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.