Enormously influential, ravishing to look at, emotional but never maudlin; this intoxicating Indian classic has been lavishly restored after nearly being lost to fire. Pather Panchali (Ray’s lyrical debut and the best of the three) is set in rural Bengal and tells of Durga, her younger brother Apu, their scowling mother, kindly but ageing auntie, and dad who’s always away working. The boy plays knots-and-crosses when the teacher is not looking and he and his sister follow the sweetie man along the riverbank, their reflections seen upside down in the water. Among the universal themes of growing up, there is an undercurrent of wanting a better life that may not be better after all.
Ray tells the story in the most affecting and poetic way. Back when the first movie was released, it was a huge and surprising hit in the West that impressed audiences and fellow filmmakers. Ray captures all sorts of small, telling details: a sudden wind in the trees, emotions etched on expressive faces, a hesitation in a doorway that says more than pages of dialogue. It might seem that not much is going on, but, of course, everything is going on.
In the second part of the trilogy, Aparajito (1956) the family has relocated to Benares, a city on the Ganges, where life gets better (and worse). We see Apu growing up to be a young student living away from home. During a visit at the holidays to his mother, she begs him to stay longer. Her sorrowful face as he leaves for the train is haunting. And the eerie sound of that train (the trilogy’s leitmotif) so often suggests hope yet presages death.
The World of Apu (1959) sees our hero’s journey move on from his student days. Now grown-up he is looking for a job in bustling, Dickensian Calcutta. Apu dreams of being a novelist and shows promise. At his dull clerking job he stares out of the window. And at as a guest at a fateful arranged marriage, the groom shows signs of insanity and Apu is prevailed upon to take the groom’s place. Suddenly he has a wife and new responsibilities.
The Apu Trilogy is the story of one man’s life – the pain, the grief, the joy – as beautifully imagined by Ray and photographed by Subrata Mitra. Ravi Shankar provides a lilting soundtrack, and a gifted cast gives the film a special immediacy and humanity.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 18 May 2020