Recommending this classic to cinephiles is admittedly a bit like asking committed foodies to try the sandesh in Kolkata
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)
Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Swapan Mukherjee
Director: Satyajit Ray
Year of Release: 1959
Satyajit Ray’s 1959 film Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) works on a simple principle – one can be company, two is a team, and three, predictably, a crowd. You’d be hard-pressed to find a scene in the movie where the dialogue includes a third person. Apur Sansar switches between the contentment of solitude and the joys that come with affinity.
For those familiar with The Apu Trilogy, Apurba Kumar Roy or Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a recognisable figure. A cherub of a child in Pather Panchali and an inquisitive adolescent in Aparajito, Apu has now finally come of age. But you don’t have to know his past to identify with him. He and Apur Sansar are content enough.
The first shot of the film shows Apu reading a letter of recommendation. It says, “He [Apu] is sensitive, conscientious and diligent, and is deserving of the fullest sympathy and encouragement.” He is unemployed and impoverished. The single curtain in his room is torn. Sympathy for Apu can be easily mustered. The encouragement, though, he finds himself.
His writing is set to be published in a literary magazine. When he meets his friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), he joyously screams verse into the night. Detailing the plot of his novel, he insists that education and imagination can help one disregard all tragedy. A full meal, literature and friendship soon become the measure of happiness.
In Bengali, the word ‘sansar’ directly translates into ‘the world’. But when used in the context of householders, it becomes an indicator of having settled down (‘ghar-sansar’). Apu’s ‘sansar’ expands rather surprisingly. Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) is left alone at the altar after it is discovered that her groom-to-be is mentally impaired. A reticent Apu fills in, and ever so suddenly, he acquires a family.
Love, according to common wisdom, is based on compatibility. Cinema, on the other hand, often reduces it to drama and pronouncements. In Apu’s world, though, its foundation is consideration. Ray’s depiction of domesticity and its bliss is almost always suggestive. The torn curtain gives way to a floral one. Apu plays with Aparna’s hairpin and she leaves a note in his cigarette packet – “Only one after your meals. You’ve promised.” Her demureness gives way to a playful agency that marks her as an equal. In one scene, she can be seen fanning Apu while he eats. Ray then zooms into the handheld fan, and by the time he pans out, Apu is returning the favour as Aparna finishes her dinner.
Their love only seems effusive when they are in a carriage. She lights his cigarette and he tells her that she means more to him than his writing. Apu’s devastation when Aparna dies during childbirth is understandably harrowing, but not once does Ray pander to melodrama. His subsequent exploration of loss and mourning is as understated as it is felt.
The screenplay of the film, which has been adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aparajito, allows no excess. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s music is as pitch perfect as Soumitra Chatterjee’s performance. Sharmila Tagore was 14 when Apur Sansar released, and her portrayal of Aparna seems incredibly ingenious for one so young. Then of course there’s the film’s last scene. Happiness, it again affirms, comes only in twos.
Recommending Apur Sansar to cinephiles is admittedly a bit like asking committed foodies to try the sandesh in Kolkata. The sheer obviousness of the suggestion makes it redundant. After having aggregated the reviews of 23 critics, Rotten Tomatoes has given this black-and-white film a score of 100 per cent. You’ll find it included in several ‘all-time greatest’ lists. It won the National Award for Best Feature Film, and fans who’ve posted clips of the classic on YouTube often use superlatives like ‘Best Scene in Indian Cinema’. This adulation is justified. You can surely take my word for it now.