The Apu Trilogy (Janus Films, NR)

Apu 75Instead of producing spectacles, Ray’s films tell simple human stories, shot on location, using many non-professional actors.

 

 

 

 

Apu 500

Few filmmakers can claim to have created a greater body of work, or to have exerted greater influence on their national cinema, than the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. His first film, Pather Panchali (1955), won numerous international prizes upon its release, and regularly turns up near the top of lists of the greatest films of all time. Ray followed this success up with Aparajito in 1956, and Apur Sansar in 1959, and together these films form the Apu trilogy, so named from the central character whose life they trace from birth to adulthood.

Ray did not create the Indian film industry, but he did introduce a new style of filmmaking to Indian film. Rather than copy the conventions of the melodramas and musicals typical of the commercial Indian film industry of the time, Ray was heavily influenced by Italian Neorealism. Instead of producing spectacles, Ray’s films tell simple human stories, shot on location, using many non-professional actors. The stories of the Apu trilogy are based on novels by the Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and are set in British India in the early 20th century. They’re not about the British, however, but about Indians whose lives are focused on their own daily existence, and for whom the politics of the British Empire are largely irrelevant.

Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) chronicles the life of a poor family in a small village near Calcutta. The father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), is a poor provider but a cheerful fellow who has ambitions to be a scholar and a poet. The mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), is sharp-tongued and bitter, no doubt in part because she is left to cope with the reality of the family’s poverty, the snobbery of their slightly-better-off neighbors, and the thousand daily annoyances of trying to keep a household together when there’s not enough money. The days of the daughter, Durga (Runki Banerjee as a child, Uma Dasgupta as a teenager), are filled with chores and reprimands from her mother, along with the ordinary kind of fun that children can find in even the toughest circumstances, from stealing fruit from a neighbor’s orchard to listening to the stories told by Harihar’s elderly relative Indir (Chunibala Devi), who lives with the family.

It’s easy to think of “the poor” as an undifferentiated mass, particularly when looking in from the outside, but Ray has sympathy for all his characters, and makes the effort to show each as a unique individual dealing as best they can with the hand they were dealt. Not everyone gets the same cards, of course—when Durga’s brother Apu is born, he is cherished and favored, spoken kindly to by his mother and sent to school rather than to work. Apu (Subir Banerjee) gets a real childhood, despite the family’s poverty, with time to play and to learn that he can make choices, and the results of having those simple opportunities will become evident in the two later films. No one questions the role played by chromosomes in the allocation of opportunities, which is accepted as simply how things are (or perhaps the natural order of things), and the two siblings are devoted to each other and to enjoying the simple pleasures the village has to offer.

Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”) finds the family living in Varanasi (Benares), where Harihar is working as a priest. After his untimely death, Sarbajaya begins working as a servant, and the family returns to a different village in Bengal, Mansapota. Apu (Pinaki Sen Gupta as a boy, Smaran Ghosal as an adolescent) returns to school, where his sharp mind and hard work is rewarded with an offer of a scholarship to a school in Calcutta. He wants to go, while his mother wants him to stay. This conflict is at the core of Aparajito, and the film drew criticism for its refusal to create an idealized mother-son relationship. Apu goes to Calcutta, working in a print shop after school to help pay his expenses, and assimilates to his new world. He writes home less and less, unaware of or unconcerned with his mother’s growing loneliness, and she refrains from telling him when she becomes ill, because she doesn’t want to interrupt his studies. When he does visit the village, Apu turns down an offer from her uncle (Ramani Ranjan Sen) to remain and work as a priest, choosing instead to embrace the opportunities offered by his new life in Calcutta.

Apu Sansar (“The World of Apu”) finds Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) living in Calcutta. He can’t afford to attend university, but refuses to consider working as a clerk, and instead scrapes by giving private lessons and working on his writing. When an old friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), invites him to attend a village wedding, Apu’s life takes an unexpected turn. The bridegroom turns out to be insane and the bride’s family refuses to allow the wedding to take place, but are left with a dilemma—by local custom, the bride must be married at the appointed time or remain single all her life. Apu is convinced to marry the bride, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), who is much younger than him but far more mature.

His new status as a husband forces Apu to end his perpetual adolescence—no longer the dreamy, flute-playing poet who relies on his clever tongue to get him out of trouble, he accepts an office job and develops a loving relationship with his wife. Once again, however, tragedy strikes as Aparna dies in childbirth and Apu, blaming his newborn son, Kajal, for his wife’s death, leaves the child with his in-laws and begins a wandering existence. Several years later, his friend Pulu convinces Apu to visit his son and accept his responsibility as a father.

All three of the Apu films were shot by Subrata Mitra, a newcomer to movie work when he began working on Pather Panchali. His cinematography is magnificent and also completely appropriate to the story. In Pather Panchali, Mitra sticks primarily to revealing the details of village life, reflecting Apu’s limited experience of the world, while in Aparajito and Apur Sansar the scope of the cinematography opens up to reflect Apu’s broadening experience of life. Ravi Shakar composed the music for all three films, and his soundtracks are the perfect complement to Ray’s simple, highly specific, visual approach to storytelling. | Sarah Boslaugh

Films in the Apu Trilogy will be screened in Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Pather Panchali will screen on October 17, 20, and 23; Aparajito on October 18, 21, and 24; and Apu Sansar on October 19, 22, and 25. Admission is $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University faculty and staff, and free for Webster students with proper ID. Advanced tickets and discount admission passes are available. For more information, including directions and the complete Film Series calendar, visit www.webster.edu/filmseries or call 314-968-7487.

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