The Apu trilogy
Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, is one among the finest films ever made. The film won about a dozen awards at various film festivals world-over. Pather Panchali, eventually, became the first film of a trilogy.
After the critical and commercial success of Pather Panchali, Ray made Aparajito. The novel itself was a sequel to Pather Panchali. Ray recounts in “My Years with Apu” on what finally led him to do another film about Apu was, “One single attitude of Apu in the second novel Aparajita … After Sarbajaya’s (mother) death Apu feels relief… he felt happy to be free of a bondage. … The idea of Apu growing up and away from his mother… and much stress is laid on Sarbajaya’s slow realization of the fact.”After a special screening for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India and Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of India, Nehru is said to have asked Ray, “what happens to Apu now?” Ray replied that he did not have a third Apu film in mind.
The film was not very successful with the Bengali audience at the time of its first release. Ray read many Bengali stories and novels, looking for a future film. He wrote a screenplay based on a short story by Tarasankar Bannerji, Jalsaghar (The Music Room) . However, he had to postpone the project as the actor he had in mind for the lead role was going to be abroad for a few months. Meanwhile, he made a comedy fantasy, Parash Pather (The Philosopher’s Stone). Just before the film’s release, Ray and Aparajito were invited to the Venice Film Festival. Aparajito was hailed as a masterpiece. Despite the bad subtitling, the film won the Golden Lion for the best feature film at the Venice Film Festival. Ray was asked if he had a trilogy in mind at a press conference during the festival. And to his surprise, Ray found himself saying yes.
His two subsequent films – Parash Pather (The Philosopher’s Stone) and Jalsaghar (The Music Room) were commercial failures. Ray says in his book ‘My years with Apu’, “After three consecutive failures at the box office, I badly needed a film which would not only make the critics happy but the public as well.” Satyajit remembered his statement at the Venice Film Festival about a trilogy. In just one reading of the novel Aparajita, he had found a subject for his fifth and the final film of the Apu Trilogy.
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955)
Pather Panchali tells the story of a poor family living in a Bengal village. A priest – Harihar, his wife – Sarbajaya, his two children – Apu and Durga, and his aged cousin – Indir Thakrun, struggle to make both end meet.
Harihar is frequently away from home on work. The wife is raising her mischievous daughter Durga and caring for elderly cousin Indir. Apu is born. Soon, Durga and Apu build a bond as they explore the world around the village. The sequences of Durga and Apu are the most cinematic moments in the film. On a stormy day, following a joyous dance in the monsoon rains, Durga dies. On Harihar’s return, the family leaves their village in search of a new life in Benaras. The film closes with an image of Harihar, wife and son – Apu, moving way in an ox cart. Read More»
Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)
Aparajito opens in the city of Benaras. The father dies after an illness. Apu’s mother decides to return with Apu to the countryside. Young Apu and his widowed mother struggle for existence. She wants him to become a priest like his father, but he persuades her to send him to school. She makes sacrifices to make it possible for Apu to study. Apu wins a scholarship and leaves for the city, Calcutta. Sarbajaya, the mother, falls ill. Delayed by his exams, Apu arrives too late. She has died. He leaves again for Calcutta. Read More»
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)
Apur Sansar is about Apu the man. Soumitra Chatterji, who would act in several later Ray films, played Apu. Apu has to give up studies and look for work. Unable to find a job, he is writing a novel based on his life. He gets married unexpectedly to a village girl (played by Sharmila Tagore in her debut role). Young wife finds herself disoriented in the new city life. Both soon develop a companionship and fall in love. They are blissfully happy for a year. She is pregnant and leaves to be with her family for childbirth. She dies while giving birth to their son. Apu blames the infant for its mother’s death and refuses to see it. At last, he gives up his novel and goes to meet his son. Reunited, the two of them leave for Calcutta. Read More»
All the trilogy films have their share of cinematic magic movements – Discovery of train by Apu and Durga, the candy seller sequence, Indir Thakrun’s death, Durga’s death and Harihar’s realization of Durga’s death in Pather Panchali; Harihar’s death, Sarbajaya’s (Apu’s mother) death on a night sparkling with fire flies and Apu’s encounter with the empty house in the village in Aparajito; and Apu’s marriage, developing of bond with wife and the first encounter with his son in Apur Sansar. These sequences are pure cinema, handled with Ray’s usual understatement
Despite being rooted deep in Indian culture, these films evoke a universal humanistic response. That is because the trilogy is all about human relationships. In Pather Panchali – Apu and his sister Durga, in Aparajito – Apu and his mother, and in Apur Sansar – Apu, his wife and his son form the core of the films. Death too plays a pivotal role in all the films.