There is a distinct disadvantage of seeing works of art very early in life. I saw Satyajit Ray’s black and white films somewhere in the late eighties, when I was in high school. I was aware that I was watching the work of a world class film maker— I know because I recorded them in my diary. Yet I was not mature enough to grasp the intricacies of the film. It didn’t help that I didn’t understand Bengali, and only the first film was subtitled. Yet something about Durga’s eyes stayed with me as I grew up.
2nd May 2020 was Satyajit Ray’s 100th birthday. The papers were full of tributes. Somewhere I read an Akira Kurosawa quote: “The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. I feel that he is a “giant” of the movie industry. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” And I decided it was time to revisit the three films over the weekend.
The Apu Trilogy consists of three of Ray’s films: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito, (1957), and Apur Sansar (1959). These are based on two of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhyay’s Bengali novels. Pather Panchali and its two sequels, set in rural Bengal, are a great cinematic bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story—here, a narrative of Apu’s life. Apu or Apurva Chandra Ray, is the son of a priest and wannabe writer, Harihar Ray, who struggles hard to make ends meet.
Pather Panchali (Song of the little road) is Ray’s debut film. The film depicts the life of siblings, Durga (Uma Dasgupta) and Apu (Subir Banerjee) in rural Bengal. The magic of the movie lies in its camera work and lighting. The black and white images with the beautiful light falling over faces made it a memorable watch for me even as a child, when the film was too slow for an impatient being. My favourite character was an old aunt (Indir Thakrun) played by Chunibala Devi. Dressed in tatters with a million wrinkles on her visage, a gleeful smile when she sees an unexpected guava in her vessel lights up the screen. She is the kind of character who is so frail and fragile that you expect her to fall dead any moment. And to think that Satyajit Ray managed to make a film with her that was delayed for three years due to financial issues. He was extremely lucky. The other person whose strength stayed with me through the years, is Sarbajaya, Apu’s mother, played by Karuna Banerjee. There is something about her eyes and the way she tightens her jaw and her saree, as she goes about her household duties with meagre resources. Yet the film is not about impoverishment or sadness. The memories I cherish will always be, the way the kids follow the sweet seller with his pots laden on his shoulder, the excitement of oiling and combing little Apu’s hair, or the kids getting drenched in the downpour. Satyajit Ray’s camera captures the monsoons like no one else does. The water striders and the dragon flies in the ponds, the lotus leaves, and the ripples— are all doubly beautiful in black and white.
The second movie in the trilogy is Aparajito (The Unvanquished). This movie delineates Apu’s (played by Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghoshal) life as the family moves from rural Bengal to Kashi. Apu’s father, Harihar Ray (played by Kanu Banerjee), now tries to make a living as a priest on the ghats of Varanasi. The film takes you through Apu’s growing up years, where his love for learning wins him a scholarship and takes him to Calcutta. The mother-son relationship is now strained as she wants him to stay back with him, while he wants to fly away. He finally has his way, but the strong Sarbajaya now encounters loneliness like never before. The magic of this movie, like Pather Panchali, lies in the little details. The scenes in the classroom, where the teacher speaks impeccable English even when he throws students out of his class, remind you of Ray’s passion for all things aesthetic. I can’t make up my mind whether I like this film more or Pather Panchali. I guess I would vote for Pather Panchali, as for me the Durga- Indir bond was extremely moving.
The last film in the Apu Trilogy is Apur Sansar (Apu’s World). Little Apu is now an adult and unfettered from all bonds. He is the lone decision maker who decides the course of his life. Soumitra Chatterjee as the older Apu owns this film. The film traces the life of Apu as he struggles to find employment, while he works on his incomplete novel. Providence results in his getting married to Aparna (Sharmila Tagore in her debut role). Apu’s evolving relationship with Aparna and the tragic twist in the tale completely changes the person that Apu is. And later, finally Apu finds his new self when he meets his son. Ray finds us enchantment in every day stuff.
The passing of a train is a recurring metaphor in the three films. In Pather Panchali, the siblings run through grasslands to get their first glimpse of a noisy train. Here it symbolizes escape or yearning for the unreachable. In the subsequent movies, the same train symbolizes distances, longing, loneliness, and sometimes ambition. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s musical score in the three film provide the perfect accompaniment to the moods. The dialogues seem secondary, as Ray’s camera lingers on each prop. The eyes capture the nuances, while the slow long shots make you want to be there to experience the serenity of the moment. And to think that Ray didn’t use a script, but story-boarded each scene with his hand-drawn sketches.
These three films have been acknowledged as some of greatest in world cinema, and not without reason. They brought Indian cinema to the world stage. It is a privilege to see the world with Satyajit Ray’s eyes.
(Subtitled versions of Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar can be viewed on Eros. Aparajito is available on YouTube)