bet many of you cinephiles out there have heard
of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed trilogy of films from the
1950s (Pather Panchali,aka
Song of the Little Road, 1955; Aparajito,aka The
Unvanquished, 1956; and Apur Sansar,aka The
World of Apu,1959), but have
never actually seen them. Here is your chance to rectify that egregious error.
Quite simply put, anyone interested in film history needs to have this trio of
motion pictures under the belt.
Ray, who received an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1992, began his
career as an illustrator of books. One of these was Pather Panchali, a classic of Bengali literature (1928) written by
Bibhutibushan Bandyopadhyay, and its sequel, Aparajito (1932). They comprise the story of the growth of a boy
from infancy to adulthood over the course of twenty-five years or so (from the
1910s to the 1930s), and how he rises from the extreme rural poverty of his
humble beginnings to becoming a writer and husband-then-father in the big city
of Calcutta (now called Kolkata).
two novels eventually became the basis for the trilogy of films Ray would make
between 1952 and 1959, when he kick-started his work in cinema. A lover of movies—especially
the Italian neo-realist works such as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (aka The
Bicycle Thief)—Ray founded a film society in Calcutta in 1947 and became an
assistant to Jean Renoir in 1949 when the French filmmaker was in India making
his seminal The River (1951). With
Renoir’s encouragement and inspiration, Ray set out to begin making his own
films. He chose Pather Panchali to be
of continual problems with funding, the picture took nearly four years to make,
and with an inexperienced crew to boot. Released to overwhelming critical praise
and numerous prizes, including the “Best Human Document” award at the Cannes Film
Festival, Song of the Little Road stands
as one of the greatest debuts of any filmmaker.
the most striking of the three pictures, Song
presents in neo-realist style what it was really like to live in the rural jungle
of Bengal in the 1910s. Apu Roy is born the second child to very poor parents
who live in a crumbling ancestral home. Harihar, the father (Kanu Banerjee), is
something of a priest and writer, but he is always traveling, gone for months
at a time, and never brings home enough money. While he seems to be a nice man,
he is ineffectual as a husband and father. On the other hand, Apu’s mother,
Sarbajaya (brilliantly played by Karuna Banerjee, no relation to Kanu), is the
long-suffering, anxious, and stoic parent who provides for the children and
fends off criticism from neighbors. It could be said that Apu’s older sister, Durga
(played first as a younger child by Shampa “Runki” Banerjee, the real-life
daughter of Karuna Banerjee, and portrayed later as a young teen by the
wonderful Uma Das Gupta), is really the protagonist of the first film, and Ms.
Gupta is especially good in the role. And then there is “Auntie” (amazingly characterized
by 85-year-old Chunibala Devi, a veteran of Indian stage and silent films). The
woman is half-disabled, wrinkled, toothless, and cross-eyed—and despite being
addicted to opium during the shoot, her performance is quite remarkable. Apu
(Subir Banerjee, no relation to the others) is around 5 or 6 years old in this
picture and is mostly an observer of the hardships and tragedies that fall upon
picture is poetic, tender, and honest. Filmed by first-time cinematographer
Subrata Mitra, who went on to become Ray’s go-to DP, and scored by a young Ravi
Shankar (the sitar and bamboo flute music is fabulous!), Song of the
Little Road is a one-of-a-kind film that will move you in
the picture became a hit, Ray was encouraged to continue the story from the
novels and made The Unvanquished, in
which a slightly older Apu and his parents move out of the jungle to the holy
city of Benares (also known as Varanasi) on the Ganges. There, Harihar works as
a priest and Sarbajaya is still the strong one in the family—until tragedy
strikes again. Apu and his mother move back to the country, and there Apu
decides he wants to go to school and not be a priest like his father. It takes
money to attend school, so his mother does what she can to make it happen. An
older, teenage Apu then goes to Calcutta to attend college. Karuna Banerjee is
the focal point of this middle entry in the trilogy, and her performance is powerful
and heartbreaking. Apu is played by two different actors throughout the course
of the picture.
Finally, The World of Apu was made
after Ray took a break from the trilogy and made a couple of other films
in-between (e.g., the acclaimed The Music
Room,1958). In the third
chapter, Apu (played by longtime Indian star Soumitra Chatterjee) is now in his
twenties and living alone in Calcutta. He is a loner, a dreamer, and an artist.
He is writing a novel in which he has little faith, he isn’t interested in
working, and he has no money. And yet he is somewhat happy with his “freedom.”
Then, by happenstance, he is talked into an arranged marriage to a young girl,
Aparna (played by the beautiful Sharmila Tagore in her first film role—she went
on to become a star in Indian cinema), and Apu’s life is changed once again. The World of Apu is primarily a love
story, but it’s also about the assuming of responsibility for one’s actions.
too bad that there was never a fourth chapter in the story. It would have been
interesting to see what happened to Apu when he was in his forties or fifties.
Like Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine
Doinel, which covers the life of a young man over the course of five films, The Apu Trilogy is a monumental epic—but an extremely personal and intimate one—that covers universal truths, emotions, and values recognizable
in any culture and language. It stands as one of the most heartfelt statements
on humanity ever put on celluloid.
Criterion Collection’s new boxed-set contains all three films, gorgeously and
meticulously restored in 4K digital, undertaken in collaboration with the
Academy Film Archive at the AMPAS and L’Immagine Ritrovata from existing prints
(the negatives were long ago destroyed in a fire). There are many supplements
on each of the three discs that include new interviews with Soumitra Chatterjee,
Sharmila Tagore, and Shampa Banerjee (now Shampa Srivastava), as well as with film
historian Gideon Bachmann, camera assistant Soumendu Roy, film writer Ujjal
Chakraborty, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, and film historian Mamoun Hassan.
Vintage interviews include several with Ray, Ravi Shankar, members of the crew
and cast, and more. A handful of vintage documentaries are included, along with
footage from the 1992 Oscar ceremony, in which Ray received his honorary award
in a bed in a Calcutta hospital. The booklet features a selection of Ray’s
storyboards for Song of the Little Road,
as well as essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu.
The Apu Trilogy on Blu-ray is a
landmark release from the Criterion Collection of milestones not only of
Bengali cinema, but of motion picture history. Check it out—you will find it a
profoundly rewarding experience.