It has been quite a while since I logged another entry from Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. A couple reasons for that: (1) The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is keeping me real busy (donate here, tickets here and here), and (2) the next movie in the book is actually three movies. The films that comprise Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy were released throughout the 50’s, and represent an evolution of filmmaking akin to what Francois Truffaut and his contemporaries were doing in France around the same time.
The Apu films follow the maturation of the eponymous boy as he struggles greatly in early 20th century India. The first film, Pather Panchali (1955), features a very young Apu (Subir Banerjee) living an impoverished life in rural Bengal with his father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), his mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), his sister, Durga (Runki Banerjee as a child, Uma Dasgupta as a teenager), and his elderly aunt, Indir (Chunibala Devi). For the most part the film is very slice-of-life, but what we see of that slice is far from appealing. The family has to compromise and make sacrifices to stay afloat, all while Apu and Durga (who gets a lot more of the focus in this first film) can’t help but behave like the growing children that they are.
Eventually unfortunate circumstances drive the family out of their village, into the city of Benares, which is where the second film, Aparajito (1956), picks things up. Apu (now played by Pinaki Sen Gupta) makes new friends, but it is all wiped clean when tragedy strikes again and the Roys must relocate again to Dewanpur. An adolescent Apu (Smaran Ghosal) begins to take pride in his budding intelligence, and in an attempt to find a better life he leaves the family to attend school in Calcutta. But even in Calcutta, Apu cannot escape the bad luck that seems to have latched onto the Roy family.
The final film, Apur Sansar (1959), opens with a grown Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) in Calcutta, fresh from graduation and looking to make an impression on the world. Turns out finding work was just as hard then as it is for many graduates today. But for once fate seems to look on Apu fondly, bringing him together with Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), before bringing its cruel hammer down harder than ever.
That’s what The Apu Trilogy’s true story is; rather than being the simple “coming of age” story of a young man, the three films are actually a cataloging of how much abuse the universe can heap on one young man. There are horribly tragic moments in the first two movies – moments that mold the man we find when Apur Sansar opens. In Apu’s first moment alone with Aparna he recounts all of the awful events that have befallen him as if they are behind him, as if he has moved on. But by the end of the trilogy we fully understand how broken he is. The only thing left to discover is whether or not he is beyond repair.
The English translation of the third film’s title is “The World of Apu.” Throughout the films we see the world around Apu getting larger (he moves from a small village to a city to an even bigger city), but his world – the people that care about him – gets smaller. His emotional detachment at the beginning of Apur Sansar is understandable, given what he has gone through; why open your world up when all you’ve ever gotten in exchange is pain?
Ray creatively reflects Apu’s thinking on this matter through the symbol of the train. For Apu, the train represents the rest of the world. In Pather Panchali he and Durga are thrilled to catch a glimpse of a train – it is emblematic of a society they have never seen, but want desperately to be a part of. This wonder continues in Aparajito. Apu is still enchanted by the giant locomotives, despite being quite experienced in their use. But by the time Apur Sansar rolls around, the train, which blows right past his apartment, represents an annoyance. It is no longer a fascination for Apu. That is, until he truly accepts Aparna as a part of his life. All of a sudden the train’s whistle stops being so piercing, and returns to being a melodious aspect of the audio tableau surrounding the young man.
I am very new to Indian cinema (he said as if he had a lot of experience with film from any foreign country), but what I do know is that Satyajit Ray is widely considered one of the country’s grandmasters of film. It is easy to see why. Each of the films succeeds to various extents, but when taken together they are amazingly evocative. This is especially impressive considering Pather Panchali was the director’s first picture. What’s more, the entire trilogy reads as a complete whole, despite the fact that Ray made two unrelated films between Aparajito and Apur Sansar.
I will admit that The Apu Trilogy took a little time to really hook me (as did the first couple French New Wave films I watched), but as the story of Apurba Kumar Roy revealed itself to me I began to understand why Ebert (and so many others) declare the series one of the greats. There’s a lot going on in Ray’s early films, and I look forward to getting a chance to take another look in the future.