absence. There is a scene in Pather Panchali that the viewer unexpectedly realizes is a depiction of domestic bliss. It is evening and the family sits in near silence in a decrepit hut. The father, Harihar, is engaged in paperwork. Occasionally he observes his son, Apu, who practices his handwriting on a slate. The mother, Sarbajaya, pleats her daughter Durga's hair. And in the corner sits Aunty, a frail old woman who lives off the charity of distant relatives. In the dim flickering light, she tries and repeatedly fails to thread a needle. The poignancy of this scene derives from two things. First, it is painfully clear that the moment cannot last forever. By the time we reach Apur Sansar, only Apu will remain alive. Second, the scene captures a theme that I think is essential to the trilogy: the nuclear family, where in exchange for liberty comes the forfeiture of insurance, so that every rupture and every loss is felt more deeply.
To eliminate the aunts and uncles, grandparents and in-laws was, under the circumstances, a revolutionary artistic choice. The stories are not set in active opposition to the prevailing model of the joint family. But by simply ignoring the extended family and its concomitant obligations, the films anticipate the inevitable demise of the joint family system and the equally inevitable rise of individualism.
In Aparajito, Apu's ambition delivers him to Calcutta, leaving his widowed mother alone in a village. When his mother dies, he is not bothered with last rites. As Apur Sansar opens, he is an unemployable intellectual working on an autobiographical novel, living in a tiny apartment that overlooks the railway tracks, and behind on his rent. But for the missing pour-over coffee and hibiscus doughnut, you would swear this was East Williamsburg.
And just as he grew up in a tight-knit nuclear family, Apu looks forward to building his own. In Apur Sansar, the memories of his parents and sister recede--they are hardly even mentioned--as his affections are transferred to Aparna, whom he marries due to a series of bizarre, serendipitous circumstances. Their final conversation in the railway station, as Aparna departs for her village to deliver their baby, is heartbreaking, for at this point the viewer predicts the future better than the characters do.
Karuna Banerjee as Sarbajaya in Pather Panchali.
Through all this, there is the comic relief of which Ray is a master. In Pather Panchali, Aunty can always be counted on for a good laugh (that is, until she collapses to her death on a village path). In Aparajito, there is a sublime sequence where an inspector arrives to evaluate the village school, which begins with the principal's efforts to eject a recalcitrant cow from the schoolyard. In Apur Sansar, the ragtag wedding band marches down a riverbank playing 'For he's a jolly good fellow'.
It is perhaps a misnomer to call these films the 'Apu' trilogy. Though Apu is the common strand, only the last film is really about him. In Pather Panchali, especially, the narrative is dominated by Apu's mother, Sarbajaya. It is she who must placate the wealthy neighbor who accuses her daughter of theft and who must deal with the daily humiliations that accompany poverty. Unlike in a more conservative telling of the same story, agency lies with her. Ray understood the difference between women as protagonists and women as objects of worship and judgment. In fact, a later film Devi, explores this very theme.
Repeat viewings of favorite films also reveal new flaws. I had not remembered the scene in Aparajito where the young Apu does a so-called 'African' dance in blackface. The audience at my screening tittered uncomfortably. And why, in that film, did the alcoholic and the sexual predator have to be the same person? Ray has always been awkward about sex, but one wishes he didn't resort to such moral equivalence.
Repeat viewings also create new associations. Now, for me the Apu Trilogy is also about springtime in New York. I will remember the man who fainted in the queue for Aparajito, a strange precursor to Apu's father's death. (He recovered quickly, to disapproving murmurs from people who suspected he faked the whole thing for the free bottle of water.) And the trains that took Apu across that vast not-yet-country, leaving others behind, will blend into the screeching subway cars of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that took me home through the gutters as the stars shone above.
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