Like many trilogies, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy follows a familiar pattern: a first film that is an undeniably great achievement, a second film that is the worst (albeit in this case, still a good film), and a final film that is (almost?) as great as the original, and a big improvement over the second entry, Aparajito.
1959’s black and white, 105 minute long Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) is a great film, and unlike the second film in the trilogy, Aparajito, it stands totally on its own. One need not have seen the other two films to appreciate its considerable merits. Of the three films, this is easily the most technically skilled; while film three in the trilogy, it was the fifth film that Ray and his crew filmed. Like Aparajito, this film was based upon the novel Aparajita by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.
Whereas Aparajito took place only a short time after the events that ended Pather Panchali, the start of Apur Sansar takes place, likely, a few years after the end of Aparajito; for Apu is now done with college, whereas he was still in his first year at the end of Aparajito.
The film opens with Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee, easily the best of the four actors to portray Apu) getting an English language letter of recommendation from his professor and heading out through the front door of the university to an outside world suffused in white. The credits roll, and we see Apu is now living in Calcuttta, in a dingy one room apartment, but three months and 21 rupees behind on his rent. He has just had a short story accepted for publication in a national magazine and, for the first definitive time in the trilogy, we learn his surname is also Ray; which may lend a bit of a deeper meaning to some of the more personal elements in the film. He seems to be both a virgin (according to the later claims of his friend, Pulu) and shy around females. There is a great scene where he goes to lie down in his bed, only to see a pretty neighbor girl looking at him from across the alley. He then lays back, grabs his flute, and shuts his windows shutters with it.
He applies for jobs, but is turned down by many — including one scene that is so understatedly perfect that it could stand alone as a one or two minute short film. After a brief interview, a prospective employer tells Apu to take a walk to the back of the building and look into a room where several workers are hunched over and handcrafting labels. Apu looks in the door, sees an old worker looking back, and nothing is said. Apu can see the hellish life ahead of him were he to accept. The cut then is to later in the day, for nothing more need be shown — Apu manifestly did not take the job.
In his spare time he writes a semi-autobiographical novel and occasionally breaks out into mediocre poesy. Apu seems to have turned from his interest in the sciences, in Aparajito, to an interest in the arts. A former college pal of his, the aforementioned Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who is more mature and worldly-wise, shows up, and after drunken revelry they get into an argument, walking along train tracks; that symbol that throughout the series grows in import. In Pather Panchali, Apu must trek from his village to see tracks; in Aparajito, the tracks are within visual distance; and in this film his apartment is right next to a train hub. Pulu invites Apu to a cousin’s wedding in his home village, and after the groom goes crazy with nerves, Apu is asked to step in and marry the bride, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore — an actress who would star with Chatterjee in a number of films, this being their first for Ray), to avoid familial shame. This happens after a great shot of a wedding band’s procession, playing "For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow," and closing in on a napping Apu, oblivious to all that awaits him. Aparna’s mother is smitten with Apu, saying he has the visage of Krishna, and much prefers her daughter’s upgrade.
At first, Apu declines, but, on the promise of a job recommendation from Pulu, he marries the 14-year-old bride, and takes her back to his apartment. At first, he feels regret, having committed her to a life of poverty, when she grew up in a palatial home with servants; and senses her unhappiness (the viewer sees her weeping out a window). However, she is a resilient girl, and soon gets Apu into a better frame of mind with her persistence and levelheadedness.
As soon as life seems to be looking up, Aparna gets pregnant and returns home for the birth. We see Apu in bliss, even at his job in advertising. Then, a relative of Aparna shows up at his door and informs Apu that his wife died in childbirth, although a baby boy survived. Apu socks the boy in the jaw, and we are as stunned as he is. Depression grips Apu, who never sees the boy, and takes off on a five-year sojourn — a cinematic ellipsis where he purges himself of his past, including beachcombing, tossing the manuscript for his novel off a sunset mountaintop, and growing a beard.
Pulu finally hunts him down, as Aparna’s father is sick of Apu’s ways, especially since his own wife, who loved Apu so, is now dead. He considers Apu a deadbeat, and Apu’s son, Kajal (Alok Chakravarty), a little hellion. When Pulu finds Apu living almost penniless in a mining area, he tells him the name of his son, Kajal, and here Apu reveals that he does not love his son, for he knows Kajal exists only at the expense of his beloved Aparna. Yet, as watchers of the trilogy know, the fact is that Apu also does not want to love his son, lest he die, just like his Auntie Indir, his sister Durga, his father, his mother, and his wife. Pulu leaves his old friend, thinking he has failed to convince Apu to return, yet Apu does return.
The once palatial home of his in-laws has seemingly fallen into desuetude. Apparently, Aparna’s death negatively impacted her clan as much as it did Apu. Apu’s son is, at first, hesitant to be around him, and Apu is ready to leave, until Kajal returns. The boy asks who he is, refusing to believe, at least on one level, that Apu is his father. When Apu offers friendship, the boy accepts, and rides off on his father’s shoulders, down a path away from his grandfather’s now decaying home. The ending, however, is not filled with Hollywoodian tears and mawk, but with true emotion. And, whereas the trilogy has been dominated by the women (and actresses who portray them) in Apu’s life — his auntie, sister, mother, and wife — by this film’s end Apu has become the dominant person in his own life, a bit upbraided by life, but with a renewal of the optimism that marked him throughout the trilogy.
And this is achieved on the strength of Chatterjee’s great and endearing performance. He is confident and shy, often at once; he is wise and immature, silly and depressive, and a whole range of emotions that show he is a fully realized human being — even when, while in his five-year mourning for Aparna, he feels he is lost. This all reflects well on the screenplay, written by Ray. As example, take the scenes wherein we learn of Aparna’s death. In typical Hollywood melodramas, and most drama, once finding out of the death (which would be melodramatically shown onscreen, with Aparna dying during birth as she writhes and knocks over a glass of water, symbolizing feminine power raging against the misogynistic oppression of pregnancy) Apu would act out, in over the top ways, instead of withdrawing, and becoming new.
Apur Sansar is part of a package of The Apu Trilogy, put out in Region 2 DVD, by Artificial Eye. It contains all three films, and will only play on Region 2 or code free DVD players. The film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The third disk, with Apur Sansar on it, has no audio commentary, and has a brief selection from a BBC television show called Omnibus, an episode called "The Cinema Of Satyajit Ray." There are storyboards, still photos, production notes, and a biography and filmography of Ray.
Unlike the other two disks, it contains a bonus — about an hour long 1990 feature called The World Of Apu Masterclass, in which a film historian, Mamoun Hassan, parses out scenes from Apur Sansar with a small group of British film lovers. The print used in the DVD transfer is the best of the three films, although, after a good half hour or so of sparkling quality, some major damage (splotches and scratches) is seen in a few brief moments, and then the film quality varies in reels afterward, although never as bad as the few moments of manifest damage.
Word has it that The Criterion Collection may be acquiring the rights to Ray films in the future, and hopefully they will do some much needed restoration work on all three films. The white subtitles, on the black and white background, are also a distraction, as usual. And, as stated before, gold should be used for all black and white films, especially if no English language dubbing is used. As with the other two films, there are a number of instances of missing letters from words, mostly Is and Ns, but also a few Bs. The cinematography, by Subrata Mitra, is excellent, as in the other two films. The film’s score, by Ravi Shankar, is the best of the trilogy, both evocative and well placed in scenes for artistic and social commentary; and a huge leap above that in Aparajito.
Apur Sansar is a film that delights in little things. In the beginning of the film Apu’s apartment is a disheveled mess, like most bachelors’. But, within a few scenes of her appearance there, Aparna transforms it into a place where a woman calls home, by subtle decor. Yet, Ray never calls attention to this. It just happens naturally, and only an astute observer would notice; such as a scene where he is teaching her English, because that is the language that allows Bengalis to escape poverty. At other times, he lets romantic intimacy lead one to a change in Apu: there is a deft scene where Apu finds a hairpin between pillows, and then he sees his wife doing cleaning in a hallway, and tries to light a cigarette, only to find a note from her inside his cigarette pack stating that he promised to only smoke after eating.
Later, a series of playful letters are exchanged between the separated couple, when she is off to her parents’ place to give birth. One can sense the delight and excitement Apu gets just from reading the words of his wife, even when interrupted by a co-worker or a man on a trolley. I doubt I’ve ever seen onscreen love portrayed so well without any physical affection nor intercourse shown. Yet this is just an extension of the great human interactions Ray captures. Earlier, in the first sequence with Pulu, we get a sense of the depth of their friendship when, after a night on the town, the two men are returning to Apu’s apartment and walking along train tracks at night. They are arguing over women, literature, and the camera just pulls back and leaves the two friends in the midst of their personal comity.
Then, after Aparna has died, and Apu is bedridden with grief, he is seemingly brought back to reality by the screech of a train whistle — the very thing that, within the bounds of the trilogy, symbolizes some greater horizon for him. Yet, we soon see that it is not a call to life that has roused him, but he seems to now be standing on tracks, waiting to be run over, until we learn that the wail we hear, when the camera moves up and away from Apu (as if to let his end come without voyeurism, and foreshadowing a similar scene of pain heard on a payphone in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where the camera looks away from the protagonist who is being dismissed on the phone, by a woman he desires), is that from a pig whose leg has been crushed, not Apu. Such cinematic poesy and mastery are grace notes that abound in Apur Sansar, and make it such a fabulous work of art; and one with many more moments of insight and depth than these few herein described.
Oftentimes critics confuse the terms major and great, as if they were synonyms. They are not. There are great works of art that are small chamber pieces: think Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, or Curse Of The Cat People. These films are gems, but contain large pieces of cosmic power in their small delineations. Then there are major films, that, while having good moments, and dealing with titanic dilemmas, miss greatness because they do not core deeply enough into things, despite their impact on the culture and their medium: think Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, or Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Then there are films that are both great and major, for they are technically, aesthetically, and intellectually great while having a major impact on the culture and cinema. These would be films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho The Bailiff, and Taxi Driver. Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, as a whole or taken in bits, belongs to both classes.
Apur Sansar not only has meaning, but imparts meaning to its viewers, not just of its own internal realities, but those which communicate individually to the percipient. Only humans can bring or gift meaning, for only we can comprehend it. The greatest of artists know this; yet, paradoxically, because it can be so difficult, so few even try to impart it in what they claim as their art. Satyajit Ray had no such worries, and one only wishes more filmmakers followed his lead, one which Apur Sansur so splendidly embodies.