“The World of Apu” - Satyajit Ray (1959)

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959) was the third and final installment of Satyajit Ray’s masterful Apu Trilogy, the two earlier works of which were Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956). The three films are based on two famous Bildungsroman novels (Pather Panchali (1929) and its sequel, Aparajito) by Bengali Indian writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhya and concern the life experiences of the same fictional character, Apurba Roy, in early 20th-century India. An interesting and surprisingly successful aspect of this trilogy is that each of the three films is expressed in a different cinematic style and consequently conveys a different mood.  As a result, each of the three films can stand alone as a distinct work of art, and yet, when taken together, they combine into an even grander narrative.

From what I have learned about the original novels, it seems that Ray’s decisions concerning both the partitioning of the narrative into three stories and what material from the novels to leave out of his films were inspired [2]. The World of Apu covers the last two-thirds of the second novel, but it begins at just the right point.  Although Ray did not have professional filmmaking experience before launching his career in his mid-thirties with the production of Pather Panchali, he had long been a careful student of cinematic narrative, and he followed his own intuition. 

And rather than surrounding himself with a team of experienced professionals (as a cautious newcomer might do), Ray continued his practice here in The World of Apu of working with his own selected and largely self-educated production team, which included the production design of Bansi Chandragupta, the cinematography of Subrata Mitra, and the film editing of Dulal Dutta. And in addition, as with the preceding works in the trilogy, this film is graced by the enchanting, mood-inspiring music of Ravi Shankar.  These people were relatively new to filmmaking, but they had good ideas.  For example, Mitra and Chandragupta came up with the idea of bounce lighting [2], which has now become a standard cinematographic lighting technique. 

So it is interesting that with the narrative material from a single author and the same production team, Ray came up with varying narrative presentations for the three films.

  • For Pather Panchali the narrative focalization is on five characters in the family – Apu, Harihar (the father), Sarbajaya (the mother), Durga (Apu’s sister), and Indir (the “auntie”).  The beauty of that story is how the various interrelationships of those five characters create a multi-layered perspective on the joys and woes of domestic life.  As such the film stands as one of a great and poignant cinematic expressions of family experiences.
  • In Aparajito, with three of the principal characters in the earlier film having passed away, the narrative focus settles down to the contrasting and ultimately irreconcilable perspectives of Apu and his mother, Sarbajaya.  Thus with this film the narrative scope has become much narrower and more personal.
  • And in The World of Apu, the narrative scope is narrower still, with the focalization taken from the single personage of Apu.  And with this penultimate narrative turn, Ray came up with one of the great existentialist works in film history.
All three of these films have existentialistic perspectives, but it is The World of Apu that embodies the true loneliness of and longing characteristic of the great existentialist films.

The story of The World of Apu goes through three main stages: (1) Freedom, (2) Engagement, and (3) Grief and Reconciliation.  With each of these stage Ray manages to capture something that, while realistically situated in an Indian milieu, is universal to the human spirit.

1  Freedom

At the outset we see that Apu has left his college in Calcutta (Kolkata) without completing his degree due to a lack of funds.  He lives in relative squalor – a cramped fifth-floor walk-up rented room in a building near the railroad tracks. Note that railway trains and rivers are continuing visual motifs throughout the Apu Trilogy. The railway, in particular, represents change, modernism, and unknown fate.  India was confronted then, as it has been for some time, with the relentless forces of change that were pushing it towards an uncertain future, and railway trains provided a powerful visual metaphor for this process and forces. 

Apu supports himself by giving private lessons for about 15 rupees per month, barely more than his monthly room rent of seven rupees.  So like so many young men in their twenties, he sets out looking for work and finding the available options unappetizing. He learns to his dismay that he could work as a school teacher for a trifling 10 rupees per month, or he could work like a slave in a sweatshop gluing labels onto jars all day.  So he keeps on looking.

Finally and to his relief, his good pal from college, Pulu, tracks him down and invites him out to eat.  Their encounter is beautifully filmed and well captures the carefree wonder of young men looking out onto the wide world and wondering where they will go.  Pulu has studied engineering and wears Western dress.  He is moving ahead towards a successful career.  In contrast Apu, who had originally studied science and mathematics, seems hesitant about what to do.  He wears the traditional Indian dhoti and is fascinated by the great works of Western fiction – he wants to be a writer.  When he tells Pulu about the protagonist of the novel he is working on, he says,
“He [the protagonist] has imagination, he’s intrigued by little things. He has greatness in him, perhaps.  He has the ability to create. But he doesn’t. Right, but that’s not a tragedy.  He remains poor, in want. But he doesn’t turn from life.  He doesn’t want to escape. He is fulfilled. He wants to live.”

This is really what Apu, himself, is all about, and Pulu chides him for merely writing autobiography. But Apu swears that his novel will have interesting plot elements, including love.  At this assertion Pulu scoffs that Apu has no experience of love and so cannot write about it.  Then he invites Apu to take a few days off and accompany him to attend his young female cousin’s wedding in the rustic village of Khulna.  Apu has nothing else to do, so off they go.

2  Engagement
Apu is warmly greeted by Pulu’s aunt, and the wedding festivities commence for Pulu’s cousin, Aparna. However, when the bridegroom’s palanquin arrives, it is evident that there is a serious problem: the groom is mentally disabled, and Aparna’s horrified mother emphatically cancels the wedding.  There is a further problem though: Indian traditional beliefs, heavily influenced by astrology, dictate that if Aparna doesn’t marry on that designated “auspicious” day, she can never marry. So the family beseeches Apu to stand in for the dispatched groom and marry Aparna. 

For all of his engineering education, Pulu is like the other family members around him and is still a captive of Indian traditions.  Apu protests, “are you still living in the Dark Ages?” (As a matter of fact I personally know many scientifically-educated Indians, some with PhDs, who even today adhere to the pseudoscientific principles of astrology and homeopathy.)

But then Apu begins to reflect.  He thinks that perhaps he should do something noble and selfless.  And so he decides to make a great leap of faith and do what only can be done in the reckless life stage of youth – he agrees to marry the girl.  The marriage goes ahead immediately, and Apu finds himself fumbling for words as he is finally alone with Aparna for the first time in the wedding chamber.  He seems shocked at what he has just done and wonders if his new bride, accustomed as she is to the luxury of her wealthy family, can stand living with him in his miserable city apartment.  But Aparna demurely assures him that everything will be all right. So they head back to Calcutta, where Apu now has a mundane but steady job as a typist waiting for him.

Although Aparna is very beautiful and looks like a princess, she adapts to the practical concerns of her new life in the city in short order. The rest of this part of the film consists of a series of gracefully crafted vignettes depicting how the two of them come closer together and fall more and more in love. Included in this sequence are tender scenes of the two of them waking up from their connubial bed, Apu teaching English to Aparna, as well as incidental pranks and interchanges that connote their growing mutual affection.

Finally the time comes when Aparna is expecting a baby, and she is sent home to her family in Khulna so that they can attend to the child’s delivery.  In her absence, the two of them post each other numerous affectionate letters, and throughout his days Apu daydreams about his beloved. This is beautifully conveyed by a scene of Apu rereading his wife’s most recent letter while commuting in the crowded city.  When he returns to his flat, he is surprised to see Aparna’s brother from her home village waiting for him.

3  Grief and Reconciliation
Aparna’s brother informs Apu that his wife has just died in labor during a premature delivery, although the baby was saved. Apu is disconsolate; all meaning in his life has suddenly disappeared. He contemplates suicide for awhile and then withdraws from everything.  He leaves Calcutta to take up an aimless life working at manual jobs in other remote towns, and at one point of despair tosses his once cherished novel manuscript down a wilderness hillside. 

After some years Pulu tracks Apu down in a remote coal-mining village and urges him to attend to his abandoned son, named Kajal. Apu is reluctant; for him Kajal’s appearance in the world led to his wife’s disappearance.  But he does go back and finds his five-year-old son to be neglected and rebellious.  In fact Kajal has an idealized image of his missing father and refuses to believe that Apu could be that person.  The final part of the film show Apu emerging from his emotional depths and trying to befriend Kajal.  Apu has come back to life, even if Kajal is only wiling to accept him as a friend. The two of them set out together back to Calcutta.


Besides the technical and storytelling brilliance of Satyajit Ray and his production team, The World of Apu was immeasurably enhanced by the acting performances of Soumitra Chatterjee (Apu) and Sharmila Tagore (Aparna). Though Chatterjee’s physical appearance is disconcertingly different from that of Smaran Ghosal, who played the teenage Apu in Aparajito, Ray made an inspired choice in selecting Chatterjee for this film's Apu.  Chatterjee is perfect in the role and convincingly portrays the full features of Apu’s character – an artless young man at once innocent, ambitious, intelligent, and sensitive.  Chatterjee would go on to be a favorite of Ray’s and appear in many of his best films – usually in the role of a thoughtful and sensitive observer of life’s mysteries.

Sharmila Tagore, in the role of Aparna, is not only beautiful but also modestly magnetic.  Though she was only fourteen years old at the time of production, she was able to project a fully fleshed-out character with just a few words and graceful gestures. Ms. Tagore, by the way, is the great-great-grand niece of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. She, too, went on to appear in a number of subsequent Satyajit Ray productions. 

The scenes with Chatterjee and Tagore together are the ones that stay most in my memory.

The narrative arc The World of Apu tells a timeless tale of youthful hope, early fulfilment, tragedy, and reconciliation.  The idea is not new and may seem simple, but the presentation is deeply moving and transcends all cultural boundaries. It still stands for me as one of the all-time great films.

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 116-141.
  2. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflector_(photography)

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