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Friday, September 23, 2011

Satayajit Ray | The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparjito, and Apur Sansar)




FLIGHT AND RETURN: THE APU TRILOGY
by Douglas Messerli

Bibhitibbushan Bandyopadhyay and Satayajit Ray (writers), Satyajit Ray (director) Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) / 1955
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Satyajit Ray (writers), Satyajit Ray (director) Aparjito (The Unvanquished) / 1957
Bibhuitbhusan Bandopadhaya and Satyajit Ray (writers), Satyajit Ray (director) Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) / 1959

Pather Panchali (originally released in 1955) begins with Durga—daughter of Sarbojaya and Harihar—stealing a guava from the orchard that once belonged to the family but has now been sold to a neighbor. Hari, the father, is a poet and dreamer who cannot support his family properly. Accordingly, Sarbojaya is left—as is the apparent fate of poorer Bengali women—to care for the daughter, cook the food, and look after the old aunt, Indir, while pregnant with a child. The task is an onerous one, resulting in her frustration and anger which she vents upon both the aunt and daughter.

The film begins slowly, with overly long focuses on the orchard between the house and the neighbors. But it quickly takes shape with the birth of Apu, a male child, and our first view of Hari, a man of such gentleness and kindness that one simultaneously recognizes these qualities as both the sources of his failure as a bread-winner and his strengths as a father and lover. Our first view of Apu is one large eye peeking through a blanket, and his eyes become the center of focus as the surrounding events of the small Bengali village unfold. Critic Robin Wood has observed that the viewer does not see the film from the child’s view but rather from a point of view that makes one party to the child’s perceptions and reactions to what they witness together.

What we are shown may at first seem ordinary and incidental; as Ray himself noted, the novel on which the movie was based determined that it would have a rambling effect. “Life in a Bengali village does ramble.” The noted French film director François Truffaut walked out of the film after the first two reels, declaring the film “insipid” and observing he was not interested in Indian peasants. Indeed, at times too much attention is given to children simply coming and going down the wooded path. But, as the film progresses, we are drawn into the minor events: the appearance of a candy seller, a performance of a traveling theatrical company, the eternal bickering between neighbors, and the slow fading of dreams for mother, daughter and aunt. The women of Pather Panchali, clearly, are the unfortunates. While the entire family dotes (along with the audience, I might add) on the male child, Apu, his sister Durga is expected to help the mother in her housekeeping chores; a girlfriend of her own age is soon to be married. The aunt, so wizened she can barely walk, is sent packing to another relative. Only Hari and Apu seem to remain apart from the misery of everyday life. Apu is being taught to read and write, while Durga, the petty thief of the orchard, is now accused of having stolen her friend’s necklace and is punished by being locked outside the gates of the house.

It is quite justifiable that, when Apu steals tinsel from his sister’s toy box in order to make himself over as a King he has seen in the local theatrical, she is outraged and strikes him. The girl escapes the house in anger, with the beloved Apu following, and thus Ray introduces a scene that is one of the most beautiful in film history. Wandering the fields about, the children stand in stark contrast to the rows of power lines that criss-cross the countryside, and the surrounding patches of white, fluffy kaash flowers are the antithesis of the dark, fast-moving train that awes and overwhelms the two. The filmmaking here is stunning as Ray pulls the camera across the tracks so that the train blacks out landscape and children; we see them only in the small space of light between the carriage and tracks. The train and all its associations of travel, speed, commodity, and culture immediately portray everything the children’s world is not, and suddenly the separation between brother and sister vanishes. They turn toward home, only to discover their aunt a short distance from their doorstep, dead.

Ultimately, Hari must leave the small town to find employment elsewhere. But as time passes without his return, Sarbojaya is left ever more impoverished. She must sell the family’s plates. The village returns to everyday life: Druga’s girlfriend is married with much pomp and circumstance and, in surely one of the most abstract scenes in narrative film, spring returns in all its natural beauty. Dragonflies dart across the pond, reeds reflect into the water like a Hans Hartung painting. Once again, however, the beauty of the natural world prefaces the destruction of the surrounding figures.

In a ceremonial-like prayer, Druga dreams of a future husband; but in dawdling she is caught with Apu in a rainstorm. Throughout the film she has been described as feverish, and now she truly catches fever which, throughout the night of howling wind and rain, her mother attempts to cool. But the fever she has caught is also a symbolic one: the fever of a young girl in love with living. There is no hope for such a being; in the poverty-stricken world wherein she is trapped, she can only be destroyed—just has her mother has spiritually died.

Upon Druga’s death, Sarbojaya is so grief-stricken that, like Brecht’s Mother Courage, she cannot express her pain. It is only upon the long overdue return of Hari, who upon his arrival begins by describing the petty gifts he has brought the family, that her tears commence. And the awfulness of events is fully understood by family and audience alike.

The family determines to move to Benares, and as they pack their few possessions, Apu reaches for two unused bowls on a high shelf, where he discovers the missing necklace. Ray brilliantly demonstrates the wisdom the child has learned by having him secretly throw the evidence into a nearby stand of water. The last frame reminds those of us imbued with Christian imagery of the flight of Mary, Joseph, and child into Egypt. A new world awaits.

Los Angeles, May 20, 2003


The second of Ray’s Apu trilogy immediately establishes for the viewer the new world which has, so to speak “swallowed up” Harihar Ray and his family. The first image we encounter is centered upon sound, as a flock of pigeons suddenly take to the sky. The camera then focuses on the center of Benares life, the Ganges river and the various purposes it serves: it is a place for bathing, washing clothes, drinking, and religious activities.

Soon after the camera travels into the narrow street passages of the city, following the games of Apu and his friends dashing throughout the confines of its poor residents, running wild—as Sarbojaya puts it—like monkeys. Here there is no schooling, no organized activities; the only alternative to his childhood games is helping his mother as she cooks in the most primitive of conditions. The Rays’s abject poverty is made clear when she runs out of matches and asks Apu to fetch one or two from a man living in a room above. Caught by the young boy in the process of unwrapping a bottle of liquor, the friendly neighbor, somewhat conspiratorially and with what might be perceived as a slightly predatory friendliness, offers up a whole book of matches.

Throughout the Benares episodes of this film, however, we recognize that in his graceful runs throughout the city, Apu will slip away from all danger; like a monkey, he limberly speeds through the landscape, stopping just long enough to observe the kaleidoscope of sites and activities going on about the city, including his father’s readings of religious texts.

In this early section of Aparjito Ray’s camera is almost constantly on the move, as the human “monkey”—as well as actual monkeys who invade Sarbojaya’s kitchen—runs wild, and in this context there is something so dizzying about these early scenes that we almost share Hari’s first complaints of dizziness.

Despite his fever, Hari goes out again to oversee religious rituals connected with the holiday, collapsing as he attempts to return home. Brought into the house by others, he falls into a deeper fever much like that suffered by his daughter Druga in Pather Panchali, the significance of which is not lost on his wife. Apu is ordered to bring some water from the holy Ganges and races off, returning to find his father near death. Again the birds fly up—which, like other repeated images of motion such as trains and flying insects, signifies adventure, escape, and the release of the soul. Hari is dead.

Apu’s last act in Benares is to feed the wild monkeys who have overtaken an ancient shrine—the images of which suggest polar opposites of his future: subservience to ritual as against the imaginative meanderings of a young man.

Invited by her uncle to join his household, Surbojaya and Apu travel by train, in the opposite direction of their previous flight, to the small town of Dewanpur. Life in this remote village, however, is even quieter than the village they previously “escaped,” and, although the uncle appears to be kind and helpful to Apu and his mother, there are subtle restrictions attached to their being taken in, the most important of which is that Apu must now learn and practice the religious rituals to which his learnéd father had commited his life. Apu is an eager and apt pupil, but it is clear through Ray’s evocative images of children playing the kinds of games Apu previously enjoyed in Benares before being forced to abandon the innocent joys of childhood. Momentarily escaping from his religious observations, Apu runs toward the children only to witness their disappearance into the nearby school. The scene is a devastating one for both character and viewer, for we both recognize that this precocious child of Harihar will be doomed in this small town to what I will call the life of “the fever,” a life of almost total subservience to greater economic and social forces, ending in early death.

He pleads with his mother to allow him to attend school, to which she agrees if he can also continue each morning his religious activities. Through a series of short scenes, including the visit of a local school authority and several images of the young boy imitating the various cultures about which he is reading—Apu’s costuming himself as an African “native,” may be a wry statement of India’s still colonial-based values—Ray quickly reveals the intelligence and potential of his young hero. At sixteen Apu places second in a regional test, and is awarded a small scholarship to the university in Calcutta.

The hurdle of his mother’s opposition remains, but with his awarded globe in hand, he argues for accepting the stipend with such a fervor—with the burning desire of any young person to discover the world—that despite her severe reservations and fear for her own survival in the uncle’s household, she agrees, even offering Apu money she has set aside for their survival.

Like Benares, Calcutta is presented as a seething center of energy. Given a small room in a printing shop in return for his working nights at its presses, Apu, nonetheless, is serious engaged—despite falling asleep during an English lesson—by his university studies. A quick trip home for the holidays is spent primarily in bed sleeping, even as his mother attempts to convey her own loneliness and, more importantly, her fears that she has contracted fever and is soon to die. She can only look forward to the day when he will call for her to join him and make enough money for her to see for a doctor; but when the boy falls asleep while she speaks, the audience knows that that day will never come. When she slaps his face for his glib reactions to her genuine suffering, we know, if Apu cannot yet quite grasp the significance, that it is her only weapon to awaken this sleeping dreamer to the grim realities of their life, despite recognizing that those dreams may represent the only way he might escape.

In one of the most touching of this film’s scenes, Apu determines he must return to school over his mother’s pleas that he remain just a few more days. The young boy—played as an overly gaunt teenager by Smaran Ghosai (replacing Pinaki Sengupta earlier in this film and Subir Bannerjee in Pather Panchali—insists he must hurry back to the city, escaping as quickly as he can to the train station. For the last time in his life, the power of family love wins out over the seductive attractions proffered by the machine in motion, as he purposely misses the train and returns for one more day to his mother.

Back in Calcutta, however, as he prepares for his final exams, he clearly attempts to block out the few ties remaining to his mother and uncle. Sarbojaya has pleaded with him to return home during the vacation, but Apu insists he must study and cannot do so in the “sleepy” atmosphere of Dewampur. His mother prays for his return and, now overtaken by the fever, imagines she hears his returning call. As she goes outside to look for him, like her daughter Druga and Harihar before her, she becomes dizzy. Fireflies twinkling in the night sky become blurred, shining in what appears to her as a path to her prodigal son, but is perceived by the viewer as the release of her soul; the screen goes black. She is dead.

When her son finally arrives, having learned of her illness, there is no longer anyone there to greet him. Apu’s remorse is one of the most painful moments of this film, pain alleviated perhaps only with the uncle’s simple observation: “What’s done cannot be undone.” If Apu has awakened to the truth, he now recognizes all the more the need to reject it and the inevitable fever accompanying it. He ignores his uncle’s demands that he observe the rituals for her death, taking flight once again on the train that represents a society in complete opposition to the one in which he has been born.

Despite winning the Golden Lion award of the Venice Film Festival, Aparjito is not Ray’s most appealing movie; it moves forward in a slow pace that at times can seem almost maddeningly static. The characters, moreover, often seem appallingly ignorant in their lack of self-recognition. The several travels back and forth between the two societies at war in this film also bring to the film a repetition of images and themes that will frustrate impatient viewers. I would suggest, however, that Ray reveals through these flaws (intentionally or not) just the kinds of patterns that continually arise when such cultural differences meet. Despite the recognition of those suffering in subservient isolation and under conservative restrictions that there must be a world better than the one they inhabit, they often resist change in order to preserve the simple dignity with which they have lived life as opposed to joining a society that might transform them into unrecognizable beings. At film’s end, Apu’s return to the city may be his salvation, but he is no longer the wide-eyed child in wonderment that he was in Pather Panchali and the Benares section of this film. And we sadly recognize that Apu will now be an outsider for the rest of his life.

Los Angeles, June 11, 2006


The third film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, The World of Apu, is perhaps the most memorable—not particularly because of its cinematic originality as for the strange twists of its story and the memorable acting of Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu, Sharmila Tagore as his wife, Aparna, and their small son, Kajal, performed by S. Aloke Chakravarty.

If Aparjito showed a world which had swallowed up Apu, cutting him off from the traditions and simple joys of his childhood, the Calcutta of this third film has, so to speak, spit him out with little hope for his future. Unable to finish his university education, Apu is able to eke out the barest of wages through writing, odd-jobs, and tutoring. Much like the central character of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, the would-be writer, Apu, has little to eat and is daily threatened by his landlord of being cast into the streets. A chance encounter with his school friend Palu at least provides him with an opportunity to eat while boasting of his potential possibilities (we have already seen him rejected for the most menial of jobs) and his hopes of finishing his “great” novel. As Palu argues, however, despite the self-depravation of Apu’s life, he lives in a mental fog, a kind of creative stupor that disallows him to experience the daily realities of life of which he might write. Just to help his friend escape the city for a short while, Palu invites him to travel for a few days with him to East Bengal where he is attending a relative’s wedding.

If life in the city, despite the squalor, grinds on without notable change, life in the country is filled with exceptional characters and happenings. Even as he is introduced to the family, the mother of the bride-to-be senses something special about Apu, and repeatedly wonders whether or not they haven’t previously met. As the bride, Aparna, prepares for the wedding, the bridegroom and his party arrive (while under a nearby tree Ray presents us with the dreamer, the pan-like Apu, asleep with his flute); but when the retinue stops, the bridegroom refuses to leave his conveyance, evidently panicked by the marriage, recognizably if temporarily gone mad. The family also panics (it is useful to understand the root of that word as a derivation of Pan’s effects), and in fear that Aparna will be cursed if she is not married to someone that day, Palu is sent to ask Apu if he will wed the girl. Apu’s reaction is understandable, wondering if the whole family has not gone mad. How can they ask him such a thing in modern times? East Bengal is, quite obviously, still steeped in curses, blessings, and magical events. And, ultimately, Apu—more on a whim one supposes than from any rational act—decides to replace the mad bridegroom and marry Palu’s relative.

The beautiful scene after the wedding in which Aparna sits placidly and obediently upon the wedding bed, while Apu circles in despair on account of his actions, represents Ray’s slow, methodical directorial techniques at their best. How can he explain to Aparna the horrible thing he has done? She has grown up in a large and wealthy home in the country, while he, now a child of the city, has no income with which to support her, to sustain the pattern of life to which she has been accustomed. Her insistence that she will remain with him, despite the poverty they face, far better represents a modern wedding compact than any romantic presentation. As they travel to the city and together sneak up the stairs to his near-hovel of a room, the audience despairs as much as the bride for her future. Her tears are ours. The symbol of escape and adventure of the first two films, the train (which now runs by Apu’s very doorstep), is transformed in The World of Apu into a howling machine of torture for the young girl, belching out, like the factories it passes, a constant cloud of toxic smoke.

Despite their and our fears, however, Apu and Aparna are nearly a perfect couple, both romantic innocents who seem destined for one another; she, like Echo (in some myths Pan and Echo were married before she was destroyed) ready to learn his language (in this case, English) and repeat it. Becoming pregnant, she is encouraged by relatives and Apu to return home, he to follow.

The beautiful scenes in which Ray represents their deep love for one another—scenes which present Apu’s attempts to read a letter sent to him from Aparna during a day of working and traveling through the streets, ending in the middle of the train tracks—comes suddenly to a tragic end with the appearance of a relative reporting that the child has come too soon. Pan’s beautiful Echo has been torn apart. Apu’s reaction—he strikes the bearer of the news—presages his later inability to separate truth from circumstance: he will hold his own child responsible for his wife’s death.

In despair, Apu leaves the city, traveling first into the woods (Pan’s native home) and gradually into the center of the country where he finds a job deep within the bowels of the earth, a mine. Now that he has finally had an experience, he realizes the meaninglessness of his fiction, as he drops the pages into the natural landscape, returning the paper and ink into the world from which it emanated.

Returning to India after a trip abroad, Apu’s old friend Palu visits the East Bengal home of Aparna, where the child, Kajal, remains. The uncle reports that Apu has abandoned the boy without even seeing him. Palu searches out Apu, insisting that he return with him, that he rescue the increasingly troubled offspring. But this time, it appears, Apu will not accept the invitation. He refuses the responsibility, attempting to explain to Palu how the boy is inextricably linked in his mind with his beloved Aparna’s death. But as Palu leaves, we recognize that Apu must return; as a child who has lost his own family, Apu necessarily recognizes the fear and loneliness facing his own son.

His reunion with Kajal, however, is not at all what he might expect; filled with anger, the boy will not accept him as his own father, and refuses to have anything to do with him. With understandable rage, the boy rejects over and over Apu’s conciliatory acts. Witnessing one of these rejections, the uncle is about to strike the child with his cane in punishment, when Apu—just as Kajal had previously predicted to a neighbor—rushes forward to stop the brutal act.

As Apu leaves, the boy follows like a shadow, stopping when Apu stops, turning to look back just as the father turns to look back at the boy. Having heard that Apu is returning to Calcutta, he asks if he will take him to his father. Apu readily agrees. Suddenly the child is torn between obedience to his uncle or escaping with the stranger. Kajal’s eventual choice to escape parallels Apu’s own childhood choice; and as Apu hoists him to his shoulders, he clearly accepts the responsibility of raising his son, accepts all the responsibilities of life. He has finally completed his flight, unafraid of facing his return, wherever that my lead him.

Los Angeles, November 25, 2006
All three essays reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2009).

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