The Apu Trilogy: Every Common Sight

On Film / Essays — Nov 17, 2015
Apu essay

Our first look at Apu, the young protagonist of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), is a close-up of his eye. He’s a little boy, but it’s a very large eye that emerges from beneath the rough blanket he’s been wrapped in—a big, intelligent, and terribly innocent eye that will, in the course of this film and two more, Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (also known as The World of Apu, 1959), see a lot of life and a lot of death, almost (but not quite) too much to bear. Apu, we come to understand, is by nature an observer of the world around him, which in Pather Panchali consists entirely of a tiny, remote rural village in West Bengal in the 1920s. His family is small: his father, Harihar Ray (Kanu Banerjee), often absent, is an itinerant Hindu priest and a would-be writer; his older sister, Durga (Shampa “Runki” Banerjee, later Uma Das Gupta), pilfers and yearns; an ancient “auntie,” Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi), comes and goes, singing songs as she waits to die; his mother, Sarbajaya (the extraordinary Karuna Banerjee), bustles around in a state of constant anxiety, mostly about money. (The Rays are desperately poor: the modest house that Harihar calls the “ancestral home” is crumbling around them.) There are animals, too, of course, and a few scattered neighbors; sometimes a sweets seller wanders by, and once in a blue moon a troupe of traveling actors visits the village to put on a show. For a curious boy like Apu (Subir Banerjee), this doesn’t seem much in the way of stimulation—and perhaps initially not for a movie audience either, accustomed as we are (and were even sixty years ago) to wider vistas than these. But to a child’s eye, everything is marvelous, and by the end of Pather Panchali, Ray has taught us to see the world with eyes like that.

Both the real world of Apu and the art of filmmaking were in fact brand-new to Ray when he began shooting Pather Panchali in October 1952. He was thirty-one years old and had spent most of his life in Kolkata, where he had been born into a distinguished artistic family. His grandfather Upendrakishore Ray was a painter, a musician, the founder of a printing press, and a lifelong friend of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore; his father, Sukumar Ray, was famous for his drawings and light verse. Satyajit, before resolving to become a movie director, worked as a commercial artist, cofounded a cinema society, and wrote film reviews on the side; an edition of the 1929 novel Pather Panchali, by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, was among the books he’d illustrated (he already knew it well). “What I lacked was firsthand acquaintance with the milieu of the story,” Ray wrote a few years later. “To one born and bred in the city, it had a new flavor, a new texture: you wanted to observe and probe, to catch the revealing details, the telling gestures, the particular turns of speech.” Over the two and a half years it took to shoot the film (there were several interruptions, when funds ran out), Ray did exactly that: observed and probed, and found beauties and horrors that a filmmaker more accustomed to rural life might have passed by in silence.

Working with a cinematographer (Subrata Mitra) who was a still photographer but had never shot a feature film, an editor (Dulal Dutta) and an art director (Bansi Chandragupta) who had scarcely more experience, and equipment of variable quality, Ray simply paid close attention to his unfamiliar surroundings, and it was enough: everything in Pather Panchali seems not just freshly seen but freshly imagined. The sights on the screen are often rapturous, despite the meanness of the settings. And even without much dialogue, the sound of the movie is mysteriously eloquent: the torrents of a rainstorm make a terrifying white noise; the old aunt’s scratchy songs have a lonesome grandeur; the voices of children at play, high-pitched and constant, sound like birdsong; a train whistle blows, from time to time, in the distance, and conjures dreams. Ray never had a finished script for the movie because, he said, he saw and heard it in his head. Perhaps that accounts for the film’s remarkable evenness of rhythm, its mood of sustained contemplation. The story of Pather Panchali is episodic, but it moves forward with the force of a held thought. Akira Kurosawa put it another way: “It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.” In making a film whose narrative depends almost entirely on the rhythmic arrangement of minute observations, the first-time director was in some sense putting into practice a “little theory” of his about the fundamental flaw of his country’s cinema. “Indian directors,” he believed, “tended to overlook the musical aspect of a film’s structure . . . The sense of form, of a rhythmic pattern existing in time, is what was mainly lacking in our directors.” It is not lacking in Pather Panchali.

After the long stop-and-start process of shooting the movie, Ray wound up editing it rather quickly, to meet a deadline for a May 1955 screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film was well received there (even without subtitles), and in Kolkata, where it did good business later that year. It went on to the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, where it won a special prize for Best Human Document; when it opened in New York, in 1958, it ran for eight months at one of the city’s premier art houses. The New York Times’ reviewer, Bosley Crowther, praised it condescendingly, as “one of those rare exotic items, remote in idiom from the usual Hollywood film, that should offer some subtle compensations to anyone who has the patience to sit through its almost two hours.” It was, Crowther wrote, “a film that takes patience to be enjoyed.” The fact that so many New Yorkers—and other viewers around the world—did summon the patience to enjoy Pather Panchali is, in retrospect, pretty amazing, because the film’s tempo is deliberate, its style lyrical, meditative, rather than conventionally dramatic. Scenes flit across the screen and disappear like fireflies, small wonders of a moment. In the calm before the storm that is one of the film’s most significant events, insects—dragonflies and water striders—skim the surface of the river, lighting and taking off and lighting again in a lengthy, ecstatic montage, scored to the furious strains of a Ravi Shankar raga, and you can’t take your eyes off the scene, any more than a child would be able to. The music Ray makes in this sequence, and others in Pather Panchali, evokes Wordsworth’s music in the “Intimations” ode: “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream.”

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Although Ray often said that he disliked “the idea of making two similar films in succession”—and although he hadn’t originally meant to continue Apu’s story beyond the end of Pather Panchali—the success of his first film persuaded him to carry on with an adaptation of Aparajito, the second novel in Banerjee’s popular coming-of-age saga. True to his word, he didn’t make a similar film at all. In Aparajito, the family has moved from the decrepit “ancestral home” to a cramped flat in the holy city of Varanasi (then known as Benares), where Harihar has more priestly work to do, Sarbajaya has different worries, and Apu has new sights and sounds and smells to take in: a new world. The boy, now ten years old, is played by another actor, Pinaki Sengupta, but his eyes are still big and greedy. The style of the film is less poetic, more novelistic, almost Dickensian: full of colorful characters who drift into the story casually, make their impressions, and then move on, never to be heard from again. After a longish, unhappy stretch in Varanasi, the setting shifts, first to the countryside, where Sarbajaya finds work, and then to Kolkata, where the teenage Apu (now played by yet another actor, Smaran Ghosal), on scholarship, goes to school. The narrative of Aparajito is as bustling and hectic as Pather Panchali’s was becalmed; the river is less serene, more turbulent here. “It’s a kind of chronicle,” Ray told his biographer Andrew Robinson. “I never really went back to that form anymore.”

What’s most striking about Aparajito is how deftly and economically the film races through Banerjee’s material, compressing years of Apu’s education into brief, telling montages, and measuring the weight of Sarbajaya’s many anxieties in a handful of mournful looks—some of them seen in close-up, others in beautifully composed long and medium shots of the fretful mother standing in doorways, watching her son’s arrivals and departures. There are fewer purely lyrical passages here, and less camera movement. The music of this film is primarily in the editing, in quick glimpses of the world as it passes by, as if seen from a speeding train. Once his education has begun, Apu isn’t merely wandering as he was in the village but moving with some purpose from point to point: from school to home, home back to school, and from both, finally, to the envisioned life of an adult. It’s in this film that his story begins to take the shape of a classic bildungsroman, like David Copperfield or Balzac’s Lost Illusions, in which a young man learns to live in the world by first hardening and then softening his heart.

It is in this film, too, that the story’s recurring imagery starts to take on resonance: the railroad, which was a dream of escape in Pather Panchali, has more various and more ambiguous meanings here, and those doorways in which Sarbajaya can so frequently be seen standing have a different, more melancholy emotional tone to them as well. The unusual beauty of The Apu Trilogy is in the way Ray finds images for the passage of time, and the doorways, somehow, come to represent how those passages feel to a woman whose life’s occupation is waiting—shuffling between a small room and a small porch, or, sometimes, just rooted stock-still between them. At the end of Aparajito, Apu is on the move, as he was at the conclusion of Pather Panchali, but in this film he’s alone, and Ray shoots his slow walk from the back, in long shot, as he heads for the horizon. The young man has taken the decision not to stand in doorways like his mother, or to sit by the Ganges reading scripture like his father. For once in the trilogy, Ray doesn’t show us Apu’s searching eyes, because neither the director nor his protagonist knows how to see what’s coming next along this road.

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Ray wasn’t finished with Apu, but before he caught up with his hero again he refreshed himself with a couple of other films, a comedy called The Philosopher’s Stone and a tragedy called The Music Room (both 1958), which resemble neither the Apu movies nor each other. He came to Apur Sansar as an accomplished filmmaker, a seasoned professional rather than a passionate amateur, and he needed the skills he’d acquired because the story he had to tell in this film is richer, more emotionally complex than those of its predecessors. Apu, now played by the superb Soumitra Chatterjee (who would make thirteen more films with Ray), is a grown-up now—still wide-eyed but with a grown-up’s problems and worries. Just looking at the world isn’t quite enough anymore: he has to find a way to be in it, to do something with his life, and when the movie begins, his outlook isn’t promising. He has had to leave university for lack of funds and has settled into a grim room in a Kolkata boarding house. He tutors a little, plays the flute, works on a novel that sounds suspiciously autobiographical, and applies for jobs for which he is invariably overqualified; he’s behind on the rent, and his digs are starting to look nearly as shabby as the run-down “ancestral home” of his boyhood. His life changes suddenly when a school friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), invites him to the wedding of a rich cousin in the country; through a series of misadventures, Apu—whose experience with women is precisely zero—returns to Kolkata a married man himself. His bride, Aparna (the lovely Sharmila Tagore, of that Tagore family), has a moment of sadness when she sees the squalor of Apu’s living arrangements. But Ray tells us, in a purely visual way, that they’re made for each other. When Aparna goes to the window to take in the unprepossessing view, she looks through a hole in the curtain, and all we see of her is a single eye—as in the first shot of the boy Apu in Pather Panchali. She’s an observer, like him.

The first half of Apur Sansar, in which Apu and Aparna, playful as children, settle into married life, is blissfully comic; their happiness is unexpected, and infectious. Ray, in something like the busy manner of Aparajito, edits together swift vignettes of everyday, unremarkable domestic activity—scenes whose only import, really, is the absurd joy these young people take in each other’s company. These passages constitute, in a sense, a brisk, allegro movement of the symphony that is The Apu Trilogy, and, as usual, there’s slower, heavier, darker music to come. Apu’s life, like Ray’s filmmaking, is about motion, constant change, arrivals and departures: his idyll with Aparna can’t last.

When the tone of Apur Sansar shifts so dramatically halfway through, we’ve been with Apu, and with Ray, so long that the change of register feels entirely natural: the films’ rhythm is strong and sure enough to carry us along. In the final movements of the trilogy, Apu again becomes a wanderer, cast adrift by grief and neither knowing nor caring where he’s going. He grows a beard; his eyes are clouded, as adults’ often are, from not wanting to see any more than they have to. The compositions in the second half of Apur Sansar are starker, more desolate than anywhere else in the trilogy, and the few remaining characters walk slowly, deliberately, as if they are afraid of stepping on land mines. The only indication that time has not stood still is a little boy named Kajal (Alok Chakraborty), who’s about the age Apu was when we first saw him in Pather Panchali. He is Apu’s son. In the ecstatic final shot, both Apu and Kajal are on the road together, both facing the camera, their eyes wide with uncertainty and hope.

The trilogy ends, then, as it should, with an image of continuity, of a passage that both evokes the past and implies a future—a moment in which two people, one grown, one not, stand on a threshold. We don’t need to know any more of Apu’s story than this. Ray’s story, of course, went on for another thirty years, during which he continued to make films of exceptional delicacy and variety: Charulata (1964), Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), The Middleman (1976), The Home and the World (1984), and more, including even some fanciful adventure movies for kids. The success of The Apu Trilogy brought attention to Indian cinema and helped improve it a bit, though the economic conditions that bedeviled Ray still obtain. It would be nice to be able to say that Ray’s way of moviemaking has been broadly influential, but that’s probably not the case: for all the improvements in technology, films today aren’t discernibly more musical than they were, and the patience of audiences is surely no longer than it was in the art-house fifties. What remains, though, borne on the serene flow of time, is this magisterial body of work. Not much in life or art is imperishable, but it’s safe to say that the films of Satyajit Ray are. He saw the world with an innocent, inquisitive eye, and made art with the eye of experience.