There are dozens upon dozens of indelible moments in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy that could be held up as emblematic of the glorious whole, its empathy and gentle wisdom. The three films – Pather Panchali (1955, and filmed over the course of the previous four years), Aparajito (1956), and The World of Apu (1959) – are awash in masterful touches, perfectly framed and naturalistically performed scenes, psychological depth, and haunting beauty.
And yet, in isolation, such moments will always fail to convey the trilogy’s sweep and cumulative impact. Like life itself, these films are more – much more – than the sum total of seconds which constitute them. And like life itself, they need no real argument. They exist, in all their ineffable wonder, because they had to.
The films trace the impoverished childhood, conflicted adolescence, and complicated adulthood of Apu, the son of an itinerant priest raised mainly by the women in his life. Pather focuses on his early years and life in a Bengali village (the title is translated as “Song of the Little Road,” presumably referring to the only way in or out of town). His childhood is marked by tragedies great and small, but Ray is in no hurry to exaggerate or over-emphasize – as an audience, we spent much of our time simply coming to know and love the characters, watching their daily routines, listening to the gossip, bristling at the unfair allegations casually whispered here and there, and sharing in their struggles.
For Apu, this is largely a wonderful time, though the adults would surely beg to differ. He has run of the forest, interesting people abound, he’s swathed in unconditional love and provided the occasional meal, even the rare treat. Time is marked by natural cycles, and less natural ones, like the arrival of Chinibas, the Sweets Seller. It’s a grand adventure to set out alone with his sister to see a train firsthand. Ray and his (henceforth) longtime cinematographer Subrata Mitra pay as much attention to tall grasses and the ubiquitous animals as they do to their characters; in some sense, the place is itself the star of Pather Panchali, this “home” they share, these facts of the world eclipsing the contingent people who flesh them out. On the other hand, this poeticism never loses sight of the narrative that drives it.
The first film closes with the family setting out for a new, precarious life, away from the father’s ancestral land, where things haven’t gone well, sadly. The second one, Aparajito (The Unvanquished), opens in Calcutta, which is a world away from the little village we’d known. The streets bustle and teem with life, and the pace has changed. Apu has aged a few years, and is now more interested in palling around with the city boys than sticking it out at home with the grown-ups. This only becomes more true after still more tragedy befalls the family, and they must relocate yet again.
A glimmer of hope appears in Apu’s unexpected aptitude for schooling (unexpected, at least, by some). He steadfastly fights his way into school, despite the expense and the fact that he should, in his mom’s initially more pragmatic view, follow in his dad’s priestly footsteps and make a living in the short-term to support his kin. He does so, but sensibly argues that he can balance both work and education. His natural inquisitiveness, so subtly evoked in Pather, takes the form of intellectual curiosity, and he wins a scholarship. Soon, he’s off to college, abandoning not just the provincial life he’s come to resent but those who made his survival possible.
It’s one of Ray’s boldest, truest gestures as a director and screenwriter (adapting a famous and popular novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay). The adorable child of Pather Panchali isn’t exactly cuddly as he grows up, but he’s instantly recognizable. He has his own ambitions, his own desires, and they are all easy to understand; at no point is he ever actually unsympathetic, and the transition from the wholeness of youth to a rebellion against all that he feels ties him down is painfully believable. But it is impossible to watch his adolescence in Aparajito, and the particular arrogance it shares with so many of ours (mine, anyways), and not actively wish he’d wise up. But then we might feel the same way if someone happened to capture ours on film, and most of us didn’t wise up either, at least not at 17. Aparajito is not a documentary, but it sure feels like one at points. Similarly, his smothering, long-suffering mom is never less than fully realized, even if she’s often less than fully justified in her individual actions. But who is? These are real people living real lives, and they are deeply, wonderfully, sadly imperfect.
We close with The World of Apu, catching up to our protagonist as a grown man. He accidentally happens into a marriage, with all the joy and sorrow that can bring. He’s struggled to become a writer and has had to deal with enormous setbacks and failures, but this marriage proves a solace to him, a new sense of human connection that he’d gone so far out of his way to avoid since childhood.
The wide-eyed boy and the smartass teen have coalesced into a kindhearted but ultimately dissolute man – there’s the sense of lost promise, and long-delayed, never-realized passions. He’s charming but sad, and he’s lost a lot over the course of these films of his life. In one of the great endings of all time, he persuades the young son he abandoned to join him on the next adventure by promising to take him to “his father” in the big city – though the child seems to know, on some level, they are playing a game. The trilogy ends with a hope for human connection founded on illusion, which, not coincidentally, could describe the art of cinema itself.
The story of the films themselves is well known, but worth repeating. Pather Panchali was Ray’s first film – allegedly, he’d never held a camera. The “actors” were never screen-tested, the film was written largely on the fly, and shot on location in 16 mm. Rapturously received at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, trumpeted by Truffaut and others, it became the first true international arthouse hit, and Ray, who’d never intended a sequel, basically had to make two more to satisfy audience demand. (There’s more than a little of The 400 Blows in Ray’s evident allegiance to his young prodigy protagonist.)
His progression as a filmmaker is clear throughout the trilogy, but there’s still a beauty to the first that only comes from a place of love, not expertise. It’s tempting to call it naïve art or something similar, except there’s little amateurism to be found, despite it being a textbook definition of an amateur production. The shots are luminous and the sense of place is palpable, to the point where one starts to doubt the official story. There is little exposition, and no condescension. If the other two suffer a bit by comparison, it’s only the unfortunate consequence of expectation. Pather Panchali is one of the true originals in cinema history. The remainder of the trilogy accomplishes every one of its goals.
I feel fortunate to have been able to see the newly restored version of the trilogy, screened in 4K at a theater during a weeklong run. If you can do the same, do so. I’d seen Pather Panchali years ago for the first time and was moved; I saw a better version last year and was struck by how contemporary it suddenly felt; I watched this version and it was a revelation. The original prints were catastrophically burned in a fire two decades ago, and Criterion and Janus performed their standard, bewildering magic to try and fix this, through use of negatives and other such technical business I barely understand. The original score by the then-unknown Ravi Shankar is included.
Roger Ebert famously declared cinema “an empathy machine,” a point some have had issues with over the years. But I think this is exactly the sort of film he had in mind. I was struck by the fact that, like Apu, I also know what it is to come home to a home that was never yours – in the best of times, many of us do, and in times of economic uncertainty, perhaps most of us do. So with Apu: he doesn’t return to the village of Pather – it’s never seen again, in fact. He returns to new homes, to various versions of the new normal, but their relation to bucolic childhood is tenuous at best. Time moves on; we move on. “Home” itself is a relation more than a place, but the sensuousness of childhood always agitates against this truism – the wind and water, the full house, the generations living together, the magic of that time. We grow out of it, not away from it, and may spend a lifetime trying to reconstruct its innocence and wholeness. We inevitably fail, and so forge our lives the best we can instead. (Of course, this is a particular vision of a particular variety of childhood, one in which joy and pain are doled out in equal measure. Not everyone is so “lucky,” if that’s the word. But like Linklater’s recent Boyhood, the film doesn’t need to apologize for not being everything to everyone. It’s a snapshot, and a true one.) You do not need to have grown up impoverished in a Bengali village to relate to the longing for connection, meaning, and beauty.
In Aparajito’s opening moments, I found myself inexplicably on the verge of tears. Simply recognizing the father was enough to cause a lump in the throat. It was only two days prior that I’d seen Pather but I realized right away what it was – I was happy to be back in this world. It was like seeing old friends – not any old friends, but my old friends. All the emotional swell of their lives returned full force in moments, in small figures and smaller gestures. The deeply unsure of aspect of Pather’s ending was at last resolved, in Aparajito, into this: “So, you made it, then.” A remarkable thing – the pacing, characterization, mood, and narrative of the first is so languid and seductive, it sneaks up, and you don’t notice your profound investment until it’s too late to shrug off.
Then you walk outside, back in your place and time, and promptly leave behind the chirping birds, lily pads fluttering in the breeze, adventures in the woods, the small material stakes of a child’s world and their looming counterparts among the anxious adults who want mainly to shield and protect, and the bickering, the play, the sorrows that don’t have names yet. But as the second starts, it floods you, and you realize you’ve missed these places and these people, the ones who’ve survived and the ones lost to time and chance. I don’t know if I’ve ever started weeping 30 seconds into a film before.
By the time Apu and this lost child of his own walk off together in the closing frames of The World of Apu, in an agreed-upon fiction they both find necessary, there’s virtually nothing left to say, and no reason to say it. It’s all on the screen. This, as Ebert concluded, is what cinema can be.