Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition: The Apu Trilogy d. Satyajit Ray Spine: 782 Blu-ray Release Date: November 17, 2015 Pather Panchali (1955) Spine: #783 Aparajito (1956) Spine: #784 Apur Sansar (1959) Spine: #785 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray discs, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
In late 1952, after some healthy encouragement from Jean Renoir, thirty-one-year-old Satyajit Ray began shooting his debut film, Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”), with a small budget (Ray’s personal savings) and an amateur cast and crew. It was a long shot, rooted in passion, and, because funds kept running out (and because Ray wouldn’t take money from people who conditioned funding on control over the final product), filming went on sporadically for three years until a loan from the West Bengali government helped finalize production. Ray made his mark with his debut in 1955. Though Ray did not set out to make a trilogy, Pather Panchali became the first part in one that also includes Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”) and Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”). Each film is a masterpiece, and Ray went on to create several more masterpieces before dying in April 1992.
Film is a fragile art form, and by the time of Ray’s death these earliest features were suffering from age and neglect. In an effort to protect and preserve the films, the negatives were moved to a warehouse that subsequently caught fire in 1993, severely damaging — in some cases beyond repair — the negatives. What remained, even if it was ash, was saved but nothing was done — nothing could be done — for two decades. In 2013, The Criterion Collection went looking for the best elements to restore and release The Apu Trilogy. They heard about the damaged negatives and decided to do whatever they could to utilize what they could salvage. What they managed to do with those damaged elements, with the help of L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, is miraculous: no one has seen these films looking the way they once did in decades . . . perhaps not since the original run over a half century ago. The restoration is stunning, and today they have released The Apu Trilogy on Blu-ray and DVD.
The trailer for the restoration, which you can see below, made me choke up even before I had seen the films. These films are vital to world cinema, but beyond that they are the artistic achievements of a master whose tender work shows compassion and beauty in the face of the ugliness and brutality some suffer in life. That people cared enough to spend the time and money necessary to save these endangered films is touching and heartening.
Before he set himself to making a film, Ray had already been deeply fascinated with and affected by film. He spent three months in London in 1950 and apparently watched 99 movies. He said that at first he was fascinated by the stories and the actors but soon was paying close attention to the directing and the editing, carefully noting how it all came together and communicated with the audience through film language. So, even though Pather Panchali was his debut, and even though he primarily used amateurs to make the film, he was deeply sensitive to what he was doing. Still, it is remarkable just what he accomplished. This film would be a remarkable achievement as is even coming from a seasoned director. Whether you put stock into lists or not, that Pather Panchali shows up so often in “best films of all time” lists says something.
But until I got this set, I had not seen the film myself. Janus Films has been touring the trilogy in theaters, so many of my friends have seen the films over the past year, and I wondered if the films would live up to the praise I’d been hearing. Despite my high expectations, I really was not prepared to be as moved as I was by these films, starting with Pather Panchali.
The first film in The Apu Trilogy is not particularly about Apu, who is a little child (played by Subir Banerjee, in his first and last film role). Rather the film is about the almost invisible emotional lives of the three women surrounding Apu.
First, we have the elderly “Auntie” Indir Thakrun (played by Chunibala Devi, one of the few established actors in the cast, in her final film role (she died before the film premiered, though apparently Ray had shown her the film before her death)). Auntie is in her 80s and is seen by most as mouth to feed. Of course, she has lived through much, and she looks toward events with much more understanding and sympathy than her eyes suggest.
Next, we have Apu’s mother, Sarbajaya (played by Karuna Banerjee). Sarbajaya is raising two children in a dilapidated home that is part of her husband’s family’s estate. Whatever wealth the family once had, it is gone, as are its orchards. The home is falling apart, and there is no money to fix it. Her husband, Harihar (played by Kanu Banerjee, another of the few established actors), hopes to be a successful writer, and he is too kind to ask his employers for money they owe him, figuring that it will come as long as he is patient. Sadly, his delays force his wife to pass her days worrying about what to eat and trying to make the best of a home that is not much more than a hollow shell. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, Sarbajaya tells her husband about her own dreams, which become more impossible every day.
Last we have Apu’s older sister, Durga (played by Uma Das Gupta). She’s the first person we meet when the film begins. She’s stealing fruit from the neighbor’s orchard, causing her mother a great deal of shame when she overhears the neighbor loudly complaining that the daughter is being raised so poorly. Durga is youth and potential. She has her whole life before her, and the family’s poverty has not yet stifled her vibrant curiosity. Rather, she escorts Apu to watch the trains that intimate a larger world.
Apu comes along as the new baby about 20 minutes into the film. Soon he is the young boy with giant eyes, observing everything. We may think he comprehends little (and he certainly doesn’t comprehend everything), but there are moments when it is clear that he senses the source of the family’s stress. At one moment when his mother is trying to feed him rice, he won’t eat. Instead, he runs around the home with a little bow and arrow. She cannot get him to come back and eat the rice. He’s apparently hunting better game.
And so, though the women tend to live their days in relative quiet, mostly going about tasks, Apu does pick up on the emotions, the hopes and dreams, the disappointments, the life and death struggle, and he soon has reason to confront the ugly reality that time is irretractable.
We begin Aparajito where Pather Panchali left off. I won’t go into those details, other than to say that now the family finds itself in the city. Soon the young Apu becomes an adolescent (played by Smaran Ghosal). He’s still an observer, but now he’s recognizing opposition in what he observes: there are the obvious differences between the country life he knew and the city life he must now navigate, but he must also discern his feelings about science and religion and tradition and modernity.
Soon, though, he must start making his own decisions about his identity and where his life will taken him. One of the most difficult oppositions still awaits: family obligation and personal ambition.
While Apu is growing up, his mother (again played by Karuna Banerjee) must again confront disappointment and the irretractability of time. She has given up so much, it is understandable why she wants to hold on to Apu even when he decides he wants to go to school. She is proud of his accomplishments — he is a bright student with a lot of promise — but she resists his desire to study on the rare occasions he visits home. She also doesn’t quite believe that he needs to return to school so promptly when holidays end.
For his part, Apu is mostly, but not entirely, oblivious to his mother’s pain and sees any guilt he feels for leaving her to pursue his own path as an inconvenient weight. Apparently, Apu’s lack of complete devotion to his mother went against Bengali culture, and the film was not well received locally (though surely Apu was just as recognizable to them as he is to us).
Though his style was sophisticated and sensitive in Pather Panchali, with Aparajito Ray surprises with some effective editing choices, including a sweeping cut that throws us from Sarbajaya’s face to a new scene with a passing train, a symbol of the changes and the passing of time, even on the many occasions when we just hear the train’s engine far in the background.
Honestly, after falling in love with Pather Panchali I didn’t think the trilogy would continue as strongly, though I was confident it would still be good. I was again surprised at how quietly turbulent this film was. It is another masterpiece.
And, to jump off from where I left above, after seeing two masterpieces, I really did not think the third could be as powerful. I was wrong again. In Apur Sansar Apu himself is surprised at how deeply he can feel for another person; I was once again shocked at how deeply the film could make me feel.
When this film begins, though many of his loved ones have been released from life’s disappointments, Apu (here played by the amazing Soumitra Chatterjee, in his debut film) still has much of his life before him. Recently graduated, he wants to be a novelist, and he’s already been recognized as a gifted writer. That’s not paying the bills, though, and because Apu is essentially unwilling to sacrifice his dream to pay the bills (and he didn’t go to all of that school just to label bottles all day), he sells his books to pay the rent.
He is visited by an old school friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), someone who has encouraged him in the past but who is much more practically minded. Apu tells Pulu about his ideas for his books, including a love story. His friend scoffs kindly and tells him he cannot write about love because Apu has never been close to a woman. Apu refutes him; surely the imagination has some value. “Not with love,” his friend says. Apu has always been a great observer, and he’s certainly gone through a lot of pain, but we see that his friend is correct.
In the two preceding films, Apu was learning about the larger world around him. In Apur Sansar, Apu is brought inward and comes to know and fear the depths of his own being. He could never have imagined how beautiful and how painful love could be.
And, honestly, I could never have imagined how beautiful a love story could be portrayed. Apu’s love story doesn’t begin with love itself but with convenience — and not his own. While visiting, Pulu invites Apu to attend the wedding of his cousin, Aparna (played by the magnificent Sharmila Tagore, in her debut). Apu goes, planning to stay in the background, but when the intended groom shows up he turns out to be completely unacceptable. Aparna’s mother calls off the wedding, but at great risk: according to Hindu tradition, which this family believes devoutly, Aparna must be wed at the appointed time or else she can never marry. The only suitable groom is Apu! He refuses at first, but he does come around and accept his fate.
If the marriage was unexpected, so was the love Apu felt for his bride not long after their wedding. This is one of the most beautiful screen relationships I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Chatterjee and Tagore have such wonderful chemistry, though chemistry is an insufficient word here as it suggest something basically logical and physical — their relationship on screen, which I found completely believable, transcends any of that. They are absolutely enchanted with each other, while still grounded in their difficulties. It’s just lovely to watch them adjust to life together, carefully shedding layers of reticence to show their love:
Apu: I haven’t written a word since we were married.
Aparna: Is that my fault?
Apu: No. It’s to your credit.
Apu simply could never imagine love on this level. It stretches him out because of its joy and pain. In the film’s final act, love once again surprises and disarms Apu. He never forgets how painful it can be, but that can make its presence, however fleeting, all the more beautiful.
These three films are special. Only recently coming to know them, I am unsure how my relationship with them will develop, but they are already so important to me personally. Ray’s work has already affected my outlook on life and on those around me as he uses his camera to show reverence for time and for our inner lives — to our dreams, our hopes, our agony, our persistence. Though deeply rooted in Bengali culture, the three films are universally human.
Supplements: Criterion has put together a wonderful set of supplements for each of the three discs. I’m actually still going through them (and loving what I’m seeing), but I wanted to run down what each disc contains even if I cannot give full insights on each supplement.
Pather Panchali Disc:
- A Long Time on the Little Road: This is a 14:36-minute audio recording of Ray reading a 1957 article he wrote for Sight & Sound.
- Soumitra Chatterjee: Though Chatterjee doesn’t show up until Apur Sansar, here we get a 7:14-minute interview with him talking about Pather Panchali and how it affected him and his fellow Bengalis
- Shampa Srivastava: Though Uma Das Gupta played Durga for most of the film, the first shot of her as a little girl stealing fruit was of Srivastava (credited as Runki Banerjee). Here we get a 16:29-minute interview with her.
- Soumendu Roy: Roy was a camera operator on Pather Panchali who went on to work with Ray on many films. Here we get his insights on Ray’s process in this 12:34-minute interview.
- Ravi Shankar: Here we get 5:55 minutes of excerpts from a 2003 documentary called The Song of the Little Road. Shankar’s music in these films is fantastic and, like Ray’s own style, was always shifting in unique and surprising ways. This is a short piece in which Shankar recalls working with Ray on The Apu Trilogy.
- The Small Details: This is an 11:26-minute interview with film writer Ujjal Chakraborty in which Chakraborty looks at the various symbols — stairs and trains — found in Aparajito. I love supplements where someone looks at what the film is conveying through its imagery and language, and this short supplement was marvelous and insightful.
- A Conversation with Satyajit Ray, 1958: This is a 14:30-minute audio supplement of Ray discussing his work with film critic Gideon Bachmann in August of 1958. Ray had not yet made Apur Sansar and was about to debut The Music Room.
- Making “The Apu Trilogy”: Satyajit Ray’s Epic Debut: Andrew Robinson, biographer of Satyajit Ray, wrote and narrated this 37:45-minute video essay that covers the evolution of Rays work throughout the Apu Trilogy. Another of my favorite supplements, Robinson’s insights, conveyed in this wonderfully produced video essay, are again testament to the important and sensitive work of Ray.
- The Creative Person: “Satyajit Ray”: This is a 28:59-minute documentary made in 1957 by James Beveridge for American public television. I have not watched it yet, but Criterion notes that it contains interviews with Ray; actors Karuna Banerjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, and Alokananda Roy; producer Debaki Bose; production designer Bansi Chandragupta; film critic Chidananda Das Gupta; and cinematographer Subrata Mitra.
Apur Sansar Disc:
- Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore: This is a 15:07-minute interview with both Chatterjee and Tagore, both of whom went on to do wonderful work with Ray after this debut.
- “The Apu Trilogy”: A Closer Look: This is a wonderful 43:32-minute look at the entire trilogy by former head of the British Film Institute Mamoun Hassan. He talks about Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s books upon which the films are based and in particularly about how Ray adapted them to look at the character’s inner lives. Apparently the books have over 300 characters and are much more about the village than about any one character. While these films contain several characters, the casts are still small and we do get a great deal of sense as to the identity of each character. Hassan goes on to talk about not just the production but also the meaning of these films. I didn’t need him to help me admire them, but I loved his insights and welcomed the chance to look deeper.
- Honorary Oscar: In 1992, less than one month before he died, The Academy presented Ray with an honorary Oscar. This is a 3:03-minute clip of Audrey Hepburn (who would also die before the next ceremony) presenting the Oscar at the ceremony. We flip to a screen where Ray lies in bed accepting the Oscar, telling us how much it means to him.
- Restoring “The Apu Trilogy”:
- The Shorter Version: This is the version I linked to above, created by ::kogonada. I recommend taking the 2:49 to watch it. As I said, it makes me choke up.
- The Longer Version: ::kogonada also created a 12:31-minute essay on the restoration in which we hear from many at Criterion’s offices who worked steadily for months to restore the films for us. I’m not shy in my admiration for The Criterion Collection — I’ve given them a lot of praise — and I do not know how to adequately thank them for the work they did to bring these films to us in such a lovely restoration. I don’t want my admiration to turn into reverence forever, but I cannot resist here. These films are now an important part of my own inner life, and I thank them for their part in that.
The set itself comes with a 44-page booklet, featuring “Every Common Sight,” an essay by Terrence Rafferty; Ray’s storyboards for Pather Panchali (Ray was a visual artist before becoming a filmmaker); and “Behind the Universal,” an essay by Girish Shambu. The booklet also has the usual segment that details the restoration process, only here it understandably goes into much more detail than the usual release.
To end, a bit about the physical product itself. The box is lovely, but it’s also put together thoughtfully. The covers that you can see above, while simple as they just show Apu through the years looking off the screen, have deep meaning in their films. The booklet cover shows the young Apu and Durga, the train line in the background. Inside the booklet, the pages that contain the cast and credits have stills of what may be considered the central woman of the film itself, the ones who affected Apu the most: for Pather Panchali, we get Durga; for Aparajito, Sarbajaya; and for Apur Sansar, it’s, naturally, Apurna. There’s so much meaning in all of this — Criterion has put together a work of art to present one of the most important pieces of world art there is.