I grew up in a jungle,
Where the canopies were dense,
Where I could play the warrior
To whom imagined foes defer,
Where time was slow yet fleeting,
A parade of precedents.
I moved then to a jungle,
Not of leaves but weathered stone.
I learned the world was wide and far
And much more fun than parents are.
And every story led me toward
A story of my own.
My mind became a jungle
As the years were filled with noise.
Though grief was vying for the lead,
A stronger love became my creed,
The kind that builds on fate fulfilled
And makes men out of boys.
MPA rating: Not Rated (nothing really objectionable, though at least PG for the serious subject matter)
So I didn’t fit in all my 2022 Blindspots into last year. It happens, and I’ll just have to aim for better this year. First, though, it’s time to wrap up the old ones, starting with a pick that was perhaps overly ambitious for my slow viewing schedule. Instead of just one film, I made one of my picks a trilogy so that I could introduce myself to the work of acclaimed Indian director Satyajit Ray. Based upon the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and boasting a score by Ravi Shankar, the Apu Trilogy is made up of three black-and-white films following the life of a poor Bengali boy named Apu: Pather Panchali (or Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (or The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (or The World of Apu). All three are considered landmark films in Indian cinema, earning international esteem and influencing many filmmakers in the decades since.
First up is 1955’s Pather Panchali, Ray’s debut film focusing on Apu’s childhood in the rural forests of Bengal in the 1910s. More than any of the sequels, the first film is focused on the visuals, with an unhurried pace to allow viewers to consider the episodic life of the Roy family, a poor life of sweeping dirt floors and brushing their teeth with a finger but not without its moments of joy and wonder. A more commercial film would have provided some kind of narration, with Apu (Subir Banerjee) reminiscing about his harried mother (Karuna Banerjee), traveling father (Kanu Banerjee), and impish sister Durga (Runki Banerjee and later Uma Dasgupta; no actual relation between the four Banerjees, by the way). Instead, the movie shows rather than tells, reflecting the fact that it was filmed based on storyboards rather than a script, and it boasts several striking images in its picture of agrarian poverty, from the reflection of shadows in a pond as Apu and Durga follow a sweets peddler or the appearance of a train chugging through windswept fields of tall grass, the only sign that this story is set in a modern era.
Despite a behind-the-scenes featurette’s assertion that Pather Panchali is Durga’s film in the trilogy, I thought it belonged more to the mother Sarbajaya. While she doesn’t always come off as likable, even nagging an elderly houseguest until the old woman leaves, Sarbajaya bears the heaviest burden of the family. She deals with the objections over Durga’s stealing from neighbors, the loneliness when her husband is away earning money as a Brahmin priest, and the financial worries when he disappears for months at a time. Her actress has especially expressive eyes that do wonders with the mostly minimalist dialogue. Still, the rambling pacing of Pather Panchali is admittedly tedious at times and ultimately telling a sparse and sad story of poverty. Yet, even if it was meant as a standalone film, I see it as necessary groundwork for the story to come.
The second film is 1956’s Aparajito, which I enjoyed more than the first simply because more happened, but somehow I think it’s my favorite of the three. After the heartache of the first film, young Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his family have moved to the city of Benares (now Varanasi), leaving behind bamboo forests and sweeping dirt floors in favor of crowded riverside ghats and sweeping stone floors. While Apu’s father finds more work in the city, it doesn’t take long for more tragedy to strike, forcing another move to stay with a rural relative. There, Apu finally has the opportunity to attend school and awakens a love of learning that eventually sends him off to college in Kolkata, stepping into a more modern world of books and electricity.
Whereas Pather Panchali seemed largely observational, Aparajito felt like a more personal film, particularly focusing on the relationship between Apu and his mother. Apu didn’t have much agency before since he was a wide-eyed child, but comes into his own as a character once he makes the choice to attend school, thanks to the support of the long-suffering Sarbajaya. Like so many adolescents growing up, the older Apu (Smaran Ghosal) is drawn toward the bustling college life instead of his provincial past, and even his moments of sweetness with his mother have a tinge of disinterest on his part. I’m a sucker for a sacrificial mom story, and this is the kind of regretful tale that made me want to hug mine.
Rounding out the trilogy is 1959’s Apur Sansar, focusing on Apu as an adult (Soumitra Chatterjee). Now on his own, he’s a starving artist working on a novel and tutoring on the side, too overqualified for manual labor. When he is invited to a country wedding, a trick of fate and odd local customs result in him marrying the bride, which is a shock to both him and the lovely Aparna (Sharmila Tagore, who somehow looks and acts older than her mere fourteen years). Despite being strangers, a sweet romance gradually blossoms between the two, and Apu must come to terms with his role as husband and then father, as well as the trail of tragedy and grief that has followed him throughout his life.
It seems that most critics consider Apur Sansar the most complete and professional work in the trilogy, and it does feel like the most self-contained, as well as the most satisfying. Ray (or perhaps the author of the source material) is actually quite ruthless with his characters, so by the end, it’s gratifying whenever Apu has a bit of happiness. It helps too that Chatterjee is an outstanding actor, able to evoke his thoughts with only a look, such as a moment in bed where he seems struck by the fact that he is really married. (May he rest in peace, since he died just a couple years ago due to COVID.) I also liked how Apu and Aparna go out to the movies at one point to watch a rather hokey mythological epic, which both recalled a similar play Apu saw in the first film and highlighted how different Ray’s more grounded films were from what came before.
There actually isn’t much continuity between the three films, and any of them could be watched in isolation. Yet they do build upon each other in subtle ways, as when the Apu in Aparajito excels in class due to the home lessons his father gave him in Pather Panchali, or the chuckle-worthy scene in Apur Sansar where Apu’s friend describes the rural lifestyle of his cousins that so closely mirrors Apu’s own upbringing. There are a wealth of more subtle details and creative choices that a non-critic like me may not catch, so I found it even more rewarding to watch behind-the-scenes features about Ray’s artistry, such as the symbolic use of trains as harbingers of death throughout the films.
Now that I’ve watched these certified classics, I can see why they are so well-respected, and I now view Satyajit Ray as an Indian counterpart to Akira Kurosawa in Japan, telling detailed, culturally authentic stories that resonate beyond their specific country or setting. At the same time, I’ll be honest and say these are definitely what I call “critic movies”; perhaps in decades past, they might have had popular appeal, especially in India, but they are designed more to tell a slow and personal story rather than entertain. They are not the kind of movies one watches casually and thus probably not ones I’ll ever see again.
But as works of cinematic art representing the highs and lows of Apu’s life, they do live up to their reputation, provided one has the patience for them. Considering both Chatterjee and Tagore had long and successful careers after Apur Sansar, I’m now curious to see more of their work, not to mention that of director Ray. And I am very grateful for the Criterion Collection’s dedication to preserving all three films, the originals of which were burned in a fire and required great pains to restore. These are nuanced and significant entries in the history of international cinema, and even if they seem mundane by modern standards, I’m glad to have seen them.
Best lines: (schoolmaster, to Apu in Aparajito) “If you don’t read books like these, you can’t broaden your mind. We may live in a remote corner of Bengal, but that doesn’t mean that our outlook should be narrow.”
(Apu in Apur Sansar, commenting on Aparna going to her parents for a while) “But I will get some work done on my novel. I haven’t written a line since we were married.” (Aparna) “Is that my fault?” (Apu) “It’s to your credit. You know how much my novel means to me. You mean much more.”
Rank for all three: Honorable Mention
© 2023 S.G. Liput
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