By Paul Risker.
Fifty-six years have passed since Satyajit Ray added Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959) to Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955) and Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) to create the series of films known as the Apu trilogy. In this passage of time the narrative of film history has been enriched with differing brands of realism: neo in Italy to social in Britain. Meanwhile the Nouvelle Vague lit a spark that detonated cinema to revitalise its artistic potential, that quickly inspired the New American Cinema filmmakers to reinvent their own native cinema. Fifty-six years on the remarkable consistency that threads together this trilogy of films remains in and of itself a high point in world cinema. Although in discussion of time there is an irony in that fifty-six years on, there remains a timeless and youthful quality that still emerges forth from these films.
At its heart the Apu trilogy, newly restored by Janus Films, possesses a humanist dimension or in the least a humanist connection, and this youthful and timeless feel stems from the basic human themes that Ray touches upon. It mimics the fundamental truth that human civilisation beneath the surface has seldom changed. On the surface cultures and more broadly human civilisation may get a facelift, and while film technology may evolve, the stories in each of interpersonal relationships and the conflicts that are at the heart of everyday life and narrative fiction seldom do.
While the monochrome image of Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar may betray their age, immersing oneself in the internal drama of the chronological narrative age becomes irrelevant. Instead the narrative and aesthetic beauty seduces, affording these films a timeless and enduring quality. And if there is a humanist dimension, then equally it is imbued with a reflective self-awareness through Apu’s identity as a short story writer and aspiring novelist. His published short story on village life to his own life as a source of inspiration and basis for his manuscript infer a self-reflective awareness of his life as a narrative. It also symbolises his transition from creation to creator, author and storyteller as he demonstrates an ability to create a new audience for his own story and life experiences within his own world. This defines us as the ever voyeuristic audience; Ray’s audience as opposed to Apu’s.
The Apu trilogy is a statement of Ray’s stature as both a filmmaker and storyteller. It is an exhibition in which Ray the technical filmmaker collides harmonically with Ray the narrative storyteller.
The trilogy of films houses a trilogy of death that like a matryoshka doll sees each film reveal another personal tragedy for Apu: a death inside the shadow of death. But Ray toys with the familial dynamic creating a juxtaposition on the theme of learning to live with or surviving in the absence of family. From the father’s absence in Pather Panchali to a family stalked by death, Ray explores temporary versus permanent absence, allowing the latter to intrude upon the former, and rather than placing it at the heart of the films he weaves it into their fabric to allow it to interact with other thematic ideas rather than dominate. Although an equally prevalent theme that mirrors the metaphysical death is the natural emergence that comes with age through Apu’s transition from a supporting character in Pather Panchali to step out of the shadows and become the lead protagonist. In fact his birth in Pather Panchali is given a greater potency in relation to this personal emergence from the shadows, singling him out as the new blood and new life force.
Progression through the trilogy reveals not only a rich thematic narrative, but also an unfolding journey for the filmmaker himself. From Pather Panchali to Apur Sansar, it is possible to perceive a journey towards a more conventional narrative structure. Pather Panchali has the feel of the discovery of a world as opposed to one created; events unfold which characters react to without a conscious awareness of narrative structure or narrative choices that traditionally infers the presence of the storyteller. While Apur Sansar represents a continuation of Apu’s journey of emergence and the themes that have interested Ray, the final film in the trilogy possesses a tighter narrative structure in which the characters appear to have discovered conscious awareness. This sense of Ray’s increasing presence and the conscious awareness of his characters does not see the series spiral downward as it moves further from its roots. Rather it creates an effective narrative journey and for Ray the opportunity to show his ability to evolve as a filmmaker and to not allow his cinematic language to become lethargic or immobile.
Meanwhile a dual juxtaposition unfolds musically in which Ray employs music as a means of narrative instruction to guide his audience emotionally, while it also exists as a component that belongs to the aesthetic level upon which images exist to decorate a film. The astute attention Ray gives to sound and music infers his deep understanding of film as a marriage between sound and image, and by interlocking the two there is the potential to create an evocative sense of feeling, both of harmony and horror. And in moments Ray creates a collection of iconic monochrome haunted sequences that brings his drama into the gravitational pull of horror cinema – scenes almost becoming of an English gothic ghost story imbued with a Bengali sensibility. The shades of horror are expressed in two iconic Ray moments, and also two in the history of film: the scene in which the father learns of his daughter’s death in Pather Panchali sees the angst ridden cries of the mother replaced with non-diegetic music. Meanwhile the scattering of birds and unsettling non-diegetic music symbolise the father’s death in Aparajito, and together they symbolise the height of Ray’s mastery of the audio and visual language of cinema. They possess an artistry and a poeticism that serve as examples of the filmmaker’s ability to create silent cinema within his monochrome sound cinema. Together they convey that he understands the need to silence his characters and their world on a diegetic level, in order to create a wholly engineered non-diegetic sound that strikes the senses with a raw and evocative impression.
A quality of Ray’s musicality remains his ability to exploit Pather Panchali’s recurring theme, giving it a chameleon like presence in which it can be both haunting and tragic; melancholic and playful; ambiguous and nonchalant. As the theme is so closely associated with the drama, this deft musical touch allows a genuine intimate connection to be forged between the film and its audience. Any nod to the musicality of Ray’s trilogy is offset by a requirement to acknowledge his narrative touch, in which he infuses his cinematography with a theatrical playfulness that in moments sheds itself of absolute naturalism. Ray’s camera has the tendency to merge naturalism with the filmic, while equally in moments consciously or not, merges the filmic with the theatrical.
One thought that should be shared is the trilogy’s contemplation of the spectator vicariously living through fictional characters. The journeys of the characters inevitably collide, straining the interpersonal relationships from which spiral outward the potential consequences of exclusion and inclusion as the dynamic of the familial relationships change. The conflicts stemming from change are an inherent part of our interpersonal relationships. As we observe the shifts of change in Apu’s relationship with his mother in Aparajito, as an audience we empathise with both mother and son who we perceive as victims of an inherent fact of life. Within narrative fiction we are capable of simultaneously empathising with multiple characters in any given story; understanding the motivations, the joy and the pain of the characters without being compelled to side with one character or another. This remains one of the rewarding aspects of experiencing narrative fiction, and by living vicariously through characters we can find ourselves at peace with ourselves, rational as opposed to the irrationality we are prone to in our own lives. There is something uniquely special about the connection we share with characters such as Apu and his family, and on some level Apu’s journey strikes from more than one angle into the heart of our engagement with stories, and the role between the creator and his or her creations.
The cinema of Satyajit Ray I have felt cautious to explore, attributed in part to the less than enthusiastic encounter with Indian cinema during my undergraduate days. At this point of discovery I am left to consider how the Apu trilogy is one that has the potential to change one’s relationship to cinema – an encounter that represents the death and rebirth of oneself. Fifty-six years on the propensity to impact one’s relationship to cinema remains Ray’s enduring achievement and the testament to his significant role within film history and his success at having found immortality through art.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.
Read also Christopher Sharrett, “The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray’s Masterpiece.”