The Apu Trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959)
Dir. by Satyajit Ray
Another capsule review for the Arts & Faith Top 100.
Between 1955 and 1991, Indian director Satyajit Ray made more than thirty feature films, but he’s best remembered in the West for the “Apu trilogy,” which launched his career. Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959) are based on the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhya and follow their hero, Apu, from his impoverished childhood in a small Bengali village through early adulthood, when he becomes a novelist, husband, and father. Together, the films constitute one of the cinema’s true masterpieces, a work of Dostoyevskian richness-of-detail and emotional complexity.
After studying art in college, Ray worked as an illustrator in the advertising industry while also pursuing his amateur interest in film. In the late 1940s he established a film society in Calcutta, and in 1950 he determined to make a small, intimate film of his own, one like those he’d seen on a recent trip to Europe. Of particular influence on Ray were the Italian Neo-Realists, who took their cameras out of the decimated studios and filmed, instead, using natural light in the rubble-strewn streets of post-war Rome. Two of these films are included in the Top 100: Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) at #28 and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) at #80.
Apu doesn’t make his first appearance until twenty minutes into Pather Panchali. Instead, Ray introduces viewers to day-to-day life around the boy’s home: his older sister Durga tends her kittens and steals fruit from a neighboring orchard for her aged “auntie”; his long-suffering mother cooks and cares for her family; his underemployed father daydreams of becoming a great priest and poet. When we do finally meet Apu, it’s an iconic image: Durga wakes him by pulling back a sheet, revealing first just one wide eye before exposing his full, smiling face, all amid a flourish of music from Ravi Shankar (Pather Panchali launched Shankar’s career in the West as well). Over the next five hours, we watch as Apu grows into a promising student, leaves home to live in Calcutta, suffers tragedy, and experiences great joy, all captured by Ray’s curious and compassionate camera. There are frequent moments of jaw-dropping cinematic beauty throughout the trilogy, but Ray is no showman or grandstander here. In these particular films he stays true to the Neo-Realist spirit, privileging the mundane details of life over big-budget splendor and artifice.
The “Apu trilogy” is also notable for introducing Western audiences to Indian cinema. In the 1950s, Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman, Rossellini, and, later, Francois Truffautt, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer were among a group of now-canonized foreign filmmakers who received wide distribution of their work in the United States. Many of these directors are represented in the Top 100. Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) at #21 is an especially good pairing with Aparajito, the second of the Apu films. The Neo-Realist line that runs through the Italians and Ray extends all the way to contemporary filmmakers in the top 100 like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhang-ke, and Lee Isaac Chung.