in Criterion Month

Apur Sansar (1959)

It’s been a little more than two years since I watched Pather Panchali, the first film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, and I couldn’t possibly wait another year before wrapping things up. So here’s another bonus review, my 11th exhausting post this Criterion Month.

One thing that I always find amusing reading up on The Apu Trilogy is the exact proportions Wikipedia uses to explain how much of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s two source novels inspired each film. Pather Panchali, the movie, apparently represents only “four fifths” of that book, with sequel Aparajito picking up the last fifth as well as the first third of the second novel, also called Aparajito. This means that Apur Sansar both has the least material to draw from and is the first film in the trilogy not to take its title from one of the books. That title aspect is actually important, as it is reflected in the scope of this picture. Apur Sansar translates to “The World of Apu” and while the first two movies in the trilogy were about a family, the third picture is all about Apu.

Some time after his mother’s death, Apu (now played by Soumitra Chatterjee) rejoices in his freedom. His decision to go into academia led to a bit of a dead end when he didn’t have the money to pursue a post-graduate degree, but Apu seems content to live in squalor, as long as it’s his choice. Apu gets by tutoring and pawning his books as he looks for a job that suits his talents. He’s able to turn his nose at menial work, but finds himself too educated for the more formal opportunities he finds. His real passion is his novel, loosely based on his own life, which is shaping up well. In short, he’s basically every artistic dude right after college: full of dreams and unwilling to settle for life’s unfortunate realities.

The one thing Apu’s life is really missing is love. One day, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), Apu’s friend from school, finds Apu and convinces him to come to with him to his cousin Aparna’s (Sharmila Tagore) wedding. On the day of the nuptials, the groom arrives and is revealed to have a mental disorder. Aparna’s outraged mother refuses to let her marry him, which is a problem because, according to Hindu tradition, if Aparna doesn’t marry that day she will remain unmarried her entire life. Pulu and the rest of the men convince Apu, the only other eligible bachelor, to step up and marry Aparna. After some initial reluctance, Apu agrees.

Finally Apu and Aparna meet. Apu expresses his concerns to her, which mostly center around the idea that she won’t like living in poverty with him. Aparna says she can handle it, and they decide to move back into his apartment in Kolkata. Pulu helps Apu get a job as a clerk, offering the new family a bit of stability. As the days go on, Apu and Aparna grow comfortable with each other, and eventually do fall in love. He offers to tutor more so they can hire a maid, she asks him to tutor less so they have more time together. They go to the movies together, they take a carriage ride instead of cram themselves into a crowded bus. For the first time since Pather Panchali, life seems uncomplicated. It’s all very sweet. But this is The Apu Trilogy, so you can be sure that tragedy is lurking just around the corner.

The first two Apu movies established many thematic conflicts that still run through Apur Sansar: tradition vs. modernity, obligation vs. freedom, family vs. individuality. But this movie’s focus on just one point of view character makes these struggles feel even more personal. Apu’s desire to not be tied down, which has driven him his entire life, keeps guiding him down a dark path. Aparajito addressed this by showing Apu’s tumultuous relationship with his mother, who depended on him but also pushed him away. This time, we just get to see Apu making decisions and living with the consequences. I think it actually makes the movie more relatable, instead of seeing both sides of a coin we just get to know the one side really well. And it helped keep me from turning on Apu when he makes his worst decision yet.

Despite only four years having passed between the releases of Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, this is actually Satyajit Ray’s fifth movie. After Aparajito, he directed Parash Pathar and Jalsaghar, the latter of which was released as “The Music Room” abroad and had further increased Ray’s clout overseas. While the first film had been the ultimate test for a scrappy crew of first-timers and the second an opportunity for them to innovate, this third and final film was made by confident veterans who were ready to make their masterpiece. In particular, a match cut fade from a theater screen to a carriage window impressed me as a very modern, tricky transition. That’s to say nothing of Apu’s journeys at the end of the movie, a welcome return to the rural world which we hadn’t seen since the first movie. Give Subrata Mitra some natural light and you’re bound to have a good time.

Critics, when making “best movies of all time” lists, often group all three Apu movies together. Which perhaps begs the question, do these movies not stand on their own? I hope my experience dissuades anyone of that notion, having gone full years between each movie. That said, they do obviously enrich each other. Pather Panchali was so beautiful and tragic, but that whole experience really is only relevant to one line in Apur Sansar: “I had an older sister too.” If you hadn’t seen the first movie, you wouldn’t even notice it, but hearing it made a well of emotions swell up in me. That’s a part of Apu’s life he won’t ever share with anyone. We can all only know each other so well. But the magic of cinema, of art, is that we can transcend those barriers we put up. And that’s why The Apu Trilogy still resonates with so many people, despite language, culture, and geography, so many years after it was made.

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