in Criterion Month

Aparajito (1956)

One thing that’s tricky about reviewing an older movie is balancing how it feels to see the film for the first time today versus appreciating its historical context. So when I have to write about a film like Aparajito, I have a hard time not making it sound like a typical coming-of-age story. But if I go too hard the other way, focusing entirely on the history of the movie doesn’t do it justice either. Cinematographer Subrata Mitra invented bounce lighting during the production of Aparajito, do you have to be the type of person who knows what cinematographers do and what bounce lighting is to enjoy it? Not at all, this is a much more universal experience than that.

The second film in The Apu Trilogy, Aparajito picks up about where Pather Panchali left off. Apu (Pinaki Sen Gupta) and his parents have moved to the city of Benares (known today as Varanasi) and are doing better. Apu’s father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), is working steadily as a priest and the family seems to be happy. That is until he gets sick and quickly dies. With no options left, Apu’s mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) moves the family back to Bengal, where they stay with a great-uncle and Apu begins to apprentice as a priest. But what Apu really wants is to go to school.

The back half of the movie is set years later, when a teenaged Apu (Smaran Ghosai) is forced to start making pivotal decisions about his future. He’s done well enough in school that he’s received a scholarship to study in Calcutta (now Kolkata) but doing so means abandoning his life as a priest, which could have easily made him money. Furthermore, traveling to the big city would mean leaving his mother behind, perhaps creating a rift between the last remaining members of this family. In a life full of hardships, it’s not surprising that there are more tragedies ahead for these two, right?

Aparajito‘s greatest strength is the mother-son relationship. Sarbajaya is an incredible person, hardened by so many years of shouldering the burden of taking care of her family. It is clearly devastating to her that her restless devotion to her son has borne a terrible fruit: He selfishly wants to leave their world behind and carve a new path for himself. At least, that’s how she sees it at first. On the other hand, it’s not selfish of Apu to be ambitious, is it? To want more from his life? He witnessed the strain being a priest put on his father and also knows the joy academia can bring him. You have to follow your dreams if you can, right? So many people don’t get that chance, that’s what Good Will Hunting was all about.

The trustworthy resource Wikipedia says writer-director Satyajit Ray portrayed the relationship between Apu and his mother differently than Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee’s novel, “sharply at variance with the conventional notion of mutual sweetness and devotion.” This resulted in a negative reception locally, even though Aparajito went on to be an international hit. And given that the film’s warts and all approach to this relationship is what made it moving to me, I’m glad Ray told this story the way he did. I think a less tragic version of this story is one I wouldn’t be writing about over 60 years following its release.

The impact of The Apu Trilogy on cinema really clicked with me while watching Aparajito. The familiar story of the sensitive son of an upper-class family that’s struggling economically is one that has resonated through generations of filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson to Greta Gerwig. And that it made me feel something too, despite being a black-and-white movie set in a part of the world so remarkably different from my own, suggests there is something truly magical about these movies. I can’t wait to finally see the third one next year.