This is a fantastic time to be a fan of the masterful Bengali director Satyajit Ray. The multitalented artist and scion of the Bengali intelligentsia, inspired by Jean Renoir and Vittorio De Sica and beloved by filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese, has long suffered from relative neglect,
compared to his contemporaries like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.
Despite meaty retrospectives and plenty of critical acknowledgement, the only way most American viewers were able to access Ray’s films were poor-quality American DVD’s or imported BFI releases. However, that has all changed in recent years, as Ray has received the ultimate stamp of importance in American cinema — releases by the Criterion Collection.
The new restorations are breathtakingly beautiful, a remarkable achievement following years of intensive work on fire-damaged negatives.
While a restoration of the Apu Trilogy — Ray’s masterful trio films following the titular character over the course of several decades — would be a gift for film lovers at any time, contemporary audiences are particularly primed to appreciate the trilogy, thanks to an unlikely source: modern television.
On the surface, there may seem to be little connection between a trio of Bengali-language films produced in the 60’s (and based on a two-part turn of the century Bildungsroman) and, say, “Orange in the New Black.” However, both in the manner of viewing and in content, our current renaissance in great television has prepared audiences to fully appreciate Ray’s masterworks, both in their mammoth form and their poetic execution.
Binge-Viewing a Masterpiece
Watching the entire Apu Trilogy is not a minor commitment – all in the all, the three films last over five hours. Audiences raised on traditional feature-length movies, with their typical 90-minute running times, might balk at the prospect of watching the films in succession, or even to dedicating themselves to the task of watching the films over the course of several days.
However, viewing habits have changed radically in recent years. Thanks to the new Netflix-driven model of dropping full seasons of shows at once, binge-viewing has become a national pastime. Even prior to the online release model, TV box sets helped progressively acclimate audiences to the idea of consuming long-form storytelling over the course of extended sessions. If viewers can plop down for hours at a time to follow Piper Chapman for less than a year in Litchfield, five and a half hours following a man from birth to fatherhood will be a walk in the park.
Much as viewer have become accustomed to the sheer length of long-form storytelling through serialized narratives, these TV shows have also trained viewers to appreciate the languorous rhythms of a long-form story, a skill that is invaluable when viewing the Apu Trilogy.
A Powerful Journey
One of the strongest aspects of the Apu Trilogy is the way the film’s form directly reflects the development of its protagonist. “Pather Panchali” begins just prior to Apu’s birth, and follows him into childhood, culminating in the defining moment of his young life – the death of his older sister. The first film’s emphasis on imagery and sound design is almost non-verbal, in many cases eschewing dialogue and instead fleshing out characters and relationships through action onscreen and musical cues.
One of the most fascinatingly singular aspects of the film is Ray’s repeated use of musical cues in lieu of dialogue at critical moments, particularly accompanying deaths. A famous instance of this occurs during a monsoon, as Apu’s deathly ill sister, Durga, lays in bed, while his mother anxiously watches over her. In this affecting, wordless sequence, the storm rages outside, wind whistles through the windows, and shutters knock, with tension mounting to a nearly unbearable level.
Later in the film, Apu’s father returns home from a long journey, and his mother struggles to tell him of Durga’s death. After several moments of fraught silence in response to his blithe chattering, she breaks into distressed cries, with Ravi Shankar’s devastating music in place of the sounds of sobbing. While these sorts of techniques would not be alienating for any sophisticated filmgoer, they are now commonplace for a wide swath of viewers, who have been exposed to mainstream entertainment on their television, like “Mad Men,” that requires the leap of faith to embrace opaque symbolism, uncertain chronology, and dreams within dreams.
A Familiar Pace
On top of the film’s impressionistic means of explicating character and illustrating emotion, the Apu Trilogy also indulges in the sort of luxurious pacing that has become par for the course in much prestige drama. One of the factors that distinguishes modern TV drama from its previous incarnations is its willingness to take a break from plot development to linger on environments and atmosphere, and lean in to beautiful moments. In extreme examples, like “Boardwalk Empire,” the pace slows to a crawl, soaking in mood and exquisite production design and developing plot so gradually that moments of action take on a shocking immediacy. Similarly, all three films of the Apu Trilogy indulge in an unhurried pace, with little regard for constant plot development. In fact, the films feel almost episodic, with a clear (if simple) narrative emerging only as the film progresses.
A season of a prestige TV show might feel more like a piece of music than a traditional serialized narrative – for example, the fourth season of “Boardwalk Empire” has the melancholy flow of a boozy, bluesy jazz record. Similarly, the Apu films feel like the lyrical improvisations of Ravi Shankar’s score, or the bodies of water that feature so prominently in “Pather Panchali” and “Aparajito” – simultaneously still and active. In fact, “Pather Panchali” features an entire scene of insects dancing on the glassy surface of a lake. The scene serves no direct narrative purpose, and was included simply because Ray wanted to use a particularly lovely bit of music Shankar invented. However, this unintended moment of beauty perfectly captures the child’s idealized view of nature and a youthful sense of the boundlessness of time.
Ray’s Apu Trilogy remains as singular and unique as ever before. While some classics can immediately bowl an audience over with their energy, sexiness, in-your-face aesthetics, or blunt messages, Ray’s films offer subtler, more humanistic pleasures. While an ambling, three-part period piece might seem an odd fit for a generation reared on Vines and YouTube clips, it is possible that Janus and Criterion have resurrected Apu just in time to find the perfect audience. As Don Draper smokes his last cigarette, a sophisticated new audience is primed to experience one of the great achievements of film history, with patience, intelligence, and a keen eye for beauty.
The Apu Trilogy screens at Film Forum in New York as a marathon this Sunday. Showtimes are available here.