The Apu Trilogy
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Iconic Indian film trilogy in Bengali/ 1955-59/ dir: Satyajit Ray
Richard Phillips: "Art wedded to truth must, in the end, have its rewards"
The Apu Trilogy, written and directed by Satyajit Ray
By Richard Phillips
Sydney Film Festival 2001
2 August 2001
One of the more memorable screenings at this year’s Sydney Film Festival was Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy— Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apu Sansar (1959)—which traces the life of a Bengali family and their son Apu, as he moves from childhood in a rural village, through his youth in Benares where the family later moves, to manhood and marriage in Calcutta. The three films, which have been restored by the Merchant-Ivory Foundation, include new subtitles and a digitally remixed and remastered version of Ravi Shankar’s original soundtrack.
The Apu Trilogy, which made Satyajit Ray India’s first internationally recognised director, helped to redefine cinema for the most serious Indian filmmakers at this time and influenced and encouraged many others internationally. Such was the power of Ray’s work that Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa remarked: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
Ray was born in Calcutta 1921 to a family of distinguished intellectuals and grew up surrounded by art, literature and music. His father and grandfather, who were closely associated with India’s social reformist Brahmo Samaj movement and its leading poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore, were printers and publishers who also wrote and illustrated children’s stories and poetry. Ray’s mother was an accomplished singer and other relatives were scientists, photographers, artists and physicians. Ray developed an early interest in western classical music and the cinema. He watched hundreds of films, mainly American, in his youth and wrote to Hollywood stars and directors, including Billy Wilder.
After graduating from the University of Calcutta where he majored in physics and economics, Ray attended Santiniketan University in Kala Bhavan, studying fine art and graphic design under renowned Bengali artists Binode Bihari and Nandala Bose. Bihari taught him Chinese and Japanese drawing and calligraphy techniques. In 1942 Ray returned to Calcutta and took a job the following year with a British advertising agency as a graphic designer and illustrator. Increasingly passionate about movies, Ray helped establish the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, organising special showings of Hollywood, European and Russian films.
He began writing film reviews and in 1948 published a short but perceptive comment entitled “What is Wrong with Indian Films”. It criticised the predominance of saccharine sweet musicals and religious mysticism in Indian cinema and declared: “The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the moviemaker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so.”
Soon after writing this essay, Ray met French film director Jean Renoir who encouraged him to begin making his own films. In 1950 the talented 29-year-old illustrator was sent to London for six months to work in the advertising agency’s head office. Ray spent most of his spare time there watching movies—more than 90 odd films—including Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and several other Italian neo-realist cinema classics.
Italian neo-realism, which had a profound impact on Ray and other filmmakers, was characterised by its naturalistic documentary style, on-location shooting, conversational speech rather than literary dialogue, and the use of mainly non-professional actors. De Sica’s film follows the heartrending efforts of a poor Italian man and his son to recover a stolen bicycle the father needs in order to get to work.
The Bicycle Thief, Ray wrote in a 1951 essay, was “a triumphant rediscovery of the fundamentals of the cinema” and the “simple universality of its theme, the effectiveness of its treatment, and the low cost of its production make it the ideal film for the Indian filmmaker to study.”
“The present blind worship of technique emphasises the poverty of genuine inspiration among our directors,” Ray continued. “For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment. The filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica, and not [Cecil B.] DeMille, should be his ideal.”
Song of the Little Road
Ray had been commissioned in 1945 to illustrate a children’s edition of Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), the popular semi-autobiographical novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandhipadhyaya. Inspired by de Sica’s film, Ray decided to make the novel the subject of his first film and spent the two-week boat trip from London back to India preparing shooting sketches and a basic plan for its production.
While work began on Pather Panchali in 1950, the first footage was not shot until October 1952 and continued over the next two years on weekends and holidays. The production had a miniscule budget with a mainly amateur crew and cast. In fact, Sabrata Mitra, Ray’s cinematographer, had never made a film before and the only experienced members of the production were the editor, art director and an 80-year-old retired theatre actress, Chunibala Devi. The film was finally completed, after a one-year interruption when Ray ran out of funds, with a grant from the West Bengal government. It was released in India in August 1955 and screened the following year at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the festival’s Best Human Document Award. This international recognition allowed Ray to quit the advertising agency and devote the rest of his life to filmmaking, literature and art.
Pather Panchali, which is set in the early 1900s, has a relatively simple plot. In fact, the film largely consists of a series of short, loosely-connected vignettes tracing out the life and times of a poor Brahmin family in rural Bengal and the birth and childhood of their only son Apu. Head of the family, Harihar (Kanu Banerji), who dreams of being a poet, has brought Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerji), his pregnant wife, and Durga (Uma Das Gupta), his daughter, from Benares back to the ancestral rural home. The young family also takes care of an aged aunt, Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi).
The home is in serious disrepair with part of the land having been sold to settle debts. Harihar, who obtains occasional bookkeeping work for a local landlord, is forced to spend long periods away from the family in search of full-time employment. The mischievous Durga steals fruit from orchards, which she gives to Indir, thus creating conflicts with the neighbours and between Sarbajaya and Indir. Blamed for encouraging the young girl, Indir leaves the family but returns following Apu’s birth.
Pather Panchali follows the trials and tribulations of this poor family: the first conscious experiences of Apu (Subir Banerji), his early school years and close bond with his sister Durga, and their adventures in the nearby forest and fields. The underlying strength of the film is Ray’s unsentimental but intensely artistic exploration of many universal themes. He carefully examines the interaction of life and death, the aged and the young, and makes subtle references to the tensions between rural and city life and how it is being changed by new technology—in this case electricity and the railway.
In one memorable sequence, which also cuts to the last difficult moments of Indir’s life, the children, who have been quarrelling, are playing in fields far from home and come across some high tension electricity pylons. Fascinated by the humming sound of the wires they walk on through long grass, see the smoke of a distant train and then run to the railway tracks. The train, which has previously been an occasional background sound in their lives, is seen in all its power, the hope of a better life beyond their immediate environment. Their quarrels are forgotten in their fascination with the train but on the way back home they stumble across Indir who has collapsed and is dying in the woods.
Pather Panchali has some extraordinarily joyous moments combined with periods of deep sadness, including the death of Indir, and then the tragic loss of Durga, who catches a fever after a dancing in the monsoon rains and dies just before her father’s long-awaited return. The success of Pather Panchali allowed Ray to begin work immediately on Aparajito (The Unvanquished), also based on a Bandhipadhyaya novel, which was completed in 1956 and won the Golden Lion award at the 1957 Venice Film Festival.
This film is more complex in terms of plot and characterisation compared to Pather Panchali and set new standards for Indian cinema actors.
Set in the 1920s, Aparajito begins in the holy city of Benares on the Ganges where the family, still in shock over Durga’s death, had moved. Harihar is attempting to maintain Sarbajaya, his wife, and the 10-year-old Apu (Smaran Ghosal) by reciting Hindu scriptures and selling religious trinkets to pilgrims visiting the holy river. While the family is still poor and Harihar’s health is declining, he is happy to be reunited with his wife and son, who is animated and excited about city life. Tragedy strikes, however, when Harihar catches a fever and collapses one day after climbing the steps from the river and dies soon after.
Having lost her husband and only daughter, Sarbajaya decides to relocate to her uncle’s village in Bengal where Apu resumes his education at the local school. The central focus of Aparajito is the changing relationship between Apu (now played by Santi Gupta) and his mother. The years go by and Apu wins a scholarship to a Calcutta college and leaves the village. Sarbajaya is proud of her son but concerned about who will care for her in his absence.
The final part of the film alternates between Apu’s life with his school friends in Calcutta and what he considers to be boring vacations in the quiet village with his mother. Apu is unconscious of his mother’s loneliness and disdainful of village life. Sarbajaya, who scolds him for not writing to her enough, is torn by her isolation and the recognition that the young man must make his own way in the world. As in Pather Panchali, the train is a potent symbol in the film: for Apu it is his lifeline to the outside world; for Sarbajaya it is a vehicle of hope that carries Apu back to the village for his brief vacations.
Ray produced two films— Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) and Jalsaghar (The Music Room) between 1957 and 1959—before deciding to make Apu Sansur (The World Apu) the last of the trilogy in 1959. In this film Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee), now in his mid-20s, has given up studying and, although unemployed, harbours hopes of becoming a writer. Living in a small room near the Calcutta railway tracks he is persuaded by an old school friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), to attend a wedding in the country. The arranged marriage of Aparna, the young bride, however, is cancelled at the last moment after her family discovers that the suitor is mentally retarded. A new groom must be found immediately or, according to tradition, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) will be cursed for the rest of her life. Apu is asked to be the groom and agrees, despite some initial resistance. The newly married young couple fall in love and move back to Calcutta. Aparna falls pregnant but tragedy strikes when she dies giving birth to the child—a baby boy.
Angry and confused, Apu blames the baby for his wife’s death and refuses to take any responsibility for the child and wanders the countryside in a state of deep despair. Five years later he decides to visit his son. Although his in-laws are bitter and the child rejects him at first, father and son form a bond and Apu resolves to take full care and responsibility of the young boy.
It is difficult to exaggerate the artistic beauty of the Apu Trilogy, which has some astonishingly poetic and haunting imagery that resonates long after specific details of the films’ plots have faded from the one’s more immediate memory. Apu and Durga’s discovery of the train outside their village or Durga’s joyous dance in the first monsoon rains in Pather Panchali; Sarbajaya’s emotional pain as she tries to come to terms with her son’s longer absences from home in Aparajito; and the extraordinary intimacy of the newly-married Apu and Aparna in Apu Sansar. Another one of the many indelible moments in Apu Sansar is Apu’s interview with the manager of a small factory. The job? Handwriting labels for food jars. The interview concludes and Apu is taken to the workroom and looks into the dark and dirty hellhole. Nothing is said and the camera barely moves. The blank gaze of a worker says more than a thousand words of dialogue, not just about this soul-destroying job, but the system that produces this misery.
The greatness of these films, however, lie not just in the lyrical cinematography, honesty of the actors’ performances and the intense music of Ravi Shankar, but in the universal themes Ray deals with and his underlying optimism. Despite the extraordinarily tragic moments in the trilogy, and there are many, Ray always provides a sense of hope that no matter how great the difficulties confronting his characters the struggle for genuinely caring human relations can overcome all adversity. Commenting on the initial success of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, Ray declared in 1958: “Personally I have been lucky with my first two films, but what is really important and exciting is not the immediate gain, but the ultimate vindication of the belief that I hold dearest as an artist: art wedded to truth must, in the end, have its rewards.”
Ray’s artistic legacy under attack
It is not possible here to provide a detailed overview of this director’s cinematic work—the Apu Trilogy was, in fact, the first of a number of truly great films by Ray on a diverse range of subjects. Suffice to say, this thoroughly independent director, who refused to be swayed by commercial considerations, was a multi-talented artist. He wrote his own scripts, composed most of the musical soundtracks and was the cinematographer in a number of his films. He also wrote and illustrated scores of children’s books, novels, detective stories and science fiction works and was writing up until his death.
Before he died in 1992, soon after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, he had made 29 features and several documentaries chronicling different phases of Bengali social life and history—stories about the rural poor, the urban middle classes and the wealthy. These include: The Goddess (1960), Three Daughters (1961), The Lonely Wife (1964), The Hero (1966), Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), Distant Thunder (1973), The Chess Players (1977), The Home and the World (1984), An Enemy of the People (1989), Branches of the Tree (1991) and The Stranger (1991).
Rightly regarded as one of the century’s leading film directors by international critics, Ray encountered many detractors in his own country. In 1980, former film star and MP Nargis Dutt denounced him in the Indian parliament for “exporting images of India’s poverty for foreign audiences”. Ray earned the wrath of Hindu chauvinists who claimed he was an “Orientalist,” or Westernised Indian, who had renounced Indian culture.
These crude criticisms coincided with the rise of Hindu fundamentalists who blame all of India’s social ills on foreign influences and other religions, and insist that India must become an exclusivist Hindu state. Today these extremists hold power through the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has repeatedly sought to suppress the works of artists, film directors and historians that in any way cut across or are critical of their right-wing, communalist view of Indian society.
Such “critics” did not sway Satyajit Ray in the slightest. Educated by a family who were leading figures in what has been described as the Bengali renaissance and who campaigned for an end to the caste system, child marriages, Sati (widow burning) and other backward practices, Ray had no time for those calling for a Hindu or nationalist approach to artistic creation.
Ray drew on the highest achievements in human science and culture for artistic inspiration—from the European enlightenment, Asian calligraphy, western classical music and the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. This progressive and thoroughly inclusive outlook infused all his work and gave it an unmatched honesty and integrity. He once commented that great cinema had the ability to “leave its regional moorings and rise to a plane of universal gestures and universal emotions”. This is the essential achievement of the Apu Trilogy and indicates why it is anathema to the Hindu fundamentalists today.
Rob Mackie: The Apu Trilogy
DVD rental and retail, cert U
By Rob Mackie
The Guardian, Friday 21 March 2003
Satyajit Ray's trilogy, made in the late 50s, is one of the holy cows of world cinema but rarely seen these days. The three films - Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu - are available separately and as a three-disc box set together with an Omnibus film on Ray, who explains that none of his team had ever made a film before. "We learned by our mistakes," he explains, though there's little sign of error. Watch ing his debut, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) again, it still has tremendous freshness and vitality, combining a very simple style with moments of poetry in its depiction of three generations of a poor Bengali family struggling to get by.
It's the incidental moments - a train thundering by as the children watch, the ominous build-up to a monsoon - that register most strongly. Ray explains that his neo-realist style came about when he was sent to England by the Calcutta Film Society and saw what could be achieved shooting on location with non- professionals. Pather Panchali took two years to make as funds were hard to find, and a key actor was an 80-year-old who had not acted for 30 years. There are moments of odd comedy too, like the local band playing a wobbly version of It's A Long Way to Tipperary with great solemnity. Its success at Cannes made a great career possible.
Roger Ebert: The Apu Trilogy
March 4, 2001 | May Contain Spoilers
The great, sad, gentle sweep of "The Apu Trilogy" remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be. Standing above fashion, it creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived. The three films, which were made in India by Satyajit Ray between 1950 and 1959, swept the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and London, and created a new cinema for India--whose prolific film industry had traditionally stayed within the narrow confines of swashbuckling musical romances. Never before had one man had such a decisive impact on the films of his culture.
Ray (1921-1992) was a commercial artist in Calcutta with little money and no connections when he determined to adapt a famous serial novel about the birth and young manhood of Apu--born in a rural village, formed in the holy city of Benares, educated in Calcutta, then a wanderer. The legend of the first film is inspiring; how on the first day Ray had never directed a scene, his cameraman had never photographed one, his child actors had not even been tested for their roles--and how that early footage was so impressive it won the meager financing for the rest of the film. Even the music was by a novice, Ravi Shankar, later to be famous.
The trilogy begins with "Pather Panchali," filmed between 1950 and 1954. Here begins the story of Apu when he is a boy, living with his parents, older sister and ancient aunt in the ancestral village to which his father, a priest, has returned despite the misgivings of the practical mother. The second film, "Aparajito" (1956), follows the family to Benares, where the father makes a living from pilgrims who have come to bathe in the holy Ganges. The third film, "The World of Apu" (1959), finds Apu and his mother living with an uncle in the country; the boy does so well in school he wins a scholarship to Calcutta. He is married under extraordinary circumstances, is happy with his young bride, then crushed by the deaths of his mother and his wife. After a period of bitter drifting, he returns at last to take up the responsibility of his son.
This summary scarcely reflects the beauty and mystery of the films, which do not follow the punched-up methods of conventional biography but are told in the spirit of the English title of the first film, "The Song of the Road." The actors who play Apu at various ages from about 6 to 29 have in common a moody, dreamy quality; Apu is not sharp, hard or cynical, but a sincere, naive idealist, motivated more by vague yearnings than concrete plans. He reflects a society that does not place ambition above all, but is philosophical, accepting, optimistic.
He is his father's child, and in the first two films we see how his father is eternally hopeful that something will turn up--that new plans and ideas will bear fruit. It is the mother who frets about money owed the relatives, about food for the children, about the future. In her eyes, throughout all three films, we see realism and loneliness, as her husband and then her son cheerfully go away to the big city and leave her waiting and wondering.
The most extraordinary passage in the three films comes in the third, when Apu, now a college student, goes with his best friend, Pulu, to attend the wedding of Pulu's cousin. The day has been picked because it is astrologically perfect--but the groom, when he arrives, turns out to be stark mad. The bride's mother sends him away, but then there is an emergency, because Aparna, the bride, will be forever cursed if she does not marry on this day, and so Pulu, in desperation, turns to Apu--and Apu, having left Calcutta to attend a marriage, returns to the city as the husband of the bride.
Sharmila Tagore, who plays Aparna, was only 14 when she made the film. She projects exquisite shyness and tenderness, and we consider how odd it is to be suddenly married to a stranger. "Can you accept a life of poverty?" asks Apu, who lives in a single room and augments his scholarship with a few rupees earned in a print shop. "Yes," she says simply, not meeting his gaze. She cries when she first arrives in Calcutta, but soon sweetness and love shine out through her eyes. Soumitra Chatterjee, who plays Apu, shares her innocent delight, and when she dies in childbirth it is the end of his innocence and, for a long time, of his hope.
The three films were photographed by Subrata Mitra, a still photographer who Ray was convinced could do the job. Starting from scratch, at first with a borrowed 16mm camera, Mitra achieves effects of extraordinary beauty: Forest paths, river vistas, the gathering clouds of the monsoon, water bugs skimming lightly over the surface of a pond. There is a fearsome scene as the mother watches over her feverish daughter while the rain and winds buffet the house, and we feel her fear and urgency as the camera dollies again and again across the small, threatened space. And a moment after a death, when the film cuts shockingly to the sudden flight of birds.
I heard a distant echo of the earliest days of the filming, perhaps, when Subrata Mitra was honored at the Hawaii Film Festival in the early 1990s, and in accepting a career award he thanked, not Satyajit Ray, but--his camera, and his film. On those first days of shooting it must have been just that simple, the hope of these beginners that their work would bear fruit.
What we sense all through "The Apu Trilogy" is a different kind of life than we are used to. The film is set in Bengal in the 1920s, when in the rural areas life was traditional and hard. Relationships were formed with those who lived close by; there is much drama over the theft of some apples from an orchard. The sight of a train, roaring at the far end of a field, represents the promise of the city and the future, and trains connect or separate the characters throughout the film, even offering at one low point a means of possible suicide.
The actors in the films have all been cast from life, to type; Italian neorealism was in vogue in the early 1950s, and Ray would have heard and agreed with the theory that everyone can play one role--himself. The most extraordinary performer in the films is Chunibala Devi, who plays the old aunt, stooped double, deeply wrinkled. She was 80 when shooting began; she had been an actress decades ago, but when Ray sought her out, she was living in a brothel, and thought he had come looking for a girl. When Apu's mother angers at her and tells her to leave, notice the way she appears at the door of another relative, asking, "Can I stay?" She has no home, no possessions except for her clothes and a bowl, but she never seems desperate because she embodies complete acceptance.
The relationship between Apu and his mother observes truths that must exist in all cultures: how the parent makes sacrifices for years, only to see the child turn aside and move thoughtlessly away into adulthood. The mother has gone to live with a relative, as little better than a servant ("they like my cooking"), and when Apu comes to visit during a school vacation, he sleeps or loses himself in his books, answering her with monosyllables. He seems in a hurry to leave, but has second thoughts at the train station, and returns for one more day. The way the film records his stay, his departure and his return says whatever can be said about lonely parents and heedless children.
I watched "The Apu Trilogy" recently over a period of three nights, and found my thoughts returning to it during the days. It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.
Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ in Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list again
Fri, August 3, 2012 UTC by Shweta Parande
The Indian classic is No.42 on the list of the British Film Institute’s best movies
Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute’s (BFI) magazine, conducted a poll for its well known Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, and Indian director Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) has made it to the ranks…again. Only this time it’s No.42 with 31 votes, slipping 20 places from its 2002 ranking. The film, a favourite of acclaimed international directors such as Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa and George Lucas, first entered Sight & Sound’s poll in 1962, and was in the top 10 in 1992.
Pather Panchali is a 1955 movie directed by the Academy Award-winning Ray and was the first part of Apu’s Trilogy, the other two being Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) – all based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The film was honoured at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 – Best Human Document, OCIC Award – Special Mention and the Palme d’Or. It won several other international honours and was presented the National Film Award by the Government of India – Best Feature Film (Golden Lotus Award) and Best Feature Film in Bengali (Silver Lotus Award) – in 1955.
The other films from the trilogy were also hugely appreciated. Aparajito won three awards at Venice in 1957 – the Golden Lion of St. Mark for Best Film, the Cinema Nuovo Award and the Critics Award. It also won majorly at the Berlin, London and San Francisco film festivals in 1958, among other honours.
Apur Sansar won the President’s Gold Medal in 1959. In 1960, it got the National Film Award for Best Film and the Sutherland Award for Best Original And Imaginative Film at the BFI London Film Festival apart from several other honours and nominations.
Among top 5 greatest Asian films
The Times of India, Oct 05 2015
Busan RAY'S MASTERPIECE - Apu trilogy among top 5 greatest Asian films
Celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray's `The Apu Trilogy' is among the top five greatest Asian films of all-time, it was announced at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. The Busan International Film Festival is marking its 20th anniversary with a list of the 100 best Asian films of all time, based on a poll of 73 noted filmmakers and critics.
The Apu Trilogy depicts the life of Apu in Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito; (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). A masterpiece that realistically and placidly portrays Indian society. Ray is called a master of Asian film as well as the father of Indian cinema, a statement said. `Tokyo Story', a legendary masterpiece by Ozu Yasujiro from Japan topped the list. Akira Kurosawa's `Rashomon' was on second position. `In the Mood for Love' by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai' came third.
Other Indian filmaker whose works made it to the list were Ritwik Ghatak, Raj Kapoor, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Govindan Aravindan and Mira Nair.
The Apu Trilogy
Pather Panchali 1955