The Apu Trilogy

June 18, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I have decided to review these three films together. This is partly because they are an old series that is being re-released now, partly because they were re-released together and I saw them all a few days apart and partly because I doubt any of my readers will try to see just one of the films, if you bother to see any of them at all. The three films were released in India from 1956 – 1959 and were highly received by critics at that time and often show up on lists for the greatest films of all time. They were all directed by Satayjit Ray who developed them from two famous Indian novels. They launched Ray into international stardom, with directors from Kurosawa to Coppola waxing poetic about his work. All three films were thought completely destroyed in a London film lab fire in 1993. However, over the next 20 years, they were painfully restored through a complex process involving collecting bits from here and there and rehydrating old negatives. The end result is a lavish restoration. And lavish is the word; the films look like they could have been made last year. They are bright and vivid and effuse with texture. Each time I sat to watch them in the theater, the previews included one for a re-release of “The Third Man,” which is a contemporary of these films. It was fun to be reminded of the look and feel of noir-era black and white while watching Ray’s work, which is so unlike noir. He traded the dark shadows, silhouettes, angular cuts of light and sense of menace for a brightness that felt almost otherworldly at times. This radiance, which was especially present in Ray’s love of the close up, belied the difficult and often tragic subject matter. These were films about death and loss and loneliness, with the slightest of nods to redemption at the end. The stories follow Apu from his childhood into manhood in early 20th Century India. Trains are a recurring metaphor in each film as they explore the peregrinations of this young man against the backdrop of a country moving rapidly toward industrialization. Each film ends with Apu starting a journey from rural India to Calcutta, though to markedly different effect each time. Each film is also marked by Apu’s relationship with a woman and how that relationship shapes him. In the first film, “Pather Panchali” (“Song of the Little Road”), Apu is a small boy who idolizes his older sister, who treats him ambivalently. Often she draws him close and includes him in her excursions from home, sharing secrets with him, but also rages against him at times. Later, in “Aparajito” (“The Unvanquished”), Apu is a teen who is himself ambivalent toward the attentions of his doting and anxious mother. He struggles between seeking her approval and proving his independence. Finally, in “Apur Sansar” (“The World of Apu”), Apu marries a young woman he has just met and both must balance their doubt and hopefulness as they enter this relationship. In the end, this life of ambivalence plays out in Apu’s relationship with his son and he must decide if he is strong enough to be the father he lacked. This story arc is a compelling one and is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking. For me, the third film was a bit of a let down after the first two, in part because I found the lead actor’s acting to be weak (while most of the cast were amateur actors, I was less distracted by that in younger actors) and partly because I felt that final scene of the film had not been earned. Ray should have spent more time on the development of the relationship between Apu and his son if he wanted to justify the father’s and the son’s final decisions. This is a small quibble, though. Overall, I found these films to be a beautiful window into another culture at another time.

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