Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray is generally considered one of cinema’s greatest artists, but his most seminal achievement was nearly scarred beyond repair. The original negatives for the ‘Apu’ Trilogy were severely burned in a nitrate fire more than 20 years ago, all but killing any hope for future generations to see it in decent condition. But now that The Criterion Collection has given it a miraculous new 4K digital restoration (this AV Club interview on the painstaking restoration process is a must-read), the films will live on and even look as good as, if not better, than ever.
Ray is one of those directors whom most movie fans have probably read or heard about without necessarily having watched one of his films. Wes Anderson acolytes may recall the director’s effusive praise of Ray’s work during the press rounds for his 2007 “The Darjeeling Limited,” a film set in India that features many choice soundtrack cuts from past Ray films. Apu is a brilliant humanist brimming with empathy for those from all walks of life, while his elegant, deceptively simple style belies his highly cinematic yet subtly stylized approach to filmmaking. An insanely prolific multi-hyphenate who dabbled in many other artforms —eventually he would even score his movies— Ray’s films are timeless and thoroughly deserve to be discovered by a new generation of filmgoers for their universality and their vitality.
Now that his much-beloved and gorgeously restored ‘Apu’ Trilogy is in the early stages of a theatrical re-release (currently playing at Film Forum in New York and hitting other cities throughout the summer) and due later for a Blu-ray/DVD/streaming release from Criterion, there’s no better time to take this quick look at those films and three other essential works.
THE ‘APU’ TRILOGY
In the annals of movie nerd-dom, there are some unavoidable certainties, one of which is critics/fans arguing over the greatest or [insert mostly arbitrary descriptor here] movie of all time. But any list of greatest trilogies that leaves off Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu’ films (“Pather Panchali,” “Aparajito” and “Apur Sansar”) is decidedly incomplete. Though not originally conceived as a trilogy, the three films nonetheless cohere into a grand coming-of-age epic, zeroing in on the titular Apu (played by four different actors as the story moves forward) and his poor rural family, like a spiritual antecedent to last year’s Oscar-winner “Boyhood.” But across three ‘Apu’ pictures, the story gets more breathing room as an even more complete picture of a life is built.
“Pather Panchali” aka “Song Of the Little Road” (1955)
A masterful debut film that shows Ray already in full control of the medium even while he was learning on the job, the first entry in the trilogy takes a patient, roundabout path to introducing its protagonist (arguably this and the sequel are as much the mother’s story as Apu’s). Much of its power comes from the way the film is mostly presented as a series of fleeting moments, capturing the natural ebb and flow of life. Then tragedy strikes, and the gut punches begin to take hold, though thankfully melodrama is avoided for the most part. Ray was a big fan of the neo-realist style of De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” but he pushes it further into the cinematic realm here by peppering his realistic portrayal of Bengali life far outside the city limits with moments of utter poetry. The scene where Apu and his sister run after an oncoming train (the first hints of Apu’s blossoming desire to move outside his small world) is famous for a reason (you’ll know when you see it). And not enough can be said for sitar master Ravi Shankar’s evocative score, in what was also his film debut.
“Aparajito” aka “The Unvanquished” (1956)
While the first film was a huge success critically and commercially, its sequel was a disappointment financially, being met in India with some derision as Ray strayed much more from the original source material (Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee‘s novels), especially in the portrayal of Apu relationship to his mother. Here he reaches adolescence and starts going to school in the city after his family moves there. But the film fared much better abroad, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and lauded by critics from around the world, convincing Ray to conclude the story with a third film. In some ways, this sequel suffers from a common middle chapter problem: There is no real beginning and end (it starts exactly where “Pather Panchali” left off). However, by the time the third film ends, one can’t imagine it all working nearly as well without all of the elements from all three.
“Apur Sansar” aka “The World Of Apu” (1959)
Here we have my personal favorite of the trilogy. Ray wisely made a few other films before he embarked on this final chapter, and the added wisdom shows. It’s more confidently constructed, more beautiful and so very sad. It also features some of the most romantic and yet honest views of married life ever captured on film. Apu is now a grown man, living alone in a tiny Calcutta apartment struggling to become a writer (a nice payoff from the first film, where his father dreamed of making a life in the profession but never made it) and is forced into a marriage. Yet again tragedy strikes (not to give too much away, but many characters who grow close to Apu don’t last that long) in what will end up being probably the most difficult period of his life. But by the end, it all really does come together beautifully, and without compromise, never glossing over the struggles and refusing to cop out to some quasi-happy ending. Lest I make these films sound too depressing, fear not, they are full of life: the good, the bad and everything in between. Through it all, Apu continues to move forward, and having experienced his travails and triumphs with him, there’s almost nothing more life-affirming.
THREE MORE ESSENTIALS
All three of these are easily available on gorgeous blu-ray transfers from Criterion (packed with insightful special features), as well as streaming in HD on Hulu Plus.
“The Music Room” (1958)
Made between the second and third entries in the Apu Trilogy, this darker, less-easy-to-love, blazingly expressionistic film in the Ray canon is required viewing for many reasons. First and foremost is the way Ray, his DP Subrata Mitra and editor Dulal Dutta (both worked on all the films discussed here) conceived and executed the varied thrilling musical performances throughout the film. Beyond the need for a hit at the box office after the failure of “Aparajito,” Ray sought a showcase for classical Indian music and dance, and he wanted to showcase many of the country’s most talented musicians. Watching the film —a story about a once rich and prestigious Bengali landlord of a large farm, opening already well into his decline into obsolescence— it seems the filmmaker was obsessed with making these performances rich, entertaining and cinematic. The final musical sequence, featuring Roshan Kumari in a dance perfectly cut and framed to guide the viewer’s focus and subtly immerse us in its enchanting beauty, is a real show-stopper. Though he frames the story around a much less sympathetic character than the other works discussed here, the film still attains dizzying heights.
“The Big City” (1963)
My personal favorite —by 1963, many films into his career at this point, Ray was at the height of his creative abilities and hits every note here perfectly. The story follows a struggling Calcutta family as the wife Arati (played by Ray regular Madhabi Mukherjee in a terrific performance) decides to break out of her role as a housewife and get a job to help support her family. From the opening following a train car line to the climactic shot that pulls back from the characters to focus on a street lamp, there’s not a single false move onscreen. It’s thrilling to watch Arati’s world open up as her obvious intelligence and talent are put to use while she breaks out of her once very confined world (a common theme in many Ray films). Ray is by no means heavy on style, or at least not in the way we’re used to seeing in modern film, but he uses new tricks (handheld cameras, zooms, etc.) to great effect, pushing the story further along as well as immersing the audience in the world of the characters. My favorite shot comes from a memorable scene where Arati’s husband is spying on her as she talks to a client in a restaurant. All in one shot, DP Subrata Mitra is able to capture all three characters in the frame, commenting on them while also being flat-out visually beautiful. This is a film that’s way ahead of its time (“Mad Men” fans who loved the Peggy Olson storyline should seek this film out), one that cares about all sides of its story, doesn’t cheat at the end and portrays a loving but realistic struggle between a married couple.
According to Ray himself, this was his favorite film, or at least the one he admitted he wouldn’t change anything in hindsight. It’s easy to see why, as Madhabi Mukherjee returns (as does Soumitra Chatterjee, the eldest incarnation of Apu in the third film) to give yet another stunningly realized portrait of a woman trying to break out of narrow confines. Mukherjee plays the titular Charu in 1870s Calcutta, who is essentially a prisoner in her own home as the wife of a rich newspaper mogul. When her husband’s cousin comes to stay and work on his writing, she finds a kindred spirit and a budding, forbidden romance lurks just below the surface. He encourages her to write, and the nascent artist finally sees a way out of her dull existence. There are many memorable shots here as well, such as one that’s locked onto Charu’s face as she swings, the camera giving the sense of forward and backward motion. The ending comes with a series of freeze frames that feel radical as hell but are perfectly capture what Ray is trying to express. There are few directors as adept at letting the camera and subtle character gestures tell the story. Dialogue is often sparse, but the frame is packed with a lot of visual cues and information. And in “Charulata” as everywhere else, Ray never falls back onto easy devices (the love triangle here is extremely complex, mostly because her husband isn’t some huge jerk but a guy who just doesn’t get his wife).
Of course, this is only the peak of the Ray iceberg. He’s credited as director with 37 features, documentaries and shorts over his career, so there’s plenty more to discover. Beyond the near-unanimous praise for all six works above, this list skewed towards what are presently his most easily accessible works. If you’re willing to dig deep and explore, many of his other films can be found. We hope you’re inclined to do so! We’ll close out with this nifty little trailer on the Apu Trilogy Restoration, via Criterion: