At the beginning of each film in the Apu Trilogy, text describes how a 1993 fire destroyed the original negatives (two reels from the last film survived, but were in such bad condition that they couldn’t be used), and how duplicate negatives and superior print sources were used for this 4K restoration.
All three films — particularly the first one — are the best example I’ve seen of a film capturing life in all its complexities — from happiness and joy to sadness and tragedy, from the bustle of youth to the infirmaries of old age, from married life’s disappointments to its triumphs.
Song of the Little Road (Pather Panchali) — 125 mins, 1955
The first film is the most raw of the three films, and the most powerful. It begins with Apu’s older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta), before his birth, stealing food in the orchard for her great-aunt, Indir (the wonderful Chunibala Devi). Apu’s birth is introduced when the daughter retrieves the aunt, who has left due to shabby treatment by the mother (Karuna Bandopadhyay, who blames her for her daughter’s stealing habit), in order to see the child. In the first film, we witness this poor family, with its dilapidated house, its impossibly optimistic dad, its realistic mother, its squatting elderly aunt, its lively daughter, and its precocious son, as Apu (Subir Banerjee) grows into early adolescence.
That raw energy does mean that occasionally the pacing drags, but you never doubt that you are seeing the film of a master. It also contains some of the most beautiful shots in the trilogy, such as framing the mother and daughter on either side of the door after she throws her out, so that the viewer can see both of them weeping, or the incredible scene of bugs dancing on leaves on the water.
For emotional impact, notice the scene where the mother throws her daughter out for stealing, and then watch Apu’s face later, when she tells him to call his sister to dinner. Or when Indir comes back, tries to make nice with the mother, realizes she won’t forgive her this time, and goes off to die (the emotional journey that her face goes through in this small scene — from warmth and acceptance to realization and despair — is the best acting done in the entire trilogy). Or the shot in the fields before the train appears. But, most of all, the night when the furies seem intent on taking the life of Durga, with their mother furiously trying to prevent her from catching a chill. And then, the sadness of the end, when the father (Kanu Bandyopadhyay), who has been traveling in an attempt to make money, comes home. Not realizing his daughter has died, he starts doling out presents. When he gives a sari for Durga to the mother — who has remained unmoving as he describes his travels — she touches it and bursts into tears. And then the father realizes what has happened, and he weeps for his daughter.
The Unvanquished (Aparajito) — 109 mins, 1957
The previous film ended with the family moving. An intertitle in the next film gives a time and place: Bengali, 1930. This film is technically more assured. There are no hiccups in the pacing, but that raw energy is lost, as well, only returning in a powerful final scene, when Apu (now played as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) decides to leave the village where he and his mother lived with her great-uncle (Ramani Ranjan Sen) and return to school in the city.
Just as there were two deaths in the first film, so there are two in this one. Apu’s father’s death is much more poetic than his sister’s was, as Ray cuts between shots of his death and birds in flight, but it’s not as powerful. More powerful is the death of the mother. Apu, hearing she is seriously ill, returns from his studies and walks through the property, looking for her. In a scene reminiscent of Bambi, he doesn’t find her, but he sees his great-uncle, and one look from him tells him the truth he feared to learn.
The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) — 105 mins, 1959
The last film of the trilogy manages to balance the technical assurance of the second film with the power of the first film, though to say one film is better than another is to ignore how good the other two films are.
Apu graduates from school but is unable to afford a university education. His great passion is to write a novel about his life, but he has a hard enough time paying the rent, which is some months overdue. One day, he runs into one of his friends from school, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), which sets up what Roger Ebert calls “the most extraordinary passage in the three films” (The Great Movies, 44). Apu (played as an adult by Soumitra Chatterjee) goes with Pulu to the wedding of his cousin. Unfortunately, when the bridegroom arrives, they discover that he is mad. To make matters worse, according to the superstitions of the village, if the cousin isn’t married that night, she will never be able to marry. In these extraordinary circumstances, Apu is asked to marry the girl, whose name is Aparna (played by 14-year-old! Sharmila Tagore). At first he resists, but eventually he consents, and ends up returning to his apartment a married man.
The best scenes in the film are those between him and his new bride. He asks her if she would give up everything to live a life of poverty with him. Her answers reveal a beautiful soul, and while she cries when she first sees his apartment, she nevertheless adapts to her new circumstances. Watching them fall in love after they get married is one of the supreme joys of the cinema.
Sadly, we the audience spend far too little time with her, as does Apu. She goes back to her hometown to have their baby, but dies during childbirth. Apu is devastated, and even contemplates suicide (by throwing himself in front of a train — notice how the train motif runs through all three films). He gives up on his novel, gives up on his son, and even seems to give up on life. The son is named Kajal (Alok Chakravarty) and grows up with his maternal grandparents. While the grandmother knew how to control him, the grandfather does not, and when she dies, he is unable to parent his willful grandson. That is when Pulu goes searching for Apu and confronts him about taking responsibility for his son. Apu says he cannot, because his son reminds him why his wife is no longer with him.
Finally, though, Apu travels to the village to bring his son back to live with him. Kajal initially rejects Apu as his father, as his father lives in Calcutta and can’t be this poor man. And yet, despite all the tragedy that has occurred in the three films, the trilogy ends on a hopeful, quiet, and powerful note.
* * *
To see all three films is to see the best that cinema has to offer. To quote Ebert again, “The great, sad, gentle sweep of the Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be” (The Great Movies, 43).
The Apu Trilogy played at the Seattle International Film Festival and opens June 26th at SIFF Cinema. For complete listings, click here.