Wade Major takes a look at the Apu Trilogy on occasion of our September 24 screening as part of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Globes. The series includes restorations of classic films that were made possible in part by funds awarded annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, with The Film Foundation. For more information about the other films in the series, click here.
If you’re any kind of movie buff, you know that India makes more feature motion pictures than any other country on earth – but the nation that so famously struggles to this day with its centuries-old caste system also suffers from a kind of film industry caste system. Broken down by language, it is a hierarchy that favors films made in the three most dominant Indian languages – Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu – by a wide margin, relegating other regions to progressively lesser stature.
While Bengali cinema today falls somewhere near the middle of the pack, in the 1950s it was all but non-existent until a 31-year-old graphic designer by the name of Satyajit Ray, inspired by the work of De Sica and Renoir (for whom he had helped scout locations for The River), decided to adapt Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s beloved 1929 novel Pather Panchali into a film. Filmed intermittently over the course of three years – shutting down whenever they ran out of money and restarting as often as producer Anil Chowdhury was able to scrape together funds – Pather Panchali finally emerged as one of the great film sensations of 1955. Showered with acclaim and awards, Ray’s debut film not only launched the Parallel Cinema movement at home as a counterweight to Hindi-language Bollywood, but finally earned Indian cinema the international respect that had previously eluded it.
An auteur was born, and cinema would never be the same.
The story of Pather Panchali (literally translated as "Song of the Little Road") and its sequel novel, Aparajito (The Unvanquished), is deceptively simple. Born into a poor, rural family, young Apu endures storm after storm of tragedy, setback and misfortune until he is finally able to press forward into adulthood, transformed by his upbringing and strengthened in his determination to make a better life for himself. It is a passionate, poetic, bittersweet saga wrought on-screen with what can only be described as Ray’s indomitable will and singular artistic vision.
Though Ray had never intended to film the entire tale, the critical and commercial success of Pather Panchali created momentum that eventually compelled him to do just that. With Aparajito in 1956 and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959, audiences were treated to the first great coming-of-age epic in cinema history. Though François Truffaut was famously dismissive of Ray’s trilogy, it can be regarded as no coincidence that the very same year that Ray concluded his saga, Truffaut began his own with The 400 Blows. Had Apu not weathered his tribulations and fought his way to adulthood, one could convincingly argue, Antoine Doinel might never have done likewise.
Some six decades later, The Apu Trilogy has lost none of its power to move and amaze. Despite the first film’s meager budget and almost haphazard production, it remains vibrantly modern, Subrata Mitra’s stark black-and-white photography missing nothing while giving life to everything through a haunting interplay of natural light, shadow and hard surfaces. Indeed, so much of what captivated audiences in 1955 remains captivating today: the beguiling innocence of 9-year-old lead actor Subir Banerjee (a non-actor who would never again appear in a film), Ravi Shankar’s mesmerizing score, the stirring recreation of rural village life and sound design that manages to be both rugged and ethereal.
Aparajito, by the estimation of many, is an even greater achievement. With Pinaka Sen Gupta stepping into the role of a teenaged Apu, the Venice Film Festival-winning picture trades the first film’s actual jungle for the symbolic jungle of the city where the family continues to struggle and Apu continues to prevail despite their struggles. With Mitra other regular collaborators once more again at his side, Ray’s increased confidence and command of the medium – not to mention a healthier budget – is unmistakable and endlessly rewarding.
It is the final chapter, however, where the fully-formed filmmaker the world would come to know and love finally takes center stage, for The World of Apu stands rather uniquely apart from its predecessors in the sense that it is no longer about childhood but adulthood. Now a struggling writer, Apu (played by the great Soumitra Chatterjee) finds himself unexpectedly drawn into an extraordinary act of charity, saving a would-be bride from a horrible fate on her wedding day and forever changing the trajectory of his life in the process.
At once a brutal commentary on tradition and a rousing paean to the human spirit, The World of Apu returns Ray to the saga that began his career after a particularly fruitful three-year interlude. His two 1958 films – Parash Pathar and The Music Room – were also successes, giving him both the confidence and the resources to do something entirely unique with the story’s final installment.
Whereas Pather Panchali and Aparajito could be deemed neo-realist in both style and theme, The World of Apu is nothing if not a magnificent melodrama crafted by a great director who has now also grown into a skilled screenwriter. Expertly acted and splendidly photographed by Mitra – with yet another memorable Shankar score – it stands today as one of Ray’s most widely influential and frequently imitated efforts, the most brazen (or flattering) of which is Gregory Nava’s 1995 My Family, Mi Familia.
Each film, on its own, is a wonder. As a complete work, The Apu Trilogy is simply incomparable. To see it projected on 35mm, as it was meant to be seen, is a privilege not to be missed.
Wade Major is a regular critic for KPCC's weekly FilmWeek program, as well as co-host and producer of the popular DigiGods podcast. A former Senior Film Critic at BoxofficeMagazine, Wade has also contributed audio commentaries to such films as Takashi Miike's Gozu, the cult classic Master of the Flying Guillotine, Andre Techiné's The Brontë Sisters, Costa-Gavras' Amen and James Ivory’s Oscar-winning Howards End. He holds a degree in Film and Television from UCLA.