Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - The Apu Trilogy (#67)

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Favorites - The Apu Trilogy (#67)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu/1955-1959/India/dir. Satyajit Ray) appeared at #67 on my original list.

What it is • The Apu trilogy begins and ends in the countryside, but between the opening verdant village and the final wide-open path, the story contains multitudes. The first film shows a difficult rural life through the joyous, impressionable eyes of a little boy (Subar Bannerjee); the second film uproots the growing child (Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghosal) and his family as he works, gets an education, and experiences hardship; and the third film takes the young man (Soumitra Chatterjee) into adulthood, offering greater rewards and even greater challenges as he finds his way in the world. Rare for films on my list, this entry actually covers several works rather than just one, some of which were released before others had even been conceived with the entire process of creation taking about a decade. As such, the trilogy reflects not only the growth of its characters but of its filmmaker. Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray's debut picture, was a very faithful adaptation of a classic novel. It was crafted almost entirely outside the prodigious Indian studio system on a shoestring budget, with long gaps during shooting when money ran out. Many of the actors were nonprofessionals, or had theatrical but no film experience, and Ray (who worked as an assistant on Jean Renoir's The River, which appeared earlier on this list) had never directed a foot of film. Aparajito, adapted a little more loosely from that novel's follow-up, was shot partially in studios. By now Ray had received international acclaim for the first film but was still finding his way. By the time he concluded the saga with The World of Apu he was departing more radically from the source material, and his filmmaking had taken on an exceptionally impressive, professional sheen - with a bravura sense of elaborate mise en scene replacing the charming, rugged, and poetic neorealism of the first movie.

Why I like it •
By now you (and truthfully, I) have discovered that "transformation" is an abiding theme throughout these entries. What could provide a more stunning example than these three features, taken together? But the films are also here for their moments. Each movie has at least one scene that I find emotionally overpowering: in Pather Panchali, when one character learns (silently) of another's death; in Aparajito when Apu unexpectedly returns to his mother's side; in The World of Apu that final shot, uplifting without being sentimental. It's remarkable how different each film is from the others, especially the first from the last, and yet how they all feel part of a consistent whole. I still remember my first experience with Pather Panchali; I was a teenager, watching it with my father (neither of us had seen it before) and though I had looked forward to it, I was feeling restless with the movie some ways into it. At one point my dad said something to the effect of, "There's something really special about this movie," and - random as it sounds - somehow this started to open my eyes and put me in the right mentality to enjoy the film (which unfolds with much of the unrushed fascination of a home movie). My increased involvement may also have coincided with the end of the movie's prologue, which introduces Apu as an infant, and the beginning of the movie's main section which is largely structured around the mischievous antics of Apu and his big sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta). The duo have an extremely convincing chemistry (this is one of the best depictions of sibling rivalry and camaraderie I've ever seen in a film), and Das Gupta is in many ways the dynamic, charismatic lead of the film (with the looking-every-minute-of-it 80-year-old Chunibala Devi providing scene-stealing support). Indeed, despite its accepted title "the Apu trilogy," The World of Apu may be the only film entirely carried by that character; just as the more active Durga plays protagonist in Panchali, so Apu's mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) is really our central focus in Aparajito. She has an absolutely heartbreaking presence and it is a masterful performance, maybe the best in all three films. Pather Panchali is the film I have the most experience with, and probably the deepest connection, while in some ways the astonishing World of Apu may be my favorite. But on this viewing - only my second - I think I found Aparajito the most moving. Initially I saw it as an essential yet maybe slightly underwhelming bridge between two masterpieces. However, as it quietly documents the growing distance between the boy and his mother, it feels not only like a bridge but also a beating heart.

How you can see it • The film is now available from the Criterion Collection in a beautiful DVD and blu-ray (which is how I re-watched it for this review). Oddly enough, it is not currently streaming on any service and even more oddly, only the first two films are available on DVD from Netflix. A clip from Pather Panchali opens "An International Era", chapter 11 of my video series 32 Days of Movies. Clips from the film are also woven into "Idylls of the King", my first Cinepoem video.

What do you think? • Which chapter of the story is your favorite? Are the films all equal in your eyes, or are one/some stronger than others? Do you prefer the style of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, or The World of Apu, or do they all work equally well for the parts of the story they have to tell? Is there a particular film in the trilogy you return to more often? Do you ultimately think Apu is a noble or selfish character, or a healthy mixture of both? How do you see the film in relation to Satyajit Ray's other films, and also to Indian cinema generally? Which particular moments stand out in your memory? Were you surprised by characters' deaths or other turn-of-events? Did the overall shape of the story surprise you? Which characters are you favorites? What other coming-of-age stories do you see reflected in the Apu trilogy (either preceding it or proceeding from it)? Does Boyhood, in particular, echo aspects of its narrative and/or point of view? Which of Apu's (and other characters') decisions do you find salutary or foolhardy? Do you find the young age of Apu's bride (Sharmila Tagore) distracting and/or troubling in the context of the story? Do you have high hopes for the character at the end of the films, or do you think he still has much to learn? What other trilogies - if any - can compare to this one for consistency and dramatic power?

• • •

Previous week: Satantango (#68)
Next week: Rear Window (#66)

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