Jawaharlal Nehru, after watching Satyajit Ray’s second film Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), had famously turned to Ray to ask, ‘What happens to Apu now?’ Watching Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), the third of the celebrated Apu trilogy, 60 years after its release, one does not fail to understand what made his work so deep, pervasive and sustained in its appeal.
While his first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955) appeared magically refreshing in style and content, the next, Aparajito, though more prosaic and terse, was, in fact, not a great popular success. And Ray decided to make two more films belonging to different genres, Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958) and Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), before embarking on Apur Sansar.
But the Apu trilogy, chronicling with great artistry the growth of Apu from childhood through adolescence to manhood — from a remote village of Bengal through Benaras to Calcutta in the early decades of the last century — struck a sympathetic chord with sensitive men and women across cultures. Discussing Ray’s work in the context of icons of international cinema, Time magazine (September 20, 1963) wondered, “Will Ray redeem his prodigious promise and become the Shakespeare of the screen?” What explains such critical and popular acclaim of Ray’s films?
Ray’s biographers from Marie Seton to Andrew Robinson, experts like Chidananda Dasgupta, Satish Bahadur or Robin Wood, renowned film-makers such as Lindsay Anderson, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and the legion who were impacted by Ray’s cinematic ideas in the Indian subcontinent and the West, have sought to explain the features that characterise the originality of this master story-teller, in elevating films to the level of art.
Two novels, by the renowned author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, formed the basis of the Apu trilogy. The demands of the cinematic medium made Ray remould the material — selecting and arranging the characters and situations — while remaining truthful to the spirit of the literary text. Here lies a clue to his art creation.
One reason why Apur Sansar was both a critical and box-office success was not merely because Ray’s craft had matured more by then, or that the film showed the flowering of tender love between Apu and his friend’s sister whom he marries when the “arranged groom” is discovered to be insane. In the words of Ray, “I concentrated mainly on two aspects. One was the relationship between the struggling intellectual Apu and his unaffected, unlettered chance-wife Aparna brought up in affluence but inspired to adjust to poverty by her love for her husband. The second aspect was even more exciting. Aparna dies in childbirth. Bibhutibhushan, who often reached for the truth below the surface, makes Apu turn against the child — he reproaches him for having caused the mother’s death. The first meeting of father and son takes place after a lapse of several years. A scenarist could scarcely want more in the way of an expressive situation.” [‘Should A Film-Maker Be Original?’, Filmfare, August 28, 1959].
It required the genius of a Ray to visualise the film in terms of these concerns and see the dramatic potential in the story, and, invest his work with poetic sequences and psychological inflections. An intense humanism and empathy for the characters caught in the vortex of life, an uncanny eye for detail and an ability to see the deeper truth beneath the surface of reality, are all evident in the film. A passion for life, an undercurrent of eroticism and the irony of our daily existence, especially when death is juxtaposed on it, have been reflected in its execution.
Merely remembering Ray as India’s great cultural icon after Rabindranath Tagore or as the world’s most decorated film director, would not enrich our mind. Seeing his films may do. His birth centenary in 2020-21 should provide that opportunity: Would the government, that had earlier helped the emergence of new Indian cinema, take some initiative and make Ray’s offerings accessible far and wide?
Finally, Apur Sansar may be full of human drama, but there is hardly any theatricality in the film. Ray tried to be “as expressive as possible through action, through objects, through details.” (Satyajit Ray: A Film by Shyam Benegal, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1988). It remains an example of pure cinema and is a wholesome one that has not lost its relevance in the India of today. It carries all the prominent markers of a classic. By world standards.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 25, 2019 under the title ‘A Timeless Tale’. The writer is a retired IAS officer.