The Criterion Collection set of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy has been one of the more eagerly anticipated releases in recent years. These masterworks of world cinema, widely acclaimed for decades, have been long overdue a much-deserved superior treatment on home video. Now though, benefitting from a 4K digital restoration by the Academy Film Archive and L’Immagine Ritrovata, and with a wealth of bonus features, these exceptional films are available in the superb presentation so many have been waiting for.
But to start at the source, such a treatment would not have been warranted in the first place were the films themselves not so remarkable, and that they most certainly are. As no less an authority than Akira Kurosawa puts it, “To have not seen the films of Ray is to have lived in the world without ever having seen the moon and the sun.”
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), the first two based on novels by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, the third on an original story by the author, follow Apurba Ray—Apu—from childhood through his early 20s. Apu is played by Subir Banerjee, Pinaki Sengupta, Smaran Ghosal, and Soumitra Chatterjee, in four key phases of his life, and while he is not always the main subject of every drama that occurs, he is the only figure consistently present, and it is through his eyes and emotions that the films poignantly register.
It would seem in Pather Panchali that Apu’s older sister, Durga (Shampa Banerjee at first, then Uma Das Gupta at a slightly older age), acts as the primary protagonist. She is the one who drives along much of the story, mostly because of her penchant for stealing, which repeatedly lands her in trouble. It is more than 20 minutes into the film before the charming young Apu is given his phenomenal introduction, rising up with wide-eyed youthful exuberance as Durga wakes him one morning. Aside from some basically innocuous childhood shenanigans, the school-aged Apu of Pather Panchali is frequently on the margins, simply bearing witness to the world around him. Still, his relationship with Durga is the most complex and interesting in the film, and when their occasional sibling rivalries subside, the two share in several extremely touching moments of intimacy.
Dramatic tension in the first two films also weighs down upon Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), while Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) is the relatively carefree father. In a characterization repeated later in Ray’s work, the man of the house is the idealist, the generally laidback layabout, while it is the wife and mother who suffers the anxieties of everyday life. She is also often the disciplinarian of the children, while the father is himself likened to an immature adolescent, at least in temperament. Harihar makes ends meet by being a priest, but on the side, his passion is writing plays and poetry, and it is to those endeavors that he devotes most of his time and effort. While such artistic goals undeniably have their cultural value, in Pather Panchali they contribute to a spousal clash of pragmatism versus naïve optimism. His art is important, but will it pay the bills? That, he does not so much worry about, but Sarbojaya does, for she has no such lofty devotion, at least not any longer; he still has his dreams, she only had hers. The conflict of aspirations and harsh realizations sets up a recurrent narrative challenge awaiting Apu, who, over the course of the three films, will face any number of obstacles thwarting his objectives, those short-term and life altering.
Also established early on, and again resonating throughout the trilogy, oftentimes directly influencing the realization or abandonment of idyllic ambitions, is the natural progression of life: births, deaths, weddings, funerals. As these three films follow several years in the life of one character and give ample attention to many of those around him, a major motif is subsequently that of youth versus old age, how the two differ and simultaneously compliment one another. This is first embodied by Durga, with her mischievous behavior, and by the defiantly stubborn elderly aunt, Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi), who lives with the family. Sarbojaya scolds the old woman for acting at times like a child, with the implication in this instance being that the very young and the very old are connected in a way those of middle age are not, that they both view things in a similar fashion, act accordingly, and are correspondingly chided (after all, it’s usually for the aunt that Durga steals fruit). The young and old are, in a sense, free from the burdens and the worries of middle age; they either are not yet there or have lived long enough to surpass such concerns. In those central years is where the trouble lies, though, as seen by Sarbojaya’s varied anxieties and the struggles of Harihar, and that is where we leave Apu by the time of Apur Sansar, with a tumultuous adult life ahead of him. “There are always good times and bad,” says Harihar, and so it goes that in the Apu trilogy; death is ever present and ever varying. There is the prolonged process of the aunt’s gradual passing in old age, the sudden and irrevocably fatal sickness of Durga and Harihar, and the death of Sarbojaya, most likely spurred on by emotional turmoil. Life and death, the trilogy shows, do not discriminate by age.
For all of Harihar’s faults, and however much Sarbojaya may deride his seemingly frivolous ambitions, by the end of Pather Panchali it is he who paves the way for the family’s move and a new chapter in the lives of all involved. Following the premature death of Durga and Harihar’s attainment of a new job, Aparajito picks up with the Ray family in the city of what is now Varanasi. Harihar continues his part-time religious work but soon succumbs to illness, which leaves Sarbojaya again under great duress. For a substantial portion of the film, Apu is not yet the primary point of focus, as that revolves around his mother and father. But it is still by way of his sense of sideline curiosity that much of what is seen is understood and chronicled.
Following his father’s passing, and his mother’s decision to move back to the village, Apu does gradually become the central figure, and he is now faced with his own decisions to make, particularly as they relate to his education. His detached childhood innocence and cheerful way of life is slipping away. Now he is concerned about his studies in Kolkata, which leaves him at odds with his mother, who frets about being left alone. He therefore has to choose between leaving her and their relative comfort in order to act on his own dreams, or to remain and become a village priest, like his father, with his goals relegated to merely what might have been, like his mother.
In Pather Panchali‘s Bengal village, Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra find and express an extraordinarily complex beauty in the natural simplicity of the forest. The nature photography glistens with images of sprinkling sunlight, textured foliage, and scenes of tranquil stillness. In this rural tableau, structures organically grow from, and meld with, the environment in a synchronicity of wilderness and settlement. In certain interior sequences, Ray adds to the realism of the location by retaining unrelated, though reasonable, background sounds and voices, never abandoning the notion that there is continually vigorous life beyond the frame. It’s what Ray biographer Andrew Robinson calls a “living backdrop.” While this may make for a richly authentic setting, it is often more than Sarbojaya can stand. For her, “it’s like living in the jungle.” For better or worse then, by the time of Aparajito such a setting seems a million miles away. The soft lushness of their bucolic village has given way to an urban hardness. The family’s new neighbors move freely around and are generally congenial (though perhaps a little too forward), but they remain strangers, and the Ray family, too, are strangers in a strange land.
Later, when Apu arrives in Kolkata, he is similarly stricken with an eager bewilderment, marveling at unexpectedly commonplace features of modernized civilization, like electricity. Though only hinted at in Pather Panchali, the conflict of primitivism and modernity is front and center in Aparajito, as is the blending of the natural and the artificial. One gets this sense right away, as the film opens with residents bathing in the Ganges river as it flows along the man-made banks of Varanasi (we see it again even in Kolkata, as pigs roam free right outside Apu’s multi-storied apartment building). The split division of the natural environment and that of urban development visually reflects the half-and-half position of Aparajito itself, which ultimately finds Apu at a personal crossroads. The surroundings also signal a tonal shift, with an urban location that is intimidating and even frightening in its newness. For this and in other ways, Aparajito is clearly a transitional film and does not work quite as well as a stand-alone feature. Having seen where Apu is coming from, we relate to his perception of foreignness, and do so with considerable anxiety. Ray thus films this middle feature with less obvious vitality, replacing it with the feeling that there is nothing beautiful or magical here.
When the somewhat older Apu is successfully on his own, his mother remains concerned for his safety and for his health. She becomes a solitary, tragic figure, even more than she already was, and the sadness registers prominently on Bannerjee’s face (she, along with the child actors of Pather Panchali, gives the best performance of the trilogy). When Sarbojaya purposely doesn’t wake the visiting Apu one morning, hoping he will miss his train back to the city, her pathetically guilt-ridden expression speaks volumes.
After Sarbojaya dies, and with Apu finally left by himself, he is now free to act on his life without the constraints of familial responsibility, with no attachments, no ties to bind him to his previous existence. One thing that remains, however, is the enigmatic majesty of trains, that perpetual symbol of movement, progress, and modernity—three key themes of the Apu trilogy, and also a feature that carries connotations of Apu’s steadily dissipating childhood wonderment; one of the finest scenes in Pather Panchali, the first scene actually shot, involves Apu’s astonished viewing of a passing train. (In Aparajito, the opening shot is taken from a train, and in Apur Sansar, Apu lives near a rail yard. But by this point, the thrill is gone.)
The adult Apu in Apur Sansar is a talented writer (following in that half of his father’s footsteps), who has earned something of a reputation for his college work on village life. This, it would seem, is the one way for Apu to keep his upbringing alive, for now he is fully entrenched in modern life, a life of restaurants and movie theaters, slacks and button-up shirts. Still, he lives modestly, and still he struggles to find his way. While attending the wedding of a friend’s cousin, Apu quite unexpectedly finds himself in the midst of an unraveling ceremony. Seen to be in the right place at the right time, and despite the fact he initially decries the proposal as being from the “dark ages,” Apu reluctantly steps in to take the reticent groom’s place. His unanticipated marriage is no doubt a major step in his life, and it is a step he is drastically ill-equipped to take, emotionally and financially. But Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), his new bride, is beautiful, and besides, it is nevertheless another, perhaps inevitable step in life, a way to accomplish some semblance of mature, adult stability.
For a time, Apur Sansar takes the shape of a common, modern domestic drama. Though Aparna is less educated than Apu, she pleasantly assumes her new role and together the two share some of the trilogy’s most pleasantly tender moments. Apu’s life is destined to be marred by tragedy, however, and this too is not meant to be. When Aparna dies during childbirth, Apu abandons the boy, and after he spends time in a period of bearded, nomadic wandering, he is faced with yet another decision about the next path to take.
Apur Sansar ends with a beautifully arranged final sequence, a satisfying conclusion to the series, one that conveys, for the first time, Apu’s now full engagement in a world of his own (hence the third film’s subtitle). It is, as critic Terrence Rafferty writes, “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.”
Far more of an amateur production than the latter two films, Pather Panchali was created with a small, inexperienced crew. It also has a less straightforward narrative than the following two features, opting instead for a fluid slice of life depiction of the Ray family, with a perceptive authenticity in detail (setting, clothes, props, habits, etc.) rather than plot. This first installment, a groundbreaking leap forward for Indian cinema, is likewise therefore less reliant on classically effective emotional cues (though Aparajito and Apur Sansar are by no means melodramatic), and stylistically, as in the nature scenes noted above, it is also the most visually dynamic. For these reasons, it is the best of the three films. Regarding its liveliness and intensity, Chatterjee says the movie is, “like an eagle swooping down and carrying our hearts up to the sky.” It is no surprise Pather Panchali had a successful New York premiere even though it was shown sans subtitles. There is no translation required to such visual resonance.
Generally though, while his films are always aesthetically pleasing, Ray frequently films without any blatant synthetic flourish, but with a background as a graphic artist and having worked under the tutelage of Jean Renoir, he was fully capable of elegant pictorial compositions, striking camera movements, and emphatic editing when necessary. There are times when he incorporates an explicitly stylized punctuation to the already dazzling intrinsic imagery. In Pather Panchali, for example, there are two such shots: when he dollies alongside the aunt in an unconventional profile close-up as she walks in front of hanging rugs, and when Sarbojaya is seen walking inside her darkened house by candlelight, shot from the nighttime shadows outside.
Enhancing Ray’s masterful writing and direction, a number of other individuals played integral roles in the greatness of these three features. First, and perhaps foremost, is Ravi Shankar, whose stirring score is inseparable from the imagery and tone of the films. Then there is cinematographer Mitra, editor Dulal Dutta, and production designer/art director Bansi Chandragupta. Ray may have been the guiding force behind the scenes, but without the contributions of these and other key figures over the course of several years, what distinguishes this trilogy would never have been so fully and magnificently realized.
While a trilogy was not his original intent, it’s good Satyajit Ray ultimately chose to continue following Apu. Pather Panchali stands on its own as an exceptional motion picture, Aparajito carries further the themes and complex character relations, and Apur Sansar rounds everything up, but the three films together, as one universally affecting document, make the trilogy the incomparable cinematic accomplishment that it is.