Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

                                          "The Road" No Longer Less-Traveled
                                                                  Review by Ken Burke
 This is a significant situation for your diligent critic (and, appropriate to this posting, Emeritus Professor of Film Studies) in that it marks only the 2nd review since this blog was inaugurated by Pat (Remember Pat? He's the true definition of a silent partner, but I'm always hopeful that will change at some point.) and myself in which I’ve given a 5-star-rating, but when you’re dealing with one of the true timeless classics of world cinema it’s an easy decision to make.  These Apu films have been painstakingly-restored from damaged negatives and existing prints to be presented in fabulous 4K-extra-high-definition-video in select cities around the U.S.A. this summer (sorry, I don’t know about additional screenings in any other countries) so I encourage you to consult the schedule (with a wealth of other info about the films at this site as well) and see them projected if you can (if not, there are lower-definition-options noted in the links far below and I'm sure there will be video releases of these finely-restored prints to enjoy as well sometime in the near future).
Let me also note for those readers in my local San Francisco-Oakland (Go Warriors, for NBA fans! Go A's for MLB!) area, this trilogy is opening this weekend (June 12, 2015) at the Opera Plaza (SF) and the Shattuck (Berkeley) theaters, so I encourage you to look into attending a screening during this limited engagement (plan on spending the day if you can; it's worth it).
             The Apu Trilogy—Pather Panchali (1955)
        Aparajito (1956), Apur Sansar (1959) (Satyajit Ray)
In post-colonial India we follow the lives of an upper-caste-but-poverty-stricken family of a father, mother, daughter, and young son Apu.  Through the course of these 3 films there are many harsh realities to be dealt with, including death, internal family tensions, difficulty with upward mobility, and the challenges that Apu faces as he evolves from childhood to young adulthood.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
What Happens: In Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, although there are other similar translation alternatives) we first meet the young boy Apurba “Apu” (Subir Banerjee) of the Roy family, his sister Durga (Shampa “Runki” Banerjee as the young girl, Uma Das Gupta as the teenager), and their parents, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) and Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee; all of the actors with this surname are unrelated) settled in rural Bengal; the father’s elderly, disabled cousin, Auntie Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi), also lives with them but frequently clashes with Sarbajaya, although Durga humors the old woman by stealing fruit from their more-well-off-neighbor’s orchard, leading this woman to chastise Sarbajaya for bad parenting (“Children learn what they’re taught”; however,  Durga’s mother counters with something that sounds like it could come from our own Pope Francis: “Who’s to say who’s good and who’s not?”), complain of un-repaid-loans, then accuse Durga of stealing a necklace, which the girl denies.  Desperately needing money, Harihar goes off for quite some time to seek employment, promising the family he’ll soon be home.  In the meantime, though, Durga plays in a monsoon downpour, gets sick, and dies; when Harihar finally returns, joyful over the income he’s procured and the gifts he’s brought for his family he’s devastated by the news of his daughter’s death.  This film ends with the 3 remaining family members (Auntie Indir was found dead on the railroad tracks by the Roy children some time before) moving from their ancestral homeland to the city of Benares, but as they’re packing Apu finds the necklace stolen by Durga years before.

 The narrative thread, now set in 1920 (1327 by Bengali reckoning), immediately picks up in the next film, Aparajito (The Unvanquished), as the Roy family moves to huge Benares (now known as Varanasi), on the banks of the Ganges River, a site sacred to traditional Hindus (although with so many bathing in it I doubt that it’s as holy as proclaimed—or maybe cleanliness isn’t next to godliness after all), with Apu as a youngster now played by Pinaki Sen Gupta (as the Banerjees reprise their roles as the parents).  Broke-but-Brahmin-Harihar takes in a small income as a priest for the city’s pilgrims but dies soon thereafter, leading to Sarbajaya getting a job as a maid to a wealthy family and Apu being encouraged by his mother’s elderly uncle Bhabataran (Ramani Ranjan Sen) to learn the ways of the priesthood; circumstances change, though, when Mom’s employers decide to move to the Bengali countryside’s Mansapota village, bringing her and her son along.  Apu (now being played as an adolescent by glum, lanky Smaran Ghosal) longs to attend school, so Sarbajaya agrees; he’s a diligent student (which speaks ironically to a scene when he was a small child, slipping into the local classroom when the other children were at recess, only to be berated by the teacher for being an unworthy who shouldn’t even be touching the schoolbooks—at least I have a memory of such but I have no notes to verify it nor summaries anywhere that mention it, so either it’s a very useful scene in total-trilogy-context or at least should been had Ray followed my obviously-superior-insights*), ultimately earning a scholarship for further studies in Calcutta, even though his mother would prefer otherwise.  Once he’s back in a metropolitan area (working at a printing press after school in order to gain the necessary income to live on) he quickly wants to forget about village life so his visits home are infrequent, moody, and distant from Sarbajaya (except once when his guilt encourages him to miss his return train, giving her the gift of an extra day with her).

*6/18/2015  Well, as fate would have it (and as 
[I’m so sad to note] late [1945-2014] Texas singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz [possibly best known by those who never attended his performances for writing “I’d Have to be Crazy,” sung by Willie Nelson on his 1976 The Sound in Your Mind album] often said, “And, you know, friends, Fate will have it.”), this “scene” is not in Pather Panchali at all but instead is about one of the characters of a book I’m reading, also set in India over several decades, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), although the event noted above takes place at roughly the same time as when Apu was a young child (it’s a long novel so I’ve been reading it in spurts for quite awhile, including when I watched the Apu films, so it got mixed up in my muddled-memory until my nagging-curiosity finally got the better of me, leading me to find this passage again in the book).  On the one hand, I wondered why Apu, as a Brahmin (despite his poverty), would be treated so poorly, but I just assumed it was because the teacher mistook him for lower-caste, even as my inconclusive-thoughts kept troubling me; on the other hand, I find it interesting how the “little films” that play in my head, providing audiovisual substance to the words I read in a novel, could join up with my memories of these films to add a “new” scene with such clarity—and coherence to the actual cinematic texts—that it could easily have been in Ray's first Apu story with no sense of misplacement.  I’ll also just have to guess that the 31 people who’ve read this posting so far—possibly including some of my recent readers from India—have made no mention of this error, so I'll assume that none of them have seen the films yet, even better reason why I wanted to get this corrected before it misleads anyone else.

 Tragically, his mother takes ill without letting him know how she was slipping away so as not to disturb his academic life; when he returns home to find her dead, Apu’s once again broken-hearted but rejects his uncle’s call to stay in the village as a priest, deciding to return immediately to Calcutta as he now feels free of his mother’s insistent pull back into the languid countryside.  As the story progresses into Apur Sansur (The World of Apu), our slightly-older-protagonist (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) is still in Calcutta, hoping to go to college (but not able to afford it), barely getting by on small tutoring wages, and hoping to make a living as a writer (encouraged by the publication of a short story).  To help cure Apu's increasing despondency, his old friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) invites him to the countryside to attend a cousin’s wedding, but at the ceremony the groom’s (Tusar Banerjee—the apparent-go-to-surname for this group of film actors) mental disorder becomes evident so the ceremony’s off much to the chagrin of the bride’s family who believe that she must marry at a predetermined auspicious hour or face hardship for the rest of her life.  Apu reluctantly agrees to Pulu’s request that he wed Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), with their clumsy start quickly growing into deep mutual love.  However, death’s never far from Apu, with his wife succumbing to it in childbirth of their son, Kajal, leading Apu to leave the baby with Aparna’s parents as he wanders the country in his grief, destroying the many pages of his long-planned-semi-autobiographical-novel (which now conjures up just too many painful memories of his father dying when Apu was only 10—although younger than that when his sister departed—then his mother lost when he was 17, with the tragic cycle complete in his early 20s given Aparna’s demise).  As the son (Alok Chakraboty) grows up to be a difficult child, Pulu finally convinces Apu to come home to this rejected-village to reclaim his paternal responsibilities, with difficult first encounters finally giving way to a father-son-rapprochement as they agree to travel together back to Calcutta to start a new life there together.

So What? The first film in this trilogy was made from Ray’s detailed storyboards (based on the original 1929 novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay [sometimes referred to as that familiar name of Banerjee in some info, including the official press materials noted below from respectable, reliable Janus Films; I can’t explain the discrepancy] with illustrations for a 1944 Signet Press reissue by Ray) rather than a formal script; it was produced on a very low budget (requiring 3 years to reach completion) with mostly inexperienced actors and crew; shot on location in natural light, as Ray had been influenced by both that type of filmmaking from the Italian Neorealist tradition (especially Bicycle Thieves [Vittorio De Sica, 1948]) and from his meeting and work in 1949 in India with the celebrated studio-based Realist master, Jean Renoir (there shooting The River [1951]), who had helped provide a later-to-bloom inspiration for those Neorealist filmmakers when he was briefly in their country in 1939-1940 prior to the Nazi invasion of France (after which he fled to the U.S. for the duration of WW II)Aparajito was based on the latter part of the original novel as well as some of its 1932 sequel (same name as the film); accounts that I’ve read say it’s the most consistent 1 of the 3 to its written sources, although Apu’s initial reaction of relief at his mother’s death apparently did not play well in India, challenging semi-sacred-traditions of familial love and devotion, but as with Pather Panchali this follow-up was widely praised in the rest of the world (especially Western cinematic cultures) as affirming how Ray was bringing a strong sense of un-romanticized, personally-penetrating filmmaking to a Bollywood-influenced-culture not previously known for indigenous quality in its cinema.  Even though the monsoon season forced some of the images to be shot in a studio the carefully-lit-results still captured the Neorealistic spirit of the first film, continuing the sense of honesty, immediacy, and striking depth-of-field-compositions (reminiscent of Renoir) straight from location shooting that had so impressed audiences the first time around.  

 Famed (and often acerbic) New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther on April 29, 1959 offered praise for Aparajito that still holds true today: “Mr. Ray's remarkable camera catches beauty in so many things, from the softness of a mother's sad expression to the silhouette of a distant train, that innuendos take up the slack of drama. Hindu music and expressive natural sounds complete the stimulation of the senses in this strange, sad, evocative film.”  The final installment, Apur Sansar was based on the last 2/3 of the Aparajito novel; like its cinematic predecessors it was well-received-and-awarded, both on its own merits and as closure for the trilogy’s overall explorations.

Bottom Line Final Comments:  We have the combined determination and resources of the Criterion Collection, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Academy Film Archive (using what could be salvaged of the original fire-damaged-negatives along with prints from Janus Films, the Academy holdings, the Harvard Film Archive, and the British Film Institute) to thank for these glorious 4K-restoration-prints produced in a painstaking manner over several years, which I’ll just have to assume for now are as gorgeous as I’ve seen with previous 4K-cinema (specifically Visitors [Godfrey Reggio; review in our March 6, 2014 posting]), as I had access to refreshing myself on this trilogy by means of video-screener-discs rather than preview-press-showings.  Although these films have now been in circulation for 60 years since the debut of Pather Panchali, I’m sure they haven’t looked this freshly-crisp since their first releases (and even many of those screenings might have been with inferior prints except at the major festivals), so we finally have a chance to see one of the true treasures of our cinematic-heritage in a format that allows these stunningly-straightforward-settings (that still contain outstandingly-composed-and-lit-shots of such seemingly-ordinary-content as water plants and a rural village after a rainstorm) to gain our full appreciation.  Appreciation from awards-giving-cinema-societies has been a constant for these 3 masterpieces also (with Ray himself getting an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992—just as Renoir was so awarded in 1975; sadly, Ray died less than a month later), with dozens of accolades over the years for this trilogy including prizes from festivals such the ones at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Edinburgh, San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver, along with accolades from the British Film Institute, the U.S. National Board of Review, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).  It doesn’t require my opinion to honor these deeply-humanist-achievements with my rating of 5 stars to enshrine The Apu Trilogy in the pantheon of significant cinema but I’m happy to contribute my little token of appreciation to join all of the previous acknowledgements for Ray’s triumphs, including their inclusion on many well-respected-lists of “greatest films of all-time.”

 On March 4, 2001, equally-famous (and equally-haughty when he felt that what he was reviewing deserved to be ridiculed, but clearly not the case this time) critic Roger Ebert wrote: “[The Apu Trilogy] is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.”  Most of Ebert’s colleagues agree, with the individual films getting positive percentages (respectively) at Rotten Tomatoes of 97%, 94%, and 100% (nothing available from Metacritic on any of them)—so, really, what more do you need to say beyond that?  All I’ll add here is my Musical Metaphor for this trio, the marvelous “Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental)” raga done by Ravi Shankar at the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, partially-captured as the great documentary Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967).  This video, at ObnbIOk, runs a longish 18:42 (relative to a quick listen while reading a run-on-film-review; still, it's well worth the time in my opinion) but it’s only a mere portion of the 4-hr. performance that day by Shankar and tabla-master Alla Rakha (sorry, I don’t know the name of the drone player who accompanied them for that entire time as well; I’ve used this piece before to honor Rakha in conjunction with my comments about Whiplash [Damien Chazelle; review in our October 16, 2014 posting], but I wanted to offer it again in tribute to Shankar’s exquisite command of the sitar, for the main reason that he provided the musical soundtracks for all 3 of Ray’s Apu films, the triumphs that helped both of them become known worldwide as the creative geniuses that they were).  I deeply hope that you’ll be able to see these restored Apu films in a theater near you or on DVD when they’re available (even if, like me, you’re not yet invested in 4K technology) because, in whatever format you encounter them, they’re stirring examples of cinematic art, simple in concept but hauntingly impactful in their examinations of the nuances of our collective human condition.
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Here’s some more information about The Apu Trilogy: (The Apu Trilogy trailer) (Pather Panchali entire film, 2:03:00; you have to register [free] at this site [or several other similar ones] so I can’t vouch for what goes on here but it seems legitimate if you’d like to check it out) (Aparajito entire film, 1:50:35 [English subtitles]) (Apur Sansar entire film, 1:40:49, English subtitles cut off a bit but readable; this film’s not that heavy on dialogue anyway)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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