Well-Wrought and Old-Fashioned: Robin Wood’s The Apu Trilogy (New Edition)
A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.
The film critic Robin Wood (1931-2009) was one of those writers who helped the general public to take cinema seriously as an art form and who, like many critics of the sixties – at least the ones who didn’t become filmmakers themselves – would become an academic in the burgeoning Film Studies programs of the time. Like his American colleague, Andrew Sarris, and many serious film critics of the time, Wood (who was British but lived in Canada much of his life) took an auteurist approach to film criticism, and some of his most influential books are monographs on important directors of the day: Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn, Ingmar Bergman. For the past ten years, Wayne State University has been republishing some of his most significant works. We have them to thank for the re-release of Wood’s generously illustrated The Apu Trilogy from 1971 flying on the coattails of Criterion’s recent reissue of Indian director Satyajit Ray’s trilogy in DVD and Blu-ray. As Barry Keith Grant says in his foreword, Wood was the first English-language critic to focus much attention on Ray’s films. He argues that although there has been renewed interest in Ray’s films in North America, “no other critic has come close to equaling the scope and depth of Wood’s analysis” (x).
Each chapter of Wood’s book analyzes one of the three films of the trilogy in order: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (1959), each a perfect little essay about the film it examines. Wood clearly has a deep respect for Ray’s work in general and these three films in particular. Like many viewers, Pather Panchali is my favorite of the trilogy though I love all three films. I was not disappointed in Wood’s analysis especially of highlights like the scene at Apu’s (Subir Banerjee) “school,” the scene where Apu and his sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta) go to see the train, a deep analysis of characters like Auntie (Chunibala Devi) and more. Wood describes some scenes in language that approaches prose poetry like this brief description of the conclusion of the film:
…A long snake crawls through the rubble of the yard and over the cracked stone of the porch into the house. Nature is reclaiming what man had temporarily usurped and will eventually obliterate his traces…As the ox wagon takes [the family] toward the train, we see the mother lost in grief, unseeing, the father staring blankly back. But Apu is looking out with open, alert eyes at his past, as he will henceforth look toward his future. (54)
Wood is always precise, but he doesn’t over-explain. As he writes, in regards to Apu’s decision to hide the necklace which his dead sister had stolen: “I’m not sure the critic should try to explain [Apu’s actions]…to explain is often, in effect, to simplify.”
In his second chapter, Wood writes that Aparajito is the “least completely satisfactory of the three films.” I’m not sure I would agree, but Wood does make an interesting point: that the film acts as a midpoint between shifts in story-telling technique. Whereas Pather Panchali is episodic and impressionistic and The World of Apu is more conventionally plot-driven, Aparajito is both, with the first half in Calcutta told in an episodic way starring the young Apu played by Pinaki Sengupta and the later half with the adolescent Apu (Smaran Ghosal), plotted more conventionally as we head toward the foreshadowed death of his mother (Karuna Bannerjee). In Wood’s analysis of The World of Apu, it becomes quickly clear that this is his favorite of the three films, “the crowning achievement” (79) he writes at the beginning of this chapter, a conclusion I find surprising since, although I think one can’t appreciate the trilogy without watching all three films, I find The World Apu to be the least interesting of the three. However, Wood is always careful, exact, and even-handed and so I take his analysis seriously even when I don’t agree with him. What I find the most unforgivable lapses in the trilogy – the tedious and frustrating scenes of Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) wandering after Aparna’s (Sharmila Tagore) death and the sentimental scene in which he throws his novel manuscript off a mountain top – Wood also regards as flaws and yet he sees much to admire in the film as a whole. His deep analysis helped me to see the film anew.
Wood, like many Cambridge-educated scholars, had a rich foundation in all arts. He saw cinema as a living, breathing entity and so the Apu Trilogy is never simply just itself divorced from Ray’s other films or from the works of other directors. However, although he makes apt connections between the trilogy and Ray’s subsequent films and precursors like The River (1951) and The Big Sky (1952), his analogies outside the cinema are probably even more helpful. As one of the early scholars to help academia take film seriously as an art, he makes many surprising and apt parallels to writers as varied as D.H. Lawrence and Wordsworth, to composers like Brahams and Bruckner. In Wood’s Introduction, he anticipates that some readers may view Ray’s films as “desperately old-fashioned” (6) compared to Antonioni and the early films of Goddard. This is interesting to read in the 21st century where Ray’s films are now comfortably ensconced in the canon alongside the films of his heroes such as The Grand Illusion (1937) and Bicycle Thieves (1948). In fact, in some ways, Breathless (1960) can seem old-fashioned nowadays.
This presumption about Ray’s old-fashionedness is also somewhat ironic since some current readers may find Wood a bit old-fashioned himself. He analyzes in detail one of the most suspenseful and moving scenes of the entire trilogy, in Pather Panchali where the loud-mouthed neighbor accuses Durga of stealing the necklace, particularly describing the complex things happening on the face of the criminally underutilized actress Karuna Bannerjee as, with few words, she reveals “…on the one hand, her desire to be socially respected for honesty and to avoid any accusation that she fails to bring up her children properly; on the other, her protective maternal feelings for the girl” (31-32). Wood has much more to say about this scene, but his analysis points out some of the ways that criticism has changed in the nearly half-century since his book first came out. Clearly influenced by the New Critics who came before, Wood regards films as well-wrought urns, another way of saying that the act of criticism is apolitical, examining art for art’s sake. A contemporary feminist critic might say that Bannerjee’s taciturn performance is one that pulls from reality in a highly patriarchal culture where women’s choices and freedom is severely limited. Though Wood traces with admirable specificity how the child Apu passes through multiple family deaths on his path through childhood to adulthood to come out with his son riding on his shoulders, choosing to go “back to live” (125), he neglects to recognize the lack of choices we see in all of the doomed female characters in the trilogy, his sister Durga and Auntie (in Pather Panchali), his mother (in Aparajito), and his doomed bride wife (in The World of Apu). In fact, I would say the ease with which Aparna transitions from being a pampered upper-class girl to the happy home-keeping wife of Apu is a patriarchal fairytale and one of the few false notes in any of the three films.
Still, these are quibbles. The Apu Trilogy is a quick and engaging read, a deep dive into three of the most important films out of India at mid-century. It’s also a reminder of a time when film criticism wasn’t meant just for specialists, when it could be appreciated by a general audience. Both fans of Ray’s trilogy and those new to the films will benefit from Wood’s close and thorough reading.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.