The Apu Trilogy

Pather Panchali

You may never again see a film like Pather Panchali. When it was made (in the 1950s) it marked a departure from Indian popular cinema. At a time when India was second only to Japan in annual films made, Indian movies were slick and commercial, prepackaged “star” vehicles that were mostly variations on the “star, six songs and three dances” formula. Pauline Kale writes: “Consider the Americans, looking under stones for some tiny piece of subject matter they can call their own, and then judge the wealth, the prodigious, fabulous heritage that an imaginative Indian can draw upon… the whole country and its culture is his to explore and express to the limits of his ability.” The great achievement of Pather Panchali is that it opens a window of art on a slice of that heritage and culture, the social reality of poverty-ridden rural life, and establishes connections that are universal. It resonates with truth and beauty; it is at once elementally simple and yet emotionally complex. It represents nothing less than the finest aspirations of cinema.

Don’t make the mistake of viewing this movie as a documentary, or as autobiography, as many critics have suggested. In structure, it resembles a “coming of age” story as we follow Apu from his birth through his preadolescent years. However, that major story arc is so grounded in a sense of time and place that it’s easy to think we’re being given a history lesson. Its director Satyajit Ray has written: “I could, of course, have drawn upon the book itself, which was a kind of encyclopedia of Bengali rural life, but I knew that this was not enough. In any case, one had only to drive 6 miles out of the city to get to the heart of the authentic village… It made you want to observe and probe, to catch the revealing details, the telling gestures, the particular turns of speech. You wanted to fathom the mysteries of ‘atmosphere.’”

Satyajit Ray was born into a family prominent in Bengali arts and letters for fifteen generations. His first career was as layout artist and art director for a British-run advertising agency in Calcutta. Ray met John Renoir in 1949, while Ray was struggling with the film treatment of the popular novel Pather Panchali (he’d illustrated an abridged version of the book already.) Renoir gave Ray his “only professional encouragement,” that he should “never give up.” In 1950 his employer sent him to England for three months, where he attended more than 90 films. (He’s written that the film that most helped to clarify his ideas was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.) Shortly thereafter Ray began shooting Pather Panchali on location on weekends, but failed to attract financial backing. He could not complete the film until a request from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to include it in their Indian art exhibit led the West Bengal government to provide funds.

When Pather Panchali premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it received little attention, being thought slow moving and boring. The great French critic Andre Bazin championed it, however, and the Cannes jury awarded it a special humanitarian prize. Like many great films, it has become revered with age, if not widely seen. It bears little resemblance to what’s considered entertainment today: “Any picture as loose in structure or as listless in tempo as this one would barely pass a ‘rough cut’ in Hollywood.” (Bosley Crowther, The New York Times.) The director himself aptly justifies the film’s pacing: “The cinematic material dictated a style to me, a very slow rhythm determined by nature, the landscape, the country. The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.” This film requires work from the audience for its value to become apparent. With that said, the payoff is unforgettable.

Ray brings us directly into the rural village–there is no narrative distance. Events unfold as they do in life, with no forewarning or evident scheme. One of the best aspects of the film is how it continually surprises us. We’re used to seeing certain types of “movie” things in italics: Spielberg and his peers always make us aware of how many movies they’ve seen, and how cleverly they’re adopting them all. Children playing in a field of wheat; the invasion of the industrial world as Apu sees his first train; the force of nature as a monsoon wreaks havoc… What’s amazing is that although we’ve seen these things hundreds of times, they have an immediacy and freshness here that we’re completely un-used to. Cliché is impossible because there’s no archness–the childlike wonder Ray brings to his story is completely genuine. One of the admitted pleasures of movie watching–to see and note the influences, the precedents, and the homage–is missing here. What is left is an even greater joy: a chance to see the world anew, with wonder.

In a way that documentaries can’t, Ray brings us through the differences in culture that make this Indian world strange to us. We are unable to feel pity on the family for the crushing poverty it must endure and instead we recognize its triumphs and heartbreaks as our own. Our involvement becomes exquisite in the amazing penultimate scene, and the following denouement, which is both painful and tentatively hopeful. Although the story has reached a proper closing, we are anxious for more, even as we consider all that Ray has given us to ponder. Pather Panchali is a rare gift; we are grateful Satyajit Ray didn’t give up. Indeed, he has given us more than we’d even known to hope for.


Aparajito is the second installment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. Where Pather Panchali concerned innocence, and was indeed shown to us innocently, fresh and untarnished, Aparajito is jaded by the cityscapes it introduces. It’s not only a parable about a young man’s rites of passage, but a document of the industrialization of society–a transition from village traditions and values to the wider, more competitive and colder rules of “progress.”

Ray matched the rhythms of Pather Panchali to those of the village life he depicted in it. It had a rambling, easy-going, lyric feel. Aparajito begins with the family’s arrival in the city, and the pace is faster, the editing jumpy. Where Pather Panchali didn’t linger on anything–each beautiful scene flowed into the next without emphasis–Aparajito looks in wonder on the mad collage of city life. It stares wide-eyed, as Apu must, at the buildings and people, and in the jumble one gets the sense that temptation and danger lurk. The stylistic distinction between the two films provides insight into Ray’s mastery: he is using every resource available in the medium to enrich his story.

Aparajito wonderfully evokes Apu’s yearning for education, as he begins to see the world beyond his childhood village, and desires to know more of it. There is a great moment when Apu pleads with his mother to send him to school–she is torn, because there’s clearly value in the village life and traditions, and their security, which she’s always known. She relents, as she must, because once the journey is begun there’s no turning back. There follows a series of scenes which demonstrate with pure joy (and humor) the new things Apu is learning, and that Joy stands as ironic counterpoint to the world Apu now inhabits: the decrepit cities which are perhaps the ultimate result of that learning.

Once again Apu’s mother is the emotional glue that binds the family, and the film together. Her dramatic role is increased even as her family comes to depend on her less. While Apu and his father find opportunity and adventure in the city, the mother’s caretaker role diminishes, and with it her reason to exist. She seems to physically shrink as she loses the foundation on which she’s built her life. This is, of course, a universal theme, and it has the inevitable progression of tragedy. Ray mirrors the dramatic climax of Pather Panchali here, and the echoes add resonant layers of emotion, making it even more exquisite.

Pather Panchali immersed us in the village life so thoroughly we seemed to be part of it. Aparajito allows us to share in the wonders the characters experience, but we have a reserved distance now. We’re aware of the bigger picture, the larger implications of actions. Ray takes away our innocence as viewers even as he takes it from the family. I’m torn in my opinion of Ravi Shankar’s music for this installment. When I watched the film, I thought it was melodramatic and extraneous in many places. I wonder now if that’s not also part of Ray’s design–he knows that innocence and melodrama cannot coexist.

I remember when I first saw the Star Wars trilogy in theaters. As familiar characters were introduced at the beginning of each new installment, the audience would cheer. I felt like cheering here, as we first see our beloved family members–the thread that binds these two very different films together. Ray has continued an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment with Aparajito, and I look forward to its conclusion.

The World of Apu

To see The World of Apu is to rejoice in life. Themes that were complete examinations in both Pather Panchali and Aparajito are brought gloriously full circle here. As the story of Apu comes to a close, your heart may leap from your body from absolute happiness.

Once again, Satyajit Ray has matched his style to his material. Pather Panchali was slow and lush; Aparajito was wide-eyed and edgy. The World of Apu takes its cues from the generous face of its star Soumitra Chatterjee. As Apu, he suggests the younger Apus we’ve known and blends them into his astonishing characterization. The entire film seems to be an extension of what he’s thinking and feeling at any moment. Because we watched him grow up, we share his joys, frustrations, and pain. Sharmila Tagore is luminous as Apurna. She’s introduced in the midst of the funniest sequence of the trilogy, and we don’t know quite what to expect of her. She’s a complete surprise to Apu, and to us. The scenes that succinctly and completely describe their relationship form the most beautiful evocation of marriage ever put to film.

Although the earlier films were effective social documents, The World of Apu focuses on the heart. It takes all that has happened to Apu and wonders where those experiences will finally lead him. His journey to that end is our journey as well.

January 1999