Director: Satyajit Ray
The World of Apu
Director: Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Based on the autobiographical first novel by the Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (Banerjee), it is the story of Apu, a young boy living in the impoverished countryside of Bengal in India in the early part of the twentieth century. Pather Panchali is one of the great movies about childhood, a film that at the same time graphically depicts a land and way of life wholly alien to most Americans and that also introduced the music of Ravi Shankar to the West. "Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen," wrote Pauline Kael about the film. I've waited for years to see the two sequels to Pather Panchali based on Bandopadhyay's second novel, Aparajito, films that pursue the story of Apu into his teenage years and young adulthood. I was recently able to see them at last, and the wait was certainly worth it, confirming my intuition based on seeing only a handful of his movies that Ray (1921-1992) was one of the greatest of all film directors.
Pather Panchali ends with the departure of Apu and his parents from their home in the countryside for a new life in the city. Aparajito picks up the story with their arrival in the holy city of Benares. Here Apu's father, a poet and priest, hopes to have greater opportunity to practice his profession, and spends much time on the banks of the Ganges teaching religion and reciting his poetry. Life is not much better for the family in Benares than it was in the country, though, as they continue to struggle against adversity and poverty. Apu's father has many competitors in the holy city, and his mother does not really seem at home in her new urban environment. The city does, however, prove to be an exciting place for young Apu, giving him many opportunities to observe people more colorful, and to visit places more exotic, than those of his former rural life.
But not long after their arrival in Benares, Apu's father falls ill with a fever and dies, and Apu and his mother must return to the countryside. Here Apu develops a lifelong passion for education after he is allowed to attend the village school. At one point, he is presented with a tiny globe as a prize for his outstanding performance on his exams, a globe that he keeps with him always, a symbol of the craving for knowledge and experience that becomes the driving force in his life. An exceptional student, he is offered a scholarship to attend secondary school in Calcutta. The second half of the film details Apu's teenage years as a student in Calcutta, where he attends classes by day and works in a printing press at night to earn his living expenses.
During this time, it is clear that Apu's mother is deeply affected by his absence and that Apu on his part experiences great conflict between his devotion to education and the concern he feels about leaving his mother. Trains become a recurrent reminder for both the boy and his mother of the hardships of their separation. Many times a train passes by in the background as his mother stands outside, and several scenes take place in trains as Apu travels between Calcutta and the country during his school holidays. For his mother the trains serve as both a hopeful image of Apu's infrequent visits and a melancholy portent of his inevitable departure, while for Apu they come to represent his divided existence, in the country as a dutiful son and in Calcutta as an independent, ambitious young man. Aparajito ends with two nearly simultaneous events that determine the direction of Apu's future—the death of his mother and his graduation from secondary school. He is now free to leave his former life completely behind and begin a new life as a permanent resident of Calcutta and student at the university there.
The World of Apu is a less diffuse film than Aparajito, most of it taking place in a relatively brief span of time. Apu is now a grown man, a university student. (Apu is brilliantly played by 24-year old Soumitra Chatterjee, in his first movie role. He would go on to appear in fourteen more of Ray's films.) Forced by his financial situation to quit school just before he graduates, Apu is a dreamer, a young man who habitually avoids responsibility and can't seem to focus on the mundane, practical side of life, like getting a job and paying his rent, preferring instead to work on his novel. When his best friend and university classmate Pulu gets in touch with him and takes him out for dinner, on the way home Apu breaks into an exuberant ode to freedom and spontaneity. Pulu tells him he acts like he has been drinking, and Apu is in a sense drunk—on the simple joy of being alive.
Pulu's friendship becomes instrumental to Apu's future when he invites Apu to come with him to the countryside where his wealthy family lives, for during this visit Apu meets his future bride, Pulu's cousin Aparna. The marriage is a sudden one, essentially an arranged marriage, and at first the newlyweds barely know each other. In time, though, as they develop a deep love for one another, Aparna becomes the catalyst for profound changes in Apu's casual and self-indulgent attitude to life.
The adult Apu and Aparna
Apu's life undergoes another radical change when Aparna dies giving birth to their son, Kajal. Overwhelmed by grief, Apu rejects his newborn son, leaving him with Aparna's family, and spends the next several years wandering India in a state of intense depression. He even gives up writing the novel he has been working on for so long and one day on the top of a mountain impulsively tosses its pages into the wind, and watches impassively as they flutter away, an evocative reminder of the way youthful dreams and ambitions can be so drastically altered by time and circumstance. Five years later Pulu locates Apu working in a coal mine in an isolated mountain community and persuades the reluctant Apu to return to Bengal with him and finally meet his son. The reunion is an uneasy one for both father and son, but when Apu sees how little love Kajal receives from Aparna's aged parents, he leaves, taking Kajal with him. Recognizing that his son's needs are more important than his own sense of loss, Apu at last grows beyond his despair and finds in his role as a father a new meaning to his life.
So many powerful themes are concentrated in the Apu trilogy that it's difficult to know where to begin a discussion of them. Perhaps a good place to start is with the universality of these films. Taken together, they cover nearly three decades in the life of one man, telling the story of one individual set in the context of a specific time—the early twentieth century—and a specific and quite distinctive culture. Yet it is a story whose essentials transcend the boundaries of place and time, for it is largely a story of change and growth, what psychologists call individuation, or the development of a person's unique and individual identity. It is the story of the transitions in Apu's life—from a rural agrarian way of life to a modern urban life in a commercial economy, from following the traditional family vocation in the priesthood to finding a new role in life as a scholar and writer, from innocence to knowledge, from childhood to adulthood and eventually parenthood, from the self-absorption of immaturity to the selflessness elicited by the transformative power of love.
Yet concurrent with the idea of the constant flux of life is the theme of its continuity. Water, that simple and archetypal symbol of life's flowing continuity, is an image that appears time and again in these films. One of the most memorable sequences in Pather Panchali occurs when the monsoon finally arrives and ends the drought, as torrents of rain drench the parched landscape. The holy River Ganges is a vivid image in Aparajito. In The World of Apu, Aparna's family lives near a large river, and the last scene in the film is of Apu leaving Aparna's family home with Kajal on his shoulders and a smile on his face, walking beside that river as he follows its current towards the sea.
Another important element in these films is the notion of the cyclical nature of life and the way opposing forces in life tend to balance each other, concepts found in many Eastern religions and philosophies. The films are punctuated by birth and death, departure and return, separation and reunion, alienation and reconciliation. In each of the three films death is a significant event, yet loss is always balanced by regeneration: The deaths of Apu's sister and his elderly aunt in Pather Panchali are balanced by the prospect of a new beginning for the family that concludes the film. Aparajito is framed by the deaths of Apu's father at the beginning and of his mother at the end, yet in this film Apu's appetite for knowledge is awakened and he begins the process of forging a new identity for himself. The World of Apu is dominated by the devastating loss of Aparna, yet it also includes the birth of Kajal, with whom Apu is reunited at the end of the movie as he begins yet another phase of his life. By the end of the cycle of films, life has come full circle: one small boy has grown to manhood, and the story continues with his own son, now about the same age as Apu in Pather Panchali.
Satyajit Ray—like John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, François Truffaut, and Jean Renoir—is often called a humanist filmmaker. It's a designation that seems wholly justified, for Ray shares with those other esteemed directors a set of traits that I would say are characteristic of that rather nebulous label: the universality of his themes, the emphasis on characters and how they relate to nature and the world around them, his fascination with the ways in which people in specific circumstances react to those circumstances and interact with one another, and his dispassionate acceptance of the fact that both the noblest and the most petty drives coexist in human nature. All of these traits are plainly displayed in the Apu trilogy, as glorious and moving a celebration of the complexities of human experience as can be found in all of cinema.
UPDATE: Click here for a review of Pather Panchali I wrote in 2015 for the website Wonders in the Dark.