The Apu Trilogy

Satyajit Ray is to India what Akira Kurosawa is to Japan or Vittorio De Sica to Italy. His films are so poetically evocative and stunningly photographed; told with such immediacy and assuredness, he is truly a master of the art form and clearly this trilogy is a labor of love.

He was clearly influenced by rampant social change occurring in India around the 1920s, the socially conscious Italian neorealist cinema of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), as well as the minimalist cinematic art of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). 

For many years Mr. Ray’s films were unavailable to western audiences or even Indian audiences outside Bengal, and only known to European art-house cinephiles, but now they are finally being restored and shown in retrospectives of Satyajit’s body of work across North America, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. 

These tales tell a powerful sweeping story of a Bengali boy named Apu and his family struggling through life as he grows to adulthood. They are enthralling masterpieces worth every effort to locate and watch at your earliest convenience. Newly restored digital prints are now showing in art-house cinemas across the country and will soon be available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD. I recommend anyone to start their journey of discovery with these three wonderful gems.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) (1955), Satyajit Ray’ first film in the Apu trilogy, that began his career as a filmmaker has everything you could want from a movie. A generational coming of age saga, it contains an entire, fully realized, complete microcosm of human experience and culture. 

Apu is born of poor Bengali parents who also have a teenage daughter Durga. The father is a priest frequently away looking for work to make enough money to support his young family and his elderly mother who live in the ruined remains of a dilapidated ancestral forest dwelling.

The mother has her hands full feeding and raising her young son and daughter, who are, as children often are, playful and mischievous, while dealing with the village gossip about their lack of means.

I had heard great things about these films as they are very highly regarded in the world of international cinema and frequently considered among the all-time greatest films, but I was not prepared for such a true, authentic and honest vision; laying bare the tragic realities and every day struggles of a poor Bengali family scraping out a meager living in an isolated village among the bamboo groves.  

Apu and his sister’s carefree childhood is short lived however. During one of the father’s lengthy trips, tragedy strikes with uncommon ferocity that will leave a lasting effect on the young impressionable Apu. But his troubles are only beginning as the family is forced to relocate, leaving everything behind.

This is realist cinema in the tradition of De Sica and Kurosawa, but also art at the highest level. This film has made me a believer and fan of Mr. Ray’s films. He has captured with this film, a sensitivity and quality of artistic expression that transcends the medium.

Filmed with stunning natural beauty using authentic locations and non-professional actors, we are totally immersed in the lives of these characters and their world. The path through the bamboo forest, the fields where women toil, the monsoons, the beads, the snake, and the ominous train passing like a spirit serpent across the horizon; all are unforgettable magical images and characters that make a lasting impression. 

Written and directed by Mr. Ray and based on the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, this is an epic saga that’s as intimately observed as it is powerfully told, following our young hero’s progress along with that of the country itself. His future, connected with that of India, is always somewhere on the horizon beyond the fields and groves. You can hear it creeping ever closer like a train that steams ahead relentlessly.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956) Being the second part in this mesmerizing and enriching trilogy, it feels like a spiritual experience. The story is so simple but told with such clarity and sensitivity, that it feels timeless and universal. 

The time is 1920 as the British Empire is transforming the Indian landscape with industry and progress and affecting every aspect of life. Villages are being consumed by ever growing cities and not everyone will be able or willing to adapt to the changes. 

This film chronicles Apu’s education as we follow him into adolescence. Apu’s family now lives in a city by the Ganges River, where his father has found work as a Brahmin preaching on the steps of the great river.

But tragedy and poverty continues to dog Apu as his family is forced to move back to a small village in the country. Eventually, when Apu is old enough, he goes off to college in Calcutta on a scholarship and finds a job at a printing press. There he finds lodging while studying and making new friends, but his mother, alone and isolated in the village, suffers while longing for word or visits from him.

These are tumultuous tragic tales that remind us how cruel and fragile life can be, which also reflect in many ways the life of the author and filmmaker. All three films and this one in particular warns us how quickly and suddenly everything we hold dear can be taken away.

Filmed in authentic locations around Calcutta’s streets and the Ganges River, it’s a transporting and rapturous experience.

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959) In this third part of the Apu trilogy, we follow Apu as an adult trying to write his first novel while also searching for work to pay for his apartment in Calcutta. Starting his own family is the furthest thing from his mind until serendipitous circumstances lead him to meet the girl he will fall in love with.

Apu is invited to a wedding by his friend who may have a job for him, and finds himself in an extraordinary strange but lucky situation. When later his son is born, Apu must endure still more overwhelming tragedy before he can find happiness.

There is a constant theme running throughout the trilogy of oppressive lack of money, and struggling to make ends meet while pursuing a creative and spiritual life. In the first film it’s the father who travels far and wide to find ways to support the family, in the second film it falls to the practical mother to keep the family going and in the third it is Apu himself who must support himself and his new wife.

This final film is a tragic love story that brings the saga full circle. A generation has passed and the country, as well as its people, have transformed but not without much suffering and loss. These powerful tales have taken us on a sweeping journey of epic proportions that will resonate deeply with all who experience them.



Tim OCallaghan said...

I have been a fan of Indian cinema for a while now and was really pleased to read about the Apu Trilogy on your blog. These films have a way of getting under your skin; much like the country in which they depict. Great review.

Susan Cooper said...

I don't watch much of this type of venue. I'm not sure why. Nevertheless, your description does intrigue me. I just may have to give this one a view. :-)

jacquie said...

This was such a well written review, that I'm tempted to give it a view. Thanks for the heads up...I wouldn't have heard of it otherwise:)

Ken Dowell said...

This is definitely something I want to see. Thanks for alerting me to it.

alemap said...

I have actually watched a Bollywood film thanks to a good friend who visited India. Your review for these films makes me want to revisit the genre!

Anonymous said...

I've never really watched any Indian films but you caught my attention when comparing this director to Kurasawa. Might have to give this trilogy a look.

JP said...

Hi everyone, thanks for all your comments. Even though these films are from India, they should in no way be confused with Bollywood films however, which are more romanticized films based in Bombay/Mumbai and are usually big studio productions characterized by opulent musical numbers featuring singing, dancing, a love story, wealthy upper class families and are spoken in Hindi language.

The Apu trilogy is from the cinema of West Bengal based in Kolkata/Calcutta in the north east part of India, which is sometimes referred to as Tollywood and features a more realistic view of life in India.

Shiran said...

Having seen the Apu Trilogy as a kid and being familiar with the work of Satyajit Ray, this excellent review would be a great primer for anyone uninitiated in Indian Art House movies and especially the work of the great Satyajit Ray