Criterion Collection’s new 4K remaster of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is a wondrous accomplishment. The Ravi Shankar scores captivate. The depth of the black-and-white shading is enough to leave you gasping. The textures on title cards. The shine on a girl’s hair. The definition in a leaf’s veins. The wrinkles in a tattered sari. Of course, the films themselves are fantastic, destined from their first releases to be global classics.
The trilogy begins with handwritten title cards accompanied with tabla, followed by harmonium, sitar, and flute. The drums draw attention. The harmonium softens transition. The sitar gives pace. The flute yields longing. Later, violins invoke sympathy. Credits end and a silent praying woman notices a child, Durga, scurrying through the forest, stealing fruit from her orchard. That child enters her own home – a dilapidated collection of piled brick and hay structures – and proceeds to open and close various pots. One holds pieces of fruit, perhaps all stolen. Another holds water. Another holds kittens. And that is the film: a collection of surprises hidden among us, waiting for containment or release.
Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road, 1955) tells us the story of a people trapped in cloisters. An elder aunt is trapped by her weakness and age. Her liberation is in her abrasive behavior. A priest is trapped by his ancestry: the neighbors have confiscated his parents’ wealth, leaving him impoverished, so he is unable to provide for his family. He seeks income (i.e. freedom) by trying other careers. A daughter cannot stop exploring the world around her, against all the restrictions placed upon her. And, then we have Apu, learning to find a new world.
In our films, institutions “trap” characters. In American high school films (10 Things I Hate About You, The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls), students long for escape and self-determination, but the administration and social cliques impose authority. In Disney Princess films (Aladdin, Brave, Mulan), cultural norms impose conformity. In many urban films (Boyz n the Hood, Do the Right Thing, Fruitvale Station), the police officers hold down (often literally) young African American men. In those pictures we would classify as Feminist and Womanist films (The Piano, Thelma and Louise, Girlhood), males and cultural expectations obstruct personal honesty and expression.
In these Ray movies, however, the overarching force is destiny: destiny shows its face when the world makes choices that subjugate our characters, just like a little girl hiding and releasing kittens in a pot, or her frustrated aunt slamming those kittens into the ground. Poverty is a problem here, forcing lives to remain immobile and stagnant, while the rest of society seems to race away on trains. Mortality seems to wait to grasp another life. Geography prevents our characters from keeping pace with modern developments in the urban centers. Poverty, mortality, and geography, however, are all expressions of destiny. Thus, the “little road” is the path leading us viewers to the hidden village, as well as the hidden path allowing our characters to walk out.
Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 19566) begins with a different score. Instead of the serial lineup of instruments from the first film, we start with the tabla that again commands our attention. From there, however, the score moves back and forth between instruments until they all perform together. Fusion.
This film, like the first, begins with someone praying, and soon shifts attention to a child – this time, Apu – scurrying along. Instead of the dense forest of Durga’s explorations, he races through the tight sidewalks of the large city (Benares). Benares is different than the impoverished village of Pather Panchali. In the first film, religion was on the sidelines. Apu’s father was a kind priest whose faith was not strong enough to yield funds for his family. But in Benares, religion permeates the streets, the air, and the waters (of the Ganges River). Because of a series of tragedies, Apu’s family moves back to the village, though he then moves on to a bigger city, Calcutta. As his family in his home village crumbles, Apu finds that he has become a city dweller. The village that produced him is no longer in him, as he has fused himself into urban life.
Aparajito extends the conversation on destiny a step beyond what Pather Panchali gave us. Our characters in the previous films struggled to move around within the clutches of fate. Here, destiny becomes a series of rivers, ready to take you along. We choose the river, and then the river sweeps us through its powerful current. Thus the “unvanquished” is the character who survives the unvanquished stream, for the waterway will continue to push through its path.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959) changes directions from its predecessors. It does not begin with title cards. Rather, the film treats us to a prelude, as a college-aged Apu walks out into a protest of unemployed students calling for a revolution. Instead of a young child prancing along as s/he discovers a giant world, we follow students marching and chanting in unison, trying to force the world to conform to their wishes.
Then, the credits and score begin. The score in the second film was a conversation between different instruments, climaxing in a seamless mixture. Here, we listen to a battle between different forms of Indian music. One is modern, somewhat Western and militaristic. The other is classical sitar. We shift back and forth in a jagged, disconnected manner, though it seems that again, they synthesize into a hybrid style (foreshadowing A. R. Rahman’s compositions by half a century). Next, as the film continues, the prayers are missing. Secular, urban India has religion, but political activism is the piety of the modern dispossessed.
Apu’s path in this film is a series of moments. He decides to publish his story, he decides to go home, he decides to go back. More importantly, he chooses to go somewhere, and events require him to make choices on the spot, most notably: marrying a woman whose groom was just determined to be incompetent. Upon her pregnancy and delivery of a son, Apu makes emotional, but troubling choices. In this trilogy, that is a third dimension of destiny: wherever life takes us, or wherever we might take life, life will bring us to unexpected crossroads demanding us to choose direction. The choices we make might or might not be the best for us, but our agency is in making those choices and in owning them. Sometimes, we can correct our mistakes by revisiting them. Sometimes, we can make the best of bad decisions, though we might have to give or receive forgiveness before we can proceed.
All in all, the overarching point of the trilogy – in exploring the various dimensions of destiny, as experienced through the life of this lad Apu – is to find out who we are. Within those spaces that destiny allows us options to express our agency, our will, we may express our self-determination, for better or worse, and find out a few things about ourselves. Then, we can find out who we can be.
In that philosophy, Ray taps into something at the heart of modernity: the forced adjustment to change. His films often explore the struggle of Indian characters to adjust to the encroachments of the modern world. In Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), a family must urbanize to earn income. This also requires the formerly hidden women to acclimate themselves into corporate life in the new metropolis. In Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), a man must face economic restructuring forced upon him by the newish Indian state, while styles of appreciating music are changing. When such major changes happen in society, we do not have the choice to ignore them, for the result could be starvation. But, when we attempt to keep pace with modernity, the result might be an abandonment of our own histories, our own uniqueness, our own stories, as we migrate from the silence of the tall trees of the forest into the noise among the tall buildings of big city life. The characters in these films are so rich, more than anything we ever find in Bollywood, that it is inconceivable that they would lose themselves in the city. But does it happen? It seemed to happen to Bollywood itself.
In the manufactured joys of Bollywood, there was that mixture of Fellini’s circus and the dance response (or inspiration) to the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts maneuvering. Within the plastic sentimentality – despite India’s centuries-long history of the richest cultural resources – Bollywood perpetuated inferiority toward Europe by replacing its own techniques with Western forms in composition, editing, and especially choreography and art design. That ambition became more apparent with each succeeding decade, with each lightening of skin color and each bulimic belly, as though Bollywood was seeking status as the jewel in England’s crown, rather than rightfully seizing the throne for itself. Of course, some argue that Indian dance routines trace themselves not to religious ritual but to the courtesans serving the British East India Company, so perhaps Bollywood is just fulfilling what it was designed for: prostituting a nation, rather than celebrating it.
Ray, shooting along Bombay’s sidelines, however, demolished everything. Before the modern rise of non-Bollywood Indian cinema, Satyajit was a beam of light positioning himself somewhere between de Sica, Eisenstein, and Truffaut. His films explore the world not through a head in the clouds, but with two feet firmly planted on the ground.
And consider: who is Ray for India? Indian silver screens now gift us with three film genres: the slushy Bollywood films, non-Bollywood talkies, and Satyajit Ray. Ray’s quiet films are from the Apu Trilogy. Bollywood’s greatest contribution to the world in that era is 1960’s Mughal-e-Azam, featuring some of its greatest players (Dilip Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Prithviraj Kapoor). Asif Karim (credited as K. Asif) gave us a production about the relationship between the Emperor Jehangir and the dancer Anarkali.
That era is vitally important in the story of India. It was just a decade or so prior that the nation broke off from colonization. The middle of the 20th century gave us the end of European political dominance across the Asian and African lands, as newly formed nation-states started asserting their own identities. In 1947, India established its own independence. The films of this early post-colonial period often reflected a response to that era.
With Mughal-e-Azam, India recalls its own great imperial splendor, prior to the arrivals of the Europeans, with focus on the passions and taboos between Hindu and Muslim in the emperor’s court. Destiny enforces its will in each of these films through lineage and its consequences: emperors are granted their thrones through birthright. But the Bollywood film also takes us through the problems and wonders of an unshakeable, inappropriate romance. With Ray’s films, we explore the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, following villagers in a changing world. While the Bollywood movie employs all the songs and spectacle we would expect from a majestic production about majestic peoples, Ray’s films explore the lives of forgotten members of forgotten villages.
It is intimacy in the silent voices that Ray captures. If a film were not made about these people, we would not care about them. Think of the subjects in Apted’s Up series, following the lives – over five decades – of a small collection of Britishers, or Bunuel’s Los Olvidados looking at the struggles of poor residents of Mexico City. Without these films, we would not know of them; we would not concern ourselves with them. But, with such films as this trilogy, they invade our attention and squeeze our hearts with a tight clutch.
There is a problem, however, in such depictions. As audience members watching a movie, we interact and react. Just as Bollywood panders to the baser ambitions, with an illusion of sophistication, we exercise our own vacuous voyeurism, reducing that population of a billion people speaking a thousand dialects down to colorful choreography and despondent poverty. Further, when we think of neo-realist films, we speak of unhappy films. We look to films to see life as series of tragedies, struggles, and dirty faces; these films contain plenty of suffering, so we applaud. When we watch Ray’s films, we ourselves become those flaky White Liberals celebrating him from a distance, for he fits into our template for the Third World – not navigating through destiny as much as they either are either winning (as in Slumdog Millionaire) or are losing (as in City of Joy). All along, we are missing the wondrous stories he tells us.
So, we can enjoy Satyajit Ray for his place in and commentary on history. But, to appreciate Ray as a Ray, we have to go through the cultural analysis, to position it and wipe it away. Then we can enjoy the films and let them help us grow, if fate allows us to do so.