Love, optimism, and aspiration in ‘The World of Apu’
World-class cinema from Bengali director Satyajit Ray
A former graphic artist for a Kolkata ad agency, Satyajit Ray spent three years making his first feature, “Pather Panchali” (1955). It was the first in a trilogy based on novels by fellow Bengali Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay about a village boy named Apu. It would become one of the great achievements of film.
When it screened at Cannes in 1956, it won the Best Human Document award. But one critic was unimpressed. François Truffaut walked out, declaring, “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.”
Ironically, Truffaut’s own debut, “The 400 Blows” (1959) also told the story of a boy and his growing pains, a protagonist he would return to in not two but three sequels. (Antoine Doinel, perhaps, had better table manners.)
Truffaut (who later retracted his remark and apologized) and other critics considered “Pather Panchali” an example of a primitive and exotic national cinema. By the time he finished “The World of Apu” (1959) the third film in the trilogy (the second, “Aparajito,” came out in 1956), Ray proved he had more in common with Truffaut and other Western directors than he did with the Indian cinema of the time. He, too, idolized Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealists — especially Vittorio De Sica, to whose “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) the Apu films are often compared. He, too, explored such themes as the discovery of self, the desire for freedom, the binds of fate, and custom.
Not just Ray, but Apu also seems worldlier in “World,” now screening in a restored print. In his 20s and a college dropout, living in a dank Kolkata flat, he surges with literary aspirations. He wants to be a writer, and his eager description of his in-progress autobiographical novel neatly provides his back story for those who haven’t seen the first two films.
In the novel, the protagonist, a naive country boy stuck in a backwater, seeks to free himself from superstition, society, family, and duty. But unlike the novel, Apu makes a decision that contradicts those ideals. Through a bizarre combination of superstition, social pressure, and misconceived duty, he ends up married to Aparna, a child bride (played by then 14-year-old Sharmila Tagore). And to compound that lapse, he falls in love with her.
In each Apu film, love, optimism, and aspiration vie against a world that ultimately takes all those things away. In each film, trains represent a means to escape the inevitability of loss, appearing at times in images of astonishing beauty. In the final scene of this last film, the train has shrunken into an abandoned child’s toy, and Apu can at last enter the world. So does Satyajit Ray, as one of the greats of world cinema.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.