The Humanists: Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (1955-1959)


by Colin Marshall

Where Apurba Kumar Roy goes, so goes death. As well as we know the events of the films that chronicle his life, what mid-1950s viewer could have predicted that the wide-eyed, bobble-headed tot introduced in the first would, by the third's end, have seen off nearly his every family member? Perhaps readers of Pather Panchali, Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's classic piece of Indian literature, had some idea. But while that particular bildungsroman's fame remains Subcontinental, the trilogy that Satyajit Ray grew from its seed stands tall and proud over all the world 's cinema culture.

You can see this in the name-dropping alone. A range of filmmakers as diverse in aesthetic and sensibility as Abbas Kiarostami, Wes Anderson, Carlos Saura and Danny Boyle profess to have learned much from the films. Even François Truffaut, who at first expressed displeasure at the mere idea of watching “a movie of peasants eating with their hands,” eventually admitted its influence. Top accolades have poured in from such authoritative organs of cultural journalism as Sight & Sound, The Village Voice, the New York Times and Rolling Stone. And can the creators of The Simpsons have dubbed Springfield's beloved Kwik-E-Mart clerk “Apu,” the nickname that gives the films their collective title, coincidentally?

Given such publicity over the past half-century, does more need be said about the Apu trilogy? I submit that, like any great film, their bottomless capacity to generate discussion ensures that more can always be said, written and exchanged. (If you're looking for an elegant definition of greatness, consider that a candidate.) Ray performs three acts of apparent cinematic alchemy with these pictures, creating a product whose mastery, nuance and purity inspire the awe of jaded cinephiles out of an inexperienced cast and crew, the equivalent of a few thousand U.S. dollars and the simple tale of a rural boy gone cityward.

1955's Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) introduces a very young, very energetic Apu; his older sister Durga, given to occasional thievery; his unambitious, sporadically-employed scholar father Harihar; his long-suffering mother Sarbajaya and his aged, toothless aunt Indir. Durga and Apu play in the forest, trail the local candy salesman and watch passing trains, concealed in a field of tall Kans grass. Indir irritates Sarbajaya with her very presence. Harihar promises Sarbajaya he'll find work outside the village. Durga steals fruit, which she passes along to Indir. Sarbajaya indignantly refutes the neighbors' accusations of theft. Apu observes.

The extent of the high-caste Roy family's poverty, astonishing to a developed-world viewer — the men must make do without shirts — appears not crushing but simply somewhat more challenging than average in the context of 1920s Bengal. Nor does the film concern itself primarily with the condition of the poor; it views poverty as neither an all-deadening burden nor a condition from which to pull oneself up to material wealth. While the distant trains drifting almost in silhouette across the countryside's horizon captivate the youngster fated to emerge as the series' protagonist, Apu never sits around dreaming of the good life. He possesses even in early childhood something more complex, a kind of resilient, non-delusional optimism that accepts what is while grasping what can be.

This optimism's first test arrives early when Durga, after an evening spent out in a monsoon — surely one of the most memorable shots in a film with more striking visual moments than the average hundred combined — stokes a fatal fever. Out a daughter, more or less bereft of nearby opportunity and subject to poisoned social connections with the neighborhood, the Roys decide to relocate to the holy city of Benares (now Varanasi), the first of the trilogy's bold forays into the uncertain.

1956's Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”) finds Harihar doing priestly duties on the banks of the Ganges. But when he comes down with a fever of his own, he ignores medical advice and, hardworking for possibly the first time in his life, returns almost immediately to his ghat. The day's work finished, he collapses on the walk home, expiring shortly thereafter and leaving the still-small Apu now both sisterless and fatherless. This second death prompts a second move; the remains of the Roy clan settle in another small village, where Apu develops the burning desire to attend school. Offered a scholarship in faraway, sprawling Calcutta, he ventures, head held as high as he can manage to lift it, once more into the fog.

Dreading the departure of her last surviving immediate relative, Sarbajaya balks at the prospect of letting Apu study in the capital but eventually submits, expecting frequent letters and visits she does not receive. As Apu struggles to earn his education while working in a print shop to make enough money to send a bit home, Sarbajaya, slumped under a tree increasingly haggard and hollow-eyed, gradually relinquishes the will to live. When Apu finds that his mother, too, has left this mortal coil, his life's components, precariously assembled to begin with, fall once again into disarray. Offered the chance to remain in the hamlet and take up the work of a priest, the now-untethered Apu instead makes for the city without a backward glance.

While he looks to have found many an experience in the interim, the twentysomething Apu we rediscover in 1959's Apu Sansar (“The World of Apu”) has most certainly not found prosperity, or even what many would consider bare material comfort. Living in a spare, primitive room on which he nevertheless owes months of back rent, he possesses little but the optimism of which we first saw signs back in the Bengal stone home of his youth. (He also owns a flute, with which he gives the odd private lesson.) When his landlord questions his intent on literary greatness given that he can't so much as pay his bills, Apu replies by asking what better sign of greatness exists. Having honed his skill with the pen and submitted an accepted story to a journal, he perhaps senses the approach of a tipping point toward his ideal career.

Amid his urban wanderings punctuated by dispiritingly fruitless inquiries for employment, Apu bumps into his old school chum Pulu. Well-dressed and plump, Pulu treats Apu to his first genuine meal in quite some time, then invites him back to his own village to attend his cousin Aparna's wedding. The straightforward if elaborate celebration nearly erupts into chaos when the groom's arrival reveals him to be, unfortunately, insane. The young fellow's father protests, claiming that his paranoid herky-jerkiness and bizarre vocalizations came on merely as a result of the long journey's heat. Hearing none of that, Aparna's family, distraught that this day of perfect astrological alignment could go to waste and thus leave their daughter forever cursed, importune Apu, the nearest eligible male, to step up to the plate and marry her instead.

Read like the implausible setup for a particularly shoddy modern-day romantic comedy as this may, Ray delivers the critically interrupted wedding with conviction; the ill fate awaiting an unmarried Aparna seems strangely possible. All but forced to assume the incapacitated groom's position, Apu explains to his new, young bride — Aparna has scarcely more years than Durga ever did — that he's not a rich man. That he's, not to put too fine a point on it, a poor man. Though initially moved to tears by her ascetic new surroundings, Aparna adapts, entering firmly into the unforeseeable new union, the arranged marriage turned unarranged, with a positive inclination complementing Apu's own.

Alas, the pattern characterizing Apu's life, in its inexorable cruelty, continues: though their son makes it into the world, Aparna dies in childbirth. Destroyed by the loss, Apu simply punches the friend who tells him what's happened. The blow signals the beginning of an extended dark night of the soul, wherein, growing wearier and more unkempt with each passing year, Apu roams India, aimlessly doing manual labor and distancing himself from the child he considers his wife's murderer. At his lowest point, he goes so far as to release his long-labored-over novel — into a river. Observing the disinterested, undisciplined upbringing Apu's son Kajal receives from Aparna's father, Pulu pleads with his friend to claim the child. “There is such a thing as a father's duty,” he insists, not that Apu wants to face it.

When Apu finally brings himself to visit Kajal, the boy, now as old as his father when first we met him, treats him as nothing more than a suspicious stranger. Perhaps his dissolute appearance and long absence warrants this. Threatened with a blow from his grandfather's cane, Kajal realizes that accepting this mysterious bearded wanderer as a friend and so returning with him to Calcutta beats living one more day under the old man's rule. The son perched on the father's shoulders, the two head in the only possible direction in which this trilogy can finish: toward the unknown, the unmapped, the unwritten — despite the track record, optimistically.

Never has the dictum that the first real viewing of a film is the second applied so truthfully. A first-time viewer, their attention consumed with following the details of Apu's life and ever wondering how things will turn out for the quintessential Bengali survivor, may only notice that Ray and his cinematographer, the erstwhile still photographer Subrata Mitra, compose a damn fine shot. Closer examination reveals an improbable level of visual power, with shots, techniques and uses of light and shade out of the grasp of filmmakers who command budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone those with barely any resources at all and no directorial experience whatsoever. (And that's not to mention the improvisational-sounding score by a certain Ravi Shankar, whose drums, flutes and string instruments elegantly underscore and enrich the events of Apu's life.)

How did he do it? That issue, the films' sheer first-order impact aside, may keep curious viewers returning to the Apu trilogy more regularly than any other. All three pictures feel modern in their strong technical confidence, pulling off — and pulling off well — the sort of expressionistic gambits that seem on the cutting edge even when used today. I will attempt an explanation, if you'll permit me an oenological analogy, by comparing movies to grape vines.

When you're picking wine grapes, you want those that stood the tiniest chance of seeing daylight, the ones whose vines fought hard to push through layers of unfriendly soil and endure cycles and cycles of harsh weather fluctuation. They'll be the robust ones, the grapes whose hardiness indicates richness, body and complexity. The cinematic situation differs little: the finest films emerge from struggle after struggle after struggle, financial, creative and otherwise. The Apu trilogy, impoverished and pulled together under nearly every imaginable adverse production condition, faced more such challenges than most. But imbued with a healthy faith in itself and the belief that taking a step forward, even into terra incognita, beats standing still in essential nonexistence, it recognizes and even owns its disadvantages, thereby transcending them. Just like Apu himself.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.