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The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray’s Masterpiece

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By Christopher Sharrett.

I usually begin a review of a piece of neglected film history with a tirade about the state of film culture, as the New Hollywood rides roughshod over the past, while pretending (at least a few of its prominent personnel) to have preservationist concerns, when in fact only a couple of marginal companies bother with lost works of value. The reader will have to indulge me again.

There is a proliferation of academic papers around on Bollywood and its significance, a hyperproductive industry that is very derivative of New Hollywood, but with lots of endemic Indian genre film featuring song and dance, almost all of no distinction whatsoever. I hear almost no mention these days of Satyajit Ray, India’s greatest filmmaker and a giant of world cinema. His masterpiece, The Apu Trilogy, completed early in his career, is the greatest bildungsroman (I don’t much mind slighting Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship [1795], but feel quite guilty about Great Expectations [1861], a staggering classic) as well as a work exemplifying the “transcendental style in film,” easily the equal of the films discussed by Paul Schrader in his 1972 book using the phrase for its title; amazingly, Schrader never mentions Ray.

Apu 02The Apu Trilogy has suffered a fate as bad as any artwork could endure. The negatives for the three films (Pather Panchali/Song of the Little Road, 1955; Aparajito/The Unvanquished, 1956; Apu Sansar/The World of Apu, 1959) were destroyed by fire in a London warehouse some years ago, the trilogy then copied from indifferent prints and released on bad VHS, then on an equally bad set of Sony discs. Even the very credible UK company Artificial Eye released a much-to-be-desired edition of the trilogy, but for some time it was the best we had. We owe Criterion a debt of gratitude for a splendid restoration (the details of which are discussed in the discs’ supplements) resulting in remarkable Blu-rays that do the films justice.

It seems to me impossible to say much of importance about the trilogy in a short review. Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra create a luminous world wholly affirmative of nature and the human being’s place within it. The orchestrations by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar are superbly supportive of the film, without manipulating the spectator. My one quibble here – and it has nothing to do with the judgments of either Ray or Shankar – is one’s over-familiarity with Indian music if one was around in the 60s. So many rock bands, including the Beatles, did versions of “raga rock” when many of us were steeped in pot-induced mysticism. The experience coarsened us, at least me, to experiencing Indian music and its centrality to Indian/Bengali culture in general. But one can, I think, re-learn Shankar and his music; his extraordinary use of woodwinds in the trilogy’s scores is most astonishingly well-considered.

We need to note that Ray is not only Indian but Bengali, Bengal having a privileged cultural place within Indian history, producing a renaissance not unlike those in Northern Europe and Italy during the quattrocento. A renewed faith in the human being, and the human as the heart of the spiritual, became central to Bengali art. Atheism and emphasis on the scientific method also gained prominence during this epoch (the nineteenth century, arguably to the present), amazing for a nation that gave birth to a half-dozen religions. Rabindranath Tagore, a key source for Ray, was one of the major authors of the Bengali Renaissance. Tagore was reform-minded at all social and cultural levels; he rebuked Gandhi for his insistent religiosity.  It is reasonable to say, based on the evidence, that Ray did for Bengali/Indian cinema what Bresson, De Sica, Dumont, and others did for European cinema. The “neorealists” were rightfully applauded for their social concerns, but the focus on a stripped-down style (filled with artifice of course) neglects a stylistic lineage dating to the renaissance. Does the face of Antonio Ricci in Bicycle Thieves (1948) recall anything but the portraiture of Cellini? The utter beauty of the adult Apu reminds us how cultural tendencies, regardless of how separated by geography, manifest themselves with constancy, as the human/erotic fights a war with death.

I am of the group of film critics and spectators who appreciates The World of Apu as the thoroughly accomplished culmination of the trilogy, not to slight in the least the other films. It is evident that the young Ray was learning his craft as he made the trilogy (and other films while waiting to return to Apu); The World of Apu represents the influence of Bicycle Thieves (the film he cited most as an influence), and the particularly sublime simplicity that defines Ray’s cinema. One of this film’s most endearing assets is the performance by Soumitra Chatterjee, surely one of the world’s best actors, here giving a superbly conceived performance as Apu, in this film a young, impoverished adult, a college dropout living in a dirty flat, dreaming of being an author. His performance is equaled by that of Sharmila Tagore, the painfully shy but knowing young woman Aparna, who becomes Apu’s bride due to a strange fluke in Hindu marriage regulations (the film seems to me a spoof of marriage and “proper behavior” in a world dominated by dogma, one that cannot contain people like Apu). Aparna’s planned marriage comes to a crashing halt when the retinue discovers that the bridegroom is a blithering loon. Questions arise: is the groom driven mad by the thought of marriage? Was he mad all along, and the culture too rigid to protect Aparna from him? The marriage of Apu to Aparna, for all the awkwardness of the moment, results in what is surely the tenderest moments of human affection in film, all done without proscribed scenes of hugging and kissing.

Apu 03The scenes preceding Apu’s marriage are masterful, always suggesting Ray’s sense of comedy and irony. The initial marriage procession arrives in the small town, a band playing a fractured version of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (a kitschy holdover from British occupation). The camera dollies along, picking up Apu, asleep on a boulder in the foreground. The background is filled with the sacred Ganges, dwarfing all the other action.  Apu, the apparent young fool, will eventually replace the celebration and its groom. His marriage to Aparna, filled with love but born of a religious formality, results in tragedy.

It is useless to adumbrate all the enthralling images that are The Apu Trilogy, but one feature stands out: the train, almost always a flat black, appearing as a symbol of death against the beauty of nature (I can’t help but think of Tector Gorch/Ben Johnson in The Wild Bunch (1969): “…that damned railroad…” One could argue that the railroad’s appearance – or the sound of a train whistle – is a bit too insistent, but I have no such complaint. One of the most startling images appears early in Pather Panchali, as the young Apu (Subar Bannerjee) plays with his beautiful little sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) in a field of white grass with waving fronds. On a hill at the horizon line, a black train passes. Suddenly the beast is speeding in front of our eyes, blocking our vision, in one of the best moments of foreshadowing in cinema.

The film’s final scenes are among the most staggering in film history, rendered by Subrata Mitra with astounding precision yet apparent off-handedness. A forlorn Apu, now bearded and approaching (due to his grief) middle age, loses himself in a sun-mottled forest that appears silvery in this Blu-ray transfer. While seated at the top of a mountain, Apu reaches into his satchel, withdraws his loose-leaf manuscript of his treasured “ultimate novel” (he wants to rank with Dostoevsky) and lets the pages float away into the deep canyon below. The moment is seen by some as a moment of excess, but the images, with the white pages like freed (or abandoned) doves, are among Ray’s most memorable. More important, Apu has now confronted his delusion.

Apu has left his young son in the care of Aparna’s family. Their reunion is one of the great denouements in cinema, its sentiment authentic and never cloying, always an affirmation of the human.

The Criterion Collection not only restored The Apu Trilogy for home video, it sponsored a lengthy run of the trilogy last year at Film Forum in New York. While I am bothered by the company’s preoccupation with the postmodern tripe of Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson, I applaud it as one of our few great cultural resources.

We need also to applaud the return later this year of Robin Wood’s monograph on The Apu Trilogy, out of print for almost thirty-five years, reissued by Wayne State University Press.

Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He writes regularly for Film International and is a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.

Read also Paul Risker, “Nothing Lost in Times Regained: On the Restored Apu Trilogy.”

2 Comments for The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray’s Masterpiece”

  1. A very timely review for which readers will be more than glad to “indulge” you. In my first year at Manchester University, the now defunct Film Society screened the Apu Trilogy and it could be seen in local film societies in the late 60s and into the 70s. Yet, even in the 70s, a reaction occurred with Indian students at Manchester University complaining about the “irrelevant” nature of Ray’s work. Times have certainly changed, “postmodern tripe” is in the ascendancy and none of my students in class this week had ever seen “A Fistful of Dollars” nor “The Green Berets” before, the latter deficiency not being much of a loss. However, your review is very necessary as is the work of Criterion and, if you forgive me, I will now lead a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” that other readers should participate in.

  2. Chris, An excellent review of what in my opinion is one of, if not the finest film trilogies. Since my own discovery of the Apu Trilogy I find it increasingly astounding how it is omitted as a consideration of the great film trilogies when these conversations arise amongst critics. But then what else should one expect from the narrowing tunnel like vision of mainstream criticism that seems to dismiss film history in favour of the recent past, present and impending future. Ray like so many films, filmmakers and actors could perhaps be seen as a casualty of the disconnect the generation of students Tony is teaching, as well as the fan writers that have emerged through the online democratisation of film journalism have towards film history. Apologies for digressing into voicing my general feelings of discontent.

    Hopefully I was able to offer something of importance in my short review “Nothing Lost in Times Regained”, despite inevitably struggling to say everything that Ray’s masterpiece evokes in one’s mind. Of course I feel it necessary to echo Tony’s words: “Your review is very necessary as is the work of Criterion.” One of the qualities I admire about your writing Chris is your understanding of context, and how film is rather like an expansive web of connections – a necessity that must be considered in order to offer an informed critique. I wholly agree on many of your points, including your praise of Ravi Shankar’s music, and Apu and Aparn’s marriage, which is a defining moment of subtle tenderness in the story of film – one whose wonder cannot be done justice through words. It needs to be seen and experienced – to be “felt” (no doubt Godard would roll his eyes at my saying this). Looking back on the trilogy, which I have only encountered once, it is a story told with real feeling and one that wakened my previous disinterest in Ray (a crime I had also committed towards Dimitri Shostakovich years earlier). It is interesting where this creative dismissal or disinterest comes from because to me it seems to function on an almost instinctive level, as though an impression is formed unconsciously and has the perilous propensity to deny us great pleasure through the great art of great artists. I believe you have previously offered the possible reasons for the dismissal/disinterest in Ray, but as a wider artistic concern it strikes me as a rather interesting talking point. Perhaps here lies the reason of why not just this review, but all your writing is necessary – it champions serious criticism and provokes us to contemplate beyond the boundaries which we might otherwise. So in short thanks for this review Chris and for drawing our attention to a release that finally does Ray’s trilogy justice in its presentation.

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