Please note that this post inevitably reveals some details concerning the plots of the three films comprising the “Apu Trilogy” – Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar. However, these films do not rely on the plotlines to make their impact, and in my opinion at least, those who have yet to see the films, and are fortunate enough to be able to look forward to their first viewing, may read this without fear of having the experience of that first viewing spoilt. However, it is only fair to put up what is known as a “Spoiler Warning”.
Films about people living in poverty are usually described as “social dramas”, or even as “social documents”, as if it is expected that the principal theme of these films will be the poverty itself. But a social document is exactly what this trilogy of films isn’t: these films are not specifically depictions of poverty, far less political statements. They are films about people – people who, admittedly, happen to be poor.
The story of how these films came to be made is perhaps too well-known to need re-telling. Satyajit Ray, a commercial artist working in advertising, had dreams of filming the two novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuthi Bhushan Banerji*. He had briefly been Renoir’s assistant when the great man had come to India to film The River, but beyond a love of the medium of cinema, he had no credentials, and certainly no experience, to take on the direction of a film. However, in an act that even with the benefit of hindsight seems foolhardy to the point of insanity, Ray raised what money he personally could; employed the services of photographer Subrata Mitra, who had no experience of cine-photography (Ray apparently told him that he wanted the film to look like Cartier-Bresson’s photographs!); wrote a script; brought together a cast of mostly (but not wholly) amateur actors; and started shooting. Not surprisingly, the money ran out after a while, but by good fortune, John Huston happened to be passing through Calcutta, and, sufficiently impressed by what had been shot so far, he recommended the Government of West Bengal to provide funding for the rest. It was still a shoestring budget – certainly a joke by American or by European standards. But the film eventually got made, and released in 1955. And for many, including myself, this film, and the two that followed to make up the trilogy, are the most powerfully affecting works of art that cinema has produced.
(I am sorry to introduce such a personal note so early in this post, and sorrier still to use superlatives that are bound to put off at least some readers, but it is impossible for me to discuss these films without at least touching upon what they have meant to me personally over the years; and since this personal note is bound to be introduced at some time or other, it might as well be sooner rather than later.)
I remember vividly my first viewing of Pather Panchali. It was 1975, and I was a teenager, attending secondary school in Glasgow. Being of Bengali origin, and having as father a man steeped in Bengali culture, I had heard much both about the books and the films, but I did not at the time know my mother tongue well enough to read the books, and, before the days of video or DVD or satellite channels, there wasn’t much opportunity to get to see the films. Then, someone told me that Pather Panchali was being shown by the Glasgow University Film Society. So I found out the hall: it was a lecture hall rather than one designed for showing films, but a makeshift screen had been set up, and a projector whirred away at the back. And what I witnessed that night stays with me still: I came out of that hall feeling devastated. Neither before, nor since – except when I watch it again – have I been quite so affected by a film. Nothing else communicates with such intensity, with such immediacy, the sheer pain of human loss. One forgets one is watching a film: the profound sense of loss somehow becomes one’s own.
Loss is a recurrent theme through these films, but it is not the only theme, and nor even, I think, the principal one. Ray is interested in the human ability to grow through experience, to transcend the sorrow that is our common human lot, and even, yes, to find joy. And there is joy in there: this is no mere sentimental wallow in the lachrymose. The closing sequence of the last film of the series, Apur Sansar, is as joyous as anything I have seen. Of course, it is a qualified joy, as all human joys are, but it is nonetheless triumphant in its own way. It’s not that Apu finally acquires wealth, or anything like that: this is nothing so crude as a Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Rather, having for a while turned away from life and led an existence shielded from human contact, Apu, at the end, returns to take up once again his worldly responsibilities. And even in this there is joy. For this, I think, is the central theme of these films: they are not about the poverty, and, despite the pain of loss that runs through them, neither are they primarily about loss, or about pain. If anything, these films are about human aspirations. Basil Wright expresses it well in The Long View, his marvellous but now sadly-out of-print personal history of cinema:
When Apu’s family, and later Apu himself, think of the future, it is in terms of the most modest ambition – if indeed the word is not too positive in this connection. The object, really, is somehow to survive. The object is to obtain a modicum of money, a modicum of education, to be able to afford to keep one’s wife and to have the good fortune to see one’s children grow into adulthood. These hopes, in India, are not so often realized; but like all true human aspirations they carry with them an imperishable glory, and it is this which Ray celebrates in his films.
– From The Long View by Basil Wright, Secker & Warburg, 1974
Indeed. An imperishable glory.
Pather Panchali is about childhood, about all those apparently insignificant childhood experiences and impressions that mould the person the child later becomes. The setting is a remote Bengali village: the era isn’t specified, but it’s possibly early in the twentieth century. Apu is born into a family of impoverished Brahmins: the father, Harihar, is a gentle, other-worldly man who makes what meagre living he can by looking after a local landowner’s accounts; but he dreams of writing plays, and dreams particularly of educating his boy. (Educating the girl was not on the agenda in this society, although we shouldn’t interpret this as deliberate neglect). The mother, Sarbojaya, desperate somehow to feed and clothe her children, and often exasperated by her husband’s apparent detachment from worldly, day-to-day matters, is frequently on edge. This village, we later find out, is not where she had grown up: we find out also that she is literate. Obviously, her background had been very different, and here, she is lonely and isolated. The various pressures that fall on her push her into a certain hard-heartedness, and even perhaps cruelty, but she is neither cold-hearted nor cruel by nature.
And on top of everything else, they have living with them an old aunt, Indir Thakrun, physically bowed with the infirmity of extreme age, and aware of being but a useless burden on those who can barely afford to feed themselves. She has trained herself to be meek and submissive, to be ingratiating to those on whose charity she survives, and under whose roofs she can find even an uncertain shelter; but inside her there burns a rage, which she cannot always suppress. As she hobbles from place to place, seeking only for somewhere to rest her head in her final days, all she really wants is to die. In one unforgettable sequence uniting all three of these characters, the mother tells of her fears and of her loneliness to her husband; but he, exhausted, is already half asleep: Sarbojaya is speaking virtually to herself. And meanwhile, the old woman is sitting outside, singing in her cracked broken voice into the darkness. She sings a well-known, traditional Bengali song:
The day is done, the night is come,
Ferry me to the other shore.
Those who came after have gone before,
I am left here, stranded and alone.
These three roles are played by professional actors – the veteran actress Chunibala Devi (whom Ray found living in considerable poverty and distress in her extreme old age) as the old aunt; Karuna Banerjee as the mother Sarbojaya; and Kanu Banerjee (no relation) as the father Harihar. The children and the peripheral characters are played by non-professional actors, but to convey the intricate network of relationships that is presented amongst the principal adult characters, one needs experienced professionals.
Apu also has an older sister, Durga. Durga has a close relationship to the old aunt, for whom she steals – much to her mother’s shame – fruit from a neighbouring orchard. And she forms a close relationship with her brother as well. It would have been all too easy to have depicted these children growing up in poverty as brutalised, but they aren’t: they are allowed their childhood, their childhood games and fantasies, and, although it may be once again a strange word to use in this context, even a sense of joy.
It is through Apu’s eyes that we see this world. It is mainly a world populated by women: the father is away for much of the time, trying desperately to earn a few pennies to feed the family. The people we see most often are the mother, the sister, the old aunt, and various female neighbours – both sympathetic and otherwise. But with every event, it is Apu’s reaction shot Ray cuts to first, thus ensuring that although his role is essentially passive, it is he remains at the centre of the narrative. Many of these events he witnesses are trivial: a group of travelling players put on a performance; a sweet-seller passes by; a somewhat out-of-tune brass band plays “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” – of all things – on their battered instruments at a wedding; the children wander off to see a train thunder past. But these are the events that will make Apu the man he later becomes.
Apu and Durga see the train for the first time
The train is a major image in the films: it is a symbol that acquires various layers of meaning as the trilogy progresses. We first hear it on the soundtrack as Apu is being taught to read by his father: this is not just a symbol of connection with the world outside, it is the only connection with the world outside, the world which Apu will eventually have to face, and with which he must eventually make terms. It is this train that will later take Apu away from his mother into Calcutta. In the famous sequence in which the children see the train for the first time, they are confused and disorientated: Apu does not yet know it, but this is his first a glimpse of his future. But this sequence is intercut with another, very different one: the old aunt, barely able to stand on her feet but unable to take further humiliation, hobbles out of the house for the last time. And as the children return from seeing the train, they find her dead under a tree. As prospects of a new world become apparent, an aspect of the old world dies: at long last, Indir Thakrun has been ferried to the other shore.
This is not the last death in the film: the final half-hour or so is pure heartbreak. And at the end, the family, now reduced the three, leave for Benares to the sound of a haunting pastoral theme played on the bansuri (bamboo flute).
Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Bud Shank (flute) improvise on the theme from Pather Panchali, composed by Ravi Shankar
Among the many miracles of this film – not least of which, lest we forget, is that it was made by someone without any cinematic experience to speak of – is the music. It was composed by Ravi Shankar before he acquired his international reputation, and at each point – whether depicting the carefree joy of children at play, or whether depicting hysterical, uncontrollable grief – it seems both perfect in itself, and perfectly integrated into the texture of the film.
The two later films in the series, Aparajito (meaning “Undefeated”) and Apur Sansar (usually translated as The World of Apu, but which can also mean “Apu’s Family”) possibly display, unsurprisingly, a more assured directorial hand; but for many, they lack something of the freshness of vision and the unforced lyricism of the first film. What I find particularly interesting is that Ray allowed himself greater freedom in these later films to depart from Bibhuthi Bhushan’s novels. After all, these films are not a slavish translation of those novels into the medium of cinema: wonderful though those novels are, they are but a starting point for something quite different. The artistic vision communicated in this trilogy is Satyajit’s rather than Bibhuti Bhushan’s; and, while one may have individual preferences amongst these three films, they really need to be considered together as a single unity.
In Aparajito, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. The family has moved now to the holy city of Benares, and the father is now earning his pennies by carrying out priestly duties by the sacred river (he is a Brahmin, after all). But the family, we find, has merely exchanged its rural poverty for an urban.
The opening section of the film seems deliberately fragmented, with little in the way of narrative continuity, and with seemingly random characters drifting in and out. After life in the country, the city is a noisy, confusing, disorientating place, but also, for Apu, an exciting one. Through all this, a narrative strand of sorts does begin to develop: the father’s health is failing, and soon, the inevitable happens: Sarbojaya becomes a widow. At the very moment of death, Ray cuts, with magical effect, to birds wheeling above the city rooftops: it is one of the many moments in the trilogy when an image seems just right in the dramatic context, even though it is impossible to put one’s finger on why it should seem so.
Eventually, the family, now reduced to two, return to the country, and as the familiar Bengali landscape comes into view through the train window, we hear once again that pastoral bansuri theme we had known from Pather Panchali: Apu and Sarbojaya are back home again.
Most novels or films about growing up – the Bildungsroman, as it is known – take the form of a widening circle: as the protagonist becomes older, new environments, new horizons, begin to open. Indeed, in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, one of the chapters depicting Ursula’s growth and development is actually titled “The Widening Circle”. But Ray, very daringly, depicts a narrowing circle: new horizons certainly open for Apu, yes, but even as they do so, the focus of the narrative closes in on the relationship between Apu and his mother. The hustle and bustle of the earlier part of the film, the disorientating crowds and the large array of characters, they all seem to vanish into the background, leaving in the foreground a teenage lad and his ageing mother, and the conflict that develops between them even as they continue to love each other – indeed, because they continue to love each other.
The mother had wanted to spend her old age with her beloved son, and, to this end, had wanted him to take on the duties of a village priest. But Apu, who years earlier had heard the sound of the train in the distance while his father had been teaching him to read, wants to engage with the world outside. Sarbojaya, partly because she remembers the aspirations her late husband had had for their son, relents, and allows Apu to attend university in the city; but the consequence is that she is left alone. The shifting relations between the two – the mother’s possessive love for her son, and her fear of the loneliness of old age; the son’s continuing love for his mother, but also his desire to escape from her – are all depicted with the subtlest and most delicate of touches that even Chekhov might have been proud of. In particular, there is one episode that might have made a short story in itself: Apu, back home on a short break, asks his mother to wake him early, so he can catch the morning train back to Calcutta; she, desperately wanting him to stay on a bit longer fails to do so; Apu wakes up late, is angry with his mother for not having waked him, and runs off to the station as fast as he can. It so happens that he is in time for the Calcutta train, but something happens on the platform – something mysterious that not even he quite understands. He doesn’t board the train. Instead, he walks back home again, tells his mother he has missed the train, and stays on for another day.
There is no surprise twist at the end of the film. Apu by the end is on his own. He grieves, but he knows he is now free, and responsible for himself. And it’s a responsibility he doesn’t shirk. His mother’s passing causes grief, naturally, but there are examinations to be passed: he will carry out his funeral duties in Calcutta, he tells the village priest quietly as he leaves the village for the last time, aparajito, undefeated.
At the start of the third and final film, Apur Sansar, we see Apu young man. Lack of funds has prevented him from completing his studies, and he is now living in a small room in Calcutta on which he owes rent, somewhat secluded from the teeming city life around him. Into this environment enters an old friend. The two have a night out together, and Apu, who, like his father, harbours literary ambitions, tells his friend of the novel he is writing. As with most first novels, it is pure autobiography. The protagonist of this novel, as he grows into manhood, is faced with sorrows and losses and all the vicissitudes of life, but he has never, says Apu, turned his back on life – he has always faced it, accepted its responsibilities But when Apu starts speaking of love, his friend, who can see all too clearly the autobiographical nature of what Apu is writing, turns on him in astonishment. Love? Sex? What does Apu know of such matters? Has he ever come within yards of a woman?
All that soon changes. His friend invites Apu to his cousin’s wedding, and the events at that wedding are bizarre – and not merely by Western standards. But no matter how bizarre the events, Ray’s focus, as ever, is firmly on the people involved, on how humans behave, and react to each other. Apu attends the wedding as a guest, but somehow – he himself is not sure how it all happened: there was a sort of magic in the air, a sort of enchantment – he, who, as his friend had pointed out, had never been within yards of a woman, suddenly finds himself a married man.
How did he get to this? On the marriage night, as his wife, Aparna, sits quietly and shyly on the huge four-poster bed, Apu paces up and down, perplexed. What has he done? He had been till now content to look after himself: true, he wasn’t exactly wealthy, but he has survived. But now? A wife to look after, to care for?
The scenes depicting the early days of Apu’s marriage to Aparna constitute, for me, the most convincing depiction in cinema of love. When Aparna first sees Apu’s bare little room, she weeps. But seeing Apu distressed by her weeping, she stops herself. And the scenes that follow are magical. It is the hardest thing in the world to depict happiness: even amongst the finest of writers, very few have succeeded. But this is what Ray depicts in these scenes. If we are to look for a literary influence here, it is not perhaps to Bibhuthi Bhushan we should look (these scenes owe little to the novels on which these films are based), but, rather, to The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan. Amidst all the bitterness of life, some measure of happiness has been snatched.
But it doesn’t last long. Of the three films, Apur Sansar has by far the strongest narrative line, but Ray takes care to ensure that the narrative never takes precedence over the characters. Tragedy strikes once again, and this time, Apu, who had lived through tragedies before, whose autobiographical protagonist is determined to face life, no matter what it brings – Apu finally breaks. He even tries to commit suicide under a train that is as real as it is symbolic. He travels – by the sea, in mountains, in forests. And in a scene of haunting, breath-taking beauty, he allows the pages of his manuscript to drift away into the air. Refusing even to see his newborn child, he withdraws from life. He withdraws from everything he had stood for, everything he had aspired towards.
It is the journey back from this abyss that forms the culminating section of the film, and, indeed, of the trilogy itself. It manages, somehow, to be joyous and uncertain at the same time: life is difficult and uncertain, and will continue to be so, but even out of that may be glimpsed moments of reprieve, even of joy.
While writing the above, I realised just how difficult it is to attempt to describe something one feels very close to personally. How can one convey the essence of something very dear to one without appearing gushing, without misrepresenting it? Looking over what I have written, I think I may have run the danger of presenting it to the uninitiated as a somewhat sentimental work that merely wallows in grief: it isn’t. Yes, it does address some of the most powerful of emotions with an unembarrassed directness; and, perhaps, such directness is alien to certain types of Western sensibilities that prefer a more decorous reticence in such matters. But these emotions of grief, of loss, of pain – these had to be depicted directly: otherwise, the themes of transcending the despair, of growing and developing through experience, of the moments of joy that may still be found in the midst of all this – none of these themes would have registered with adequate force.
And, although the trajectory of my own life has been very different from Apu’s, somehow, Apu’s experiences have become my own. When, for instance, Apu tells his newly married wife of his past, he mentions briefly “I had a sister”: he stops there, and says no more about her. But having not merely witnessed, but having lived through the scenes with Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali, I find it hard not to feel myself at least something of what Apu himself feels at that moment. Such a powerful sense of personal immersion is something I rarely experience in other works – and certainly never in any other film. As Basil Wright put it, these films carry about them “an imperishable glory”.
* These two novels continue to be regarded, quite rightly, as classics of Bengali literature, but, despite translations into English being available, recognition in the West has eluded them. This is not a reflection on the literary quality of these magnificent novels – certainly amongst the finest that I’ve ever read – but is due, rather, to a curious unspoken conviction on the part of Western literati that the only Indian literature worth the name is that written in English, and that works written in one of those funny little languages of theirs need not be taken seriously. This sort of thing, I believe, passes for “liberalism”.