When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, Pather Panchali – the opening chapter of Apu’s life story – opened Western eyes to an Indian cinema they had never seen before. It swept the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and London, creating a new cinema for India. The second and third films were actually never planned. Each followed on the surprise success of its predecessor. The Indian popular cinema industry at the time, churned out massive soap operas, musicals and adaptations of myths and legends, the vast majority of which never reached the West. Neither Ray nor cinematographer Subrata Mitra had made a film before Pather Panchali. And yet, they created something so profound and heartfelt which changed the global cinema landscape, for the better.
After watching Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, Satyajit Ray found the artistic model he had long sought. The humanist, objectivist influence of both Jean Renoir and De Sica is profound in Ray’s work; in fact, his films owe more to European Neorealism than they do to Indian film of the time.
Satyajit Ray’s cinema is fundamentally impartial. His films set up an ongoing series of contrasts—city vs. country, old vs. young, tradition vs. innovation, rich vs. poor—but take no sides. He’s not interested in heroes and villains. The chief theme of the Apu films is the onset of modernity in India. For most of Pather Panchali’s cast and crew, this was their first film. Ray had little experience of rural life, let alone filmmaking; the cinematographer Subrata Mitra had never held a camera before; and the composer, Ravi Shankar, was not yet world famous as this was before his encounter with the Beatles. The film was completed over three years on a tiny budget.
All the three films have dynamic characters like the mother (Karuna Bannerjee) who is a strong-willed, sharp-tongued woman living in a seemingly perpetual state of frustration. She goes from scolding the children but deep inside knowing they need the food in the first film, to hiding her insecurities for her only sustaining family connection in Aparajito. Originally from a rich household, she sees her status and wealth disappear as her family goes further into poverty. She slowly loses her once-vivid presence in the films as time passes on, almost spiritually diminishing as her purposes in life disappears. In my personal favourite scene from the film, Apu deliberately misses the scheduled train just to spend an extra day with his mother in his hometown. The look on the mother’s face then is simply priceless. But even this couldn’t avoid the unfortunate and inevitable tragedy that followed. Throughout the second film, Apu is much quieter, a lot more somber and thoughtful as he begins to understand his place in the world. As he ventures on his education, English words start to pepper his vocabulary. And finally in Apur Sansar, his room is decorated with thumbtacked photos of the kind of “Great Men” a young scholar of the time might have admired: Einstein and H. G. Wells. Apu’s character arc forms both the backdrop and the backbone of the trilogy. After his absence from home literally takes his mother’s life, we now see him take on the responsibility of rest of his family after his father’s death. He departs only a day after his mother’s death to give his exam because he knew- that was the ambition his mother had to die for.
The father (Kanu Bannerjee) played the role of a local priest and a would-be novelist. At heart, he’s a free spirit having a deep philosophy, but he’s not much of a provider. The struggle of Apu and his family resonated with millions across the world, especially an entire strata of the Bengali people who at the time were going through the throes of liberalisation and communism. Probably the most distinct character, however, was that of the ancient, stooped aunt (Chunibala Devi) always sneaking in fruits while constantly threatening to leave when she felt unrecognised or unappreciated.
In the third film, we see Apu choose his conscience over his happiness as he decides to marry. What follows, is yet another tragedy in Apu’s life. Throughout the trilogy, Apu is the only character we see board a train. He’s the only one who finds that freedom, and yet finds it utterly lonely. Gradually through the films, he realises that all his despair comes from attachment. That’s why he refuses to see his son, out of fear that he would be stolen from him as well. Until the very ending, where we see Apu rejoin the community with his once-estranged little son in his arms. His son chooses him, not because he is his father, not out of conscience, simply out of the fact that it would make him happy. We finally watch Apu saved from the despair. But along with that, we also witness one of the most hopeful, optimistic endings in cinema history.
In the penultimate scene of Pather Panchali, as the family packs to move, Apu finds a necklace that his now-dead sister had once stolen and hid on a high shelf. He takes it and throws it into a brackish pond near their home, and the camera pauses as the algae on the surface slowly closes over. The algae does not quite completely cover the spot where the necklace landed; one small exposed circle remains, the implication being that his sister’s tragic death has left a gap in Apu’s heart that cannot be covered. In another such instance, we see a pig cross Apu in Apur Sansar while he’s passing by the tracks. Later in the film, following the unfortunate death of Aparna, we see Apu witness the death of a pig around the same railway tracks. A pig represents luck, overall good fortune, honesty, general prosperity and a truthful peace-loving person.
The first two films contain numerous scenes of a man eating from his thaali as a woman quietly sits and fans him; Apur Sansar shows that same scenario between Apu and Aparna and then immediately, and cheekily reverses it as Apu solicitously fans Aparna while she eats her meal. In this way, Ray masterfully subverts a generic trope.
Roger Ebert in his review for The Apu Trilogy wrote, “It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.” Satyajit Ray’s details are the essence of his films. Through his first feature, he put in front of the world the great beauty of art, by channelizing the struggles of the partition and rapidly growing technology along with poverty in Bengal at the time through the medium of film. Through cinema, he conveyed the unspeakable human emotions by reflecting life itself. That’s the reason why his films feel so timeless and universal in nature. As Akira Kurosawa once said, “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray, means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.