The World of Apu: Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy

05/06/2015 6:27 AM |
Pather Panchali, courtesy of Janus Films; Aparajito, courtesy of Film Forum via Photofest; Apu Sansar, courtesy of Janus Films

The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), Apu Sansar (1959)
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Opening May 8 at Film Forum

Pather Panchali, the first installment in Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy,” was first screened in the US in 1955 as part of a MoMA exhibition about ornamental art in India. The film was received positively but passively, and it wasn’t until the following year, when Ray was invited to screen it at Cannes, that the director became an international sensation, drawing comparisons to Jean Renoir (with whom he had worked on The River several years earlier) and winning the inaugural “Best Human Document” award at the festival.

Ray had spent three years on the film before its release, adapting the story from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s canonical Bengali bildungsroman, and relying on notes and sketches in lieu of a script. Pather Panchali, very simply, is a masterpiece. Shot in a richly saturated black-and-white and set to an original score by Ravi Shankar (who, like Miles David with Elevator to the Gallows, devised the music quickly while watching a rough cut), the film centers on a poor rural family living in their ancestral village, gradually focusing more and more on Apu, the second child and only son. Events unfold languorously, and nature seems to set the pace—time is marked through rapturous sequences of monsoon rains and the slow deterioration of the family home—though modernity is visible on the periphery. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Apu and his sister run through a field of kash flowers to watch a train slicing across the landscape; it’s an omen of things to come, and a motif that echoes across the ensuing films. (It was also the first scene Ray shot for the film.) Ray was deeply influenced by Vittorio De Sica, and the subtle rhythms of village life are given equal weight alongside the cataclysmic events that befall the family.

Though Ray never intended to make a sequel to Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar were released within the next four years, extending the family story and whittling away the narrative to that of just Apu, who chooses to forego the legacy of priesthood and pursue his education. The shots of the holy city of Benares in Aparajito are stunning in Janus Films’s 4k restoration debuting this month, as are those of the cramped alleyways of Calcutta in Apur Sansar, which begins with Apu as a young writer living in student housing, and sees him fall in love and come to terms with the sudden death of his young wife. Released in 1959, the film visually and spiritually anticipates the 60s, leaving Apu as a still-young man presented with the choice between a rootless future or a return to tradition. Taken as a whole, these quietly riveting films present a masterful portrait of a young man’s coming of age and India’s own, as they move from the village to the cities. With their new restorations, more than a decade in the making, Janus has not only given an enormous gift to cinephiles, they’ve made these films new again, and in showcasing their depth and exceptional beauty, reaffirmed them as classics.