Exploring Apu's world

Print edition : June 17, 2005

Satyajit Ray chose Pather Panchali for the qualities that made it a great book. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Satyajit Ray's celluloid classic Pather Panchali, a look at The Apu Trilogy, based on Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay's novels.

THE world is a different place to be in since Pather Panchali was released half a century ago. It is more unabashedly capitalistic, more cynical and materialistic than ever before; it is also one with starker contrasts. Films that catch our imagination now are different, more colourful, commanding far greater budgets, and almost always set in the city and sometimes in idyllic landscapes masquerading as villages. Yet Pather Panchali remains a classic, almost timeless in its deeply humanistic message. Not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa once wrote, is like existing in the world without having seen the sun and the moon.

Pather Panchali is the first film of what has come to be known as the Apu Trilogy - the second was Aparajito, in 1956, and the third, Apur Sansar, in 1959 - though Ray did not have any such thing in mind when he made it. How the film got made is a story in itself, a narrative of alternate hopes and frustrations and Ray's almost epic devotion to the medium that has been the delight of biographers: "The Making of Pather Panchali" is an episode that no writer telling the story of Ray can afford to treat lightly. Indeed, the conditions under which Ray made his first film could not have nurtured thoughts of anything like a sequence of films to carry on the story of Apu. Yet, there is a kind of inevitability in the way he chose to take up the story of an adolescent Apu when the time came to make a second film, with the astonishing success of Pather Panchali behind him. And as one of his biographers has commented, there is a cohesion in the trilogy that can only be called musical.

"I chose Pather Panchali," Ray wrote in an article in 1957, "for the qualities that made it a great book: its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth." The truth of that statement is comprehensible to an international audience, but it makes sense to Bengalis in a way that is not accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the language and its literature. Ray's own acquaintance with the novel, written by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, came rather late, in his late twenties, when he designed the book cover of an abridged version for his friend and colleague D.K. Gupta of the Signet Press. But since the novel was first serialised in the journal Vichitra in 1928, generations of Bengalis have grown up with it and its sequel, their popularity remaining undiminished as the world of Bibhuti Bhushan slowly faded away. Generations have identified with Apu's quest for meaning in a world in transition, his struggle to make his way through the maze of a big city, his childlike wonder at the beauty of life. Soumitra Chatterjee, who gave an unforgettable performance as the adult Apu in his first film role in Apur Sansar, is known to have identified completely with Apu. "We were to a great extent Apus of our time," Chatterjee would say years later (quoted in The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson, one of Ray's biographers). For a young man setting out to pick his way through the daunting world of international cinema, armed with a resilient faith in his talent and very little money, there could not have been a happier choice than the story of Apu.

Apu and Durga in a field of flowers minutes before they run for their first glimpse of a train.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Of course, Apu's dominance in the narrative begins to emerge only at the end of Pather Panchali. This first film of the trilogy is the story of his family, of the world that he comes from, and of life in rural Bengal in the early decades of the last century. Satyajit Ray liked to describe Bibhuti Bhushan's novel as an "encyclopaedia of rural life". Ray's adaptation is a triumph of cinematography, unlike anything in Indian cinema before and owing very little to Hollywood. Ray dropped "literally hundreds of characters" that were there in the original, keeping his story focussed on the family of Harihar, building up the narrative with extreme economy and attention to detail. Yet, he lets the narrative ramble a little, much as the novel does, for "life in a poor Bengali village does ramble". A series of scenes build up the atmosphere, with a minimum of plot and with breathtaking simplicity of theme. Indeed, creating this "atmosphere" was a challenge for the city-bred Ray, as he recorded in a moving article ("A long time on the little road") in 1957: "To one born and bred in the city, it had a new flavour, a new texture: you wanted to observe and probe, to catch the revealing details, the telling gestures, the particular turns of speech. You wanted to fathom the mysteries of the `atmosphere'. Does it consist in the sights, or in the sounds? How to catch the subtle difference between dawn and dusk, or convey the grey humid stillness that precedes the first monsoon shower? Is sunlight in spring the same as sunlight in autumn?"

The imaginative photography of Pather Panchali was a vindication of Ray's conviction that he could make outdoor shooting work, even shots of rain in the countryside. For anyone who has watched the film, five scenes remain permanently lodged in memory: Tulsi Chakraborty's performance as the village pundit running a school in his grocery shop; the children following the village sweet-seller with a dog trailing them and the procession reflected in a pond; the children racing through a field of kaash flowers for their first glimpse of a train; Sarbojaya's outburst after Harihar comes home; and Apu flinging the stolen necklace in the pond and then watching the weeds close in on his sister's secret. The scenes follow each other effortlessly with an apparent triviality, slowly building up a depth of meaning through the thoughtful use of contrasts: the poverty contrasting with the beauty of the natural surroundings, the children's joy of life with their mother's anguish, life ebbing out of Indir Thakrun as her nephew and niece skip and tumble on the countryside, bubbling with happiness.

Chunibala Devi gave an unforgettable performance as Indir Thakrun (left) in Pather Panchali.-

Kurosawa once said that Pather Panchali is the "kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river... People are born, live out their lives, and then accept their deaths. Without the least effort and without any sudden jerks, Ray paints this picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How does he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of his excellence."

Apu, who dominates the two later films in the trilogy, is a child in the first one, dependent for his survival on the adults of his family and his didi (elder sister). Yet, though Ray had no definite plans for a trilogy at this stage, already towards the end of Pather Panchali there are indications of Apu's growing dominance of the narrative, which from Aparajito onwards becomes the story of his life. We see a lonely Apu at the end of Pather Panchali, a forlorn little figure as he gets ready for the day, as he is pulled up short by his father's wailing lament for Durga, as he covers up for his dead sister and as he looks at his village from the bullock cart that carries the family away from it.

Ray has written that he read one Bengali novel after another when he was casting about for a story for his second film, but "found nothing that took [his] fancy". Eventually, as we know, he chose to carry on the story of Apu. The film Aparajito is based on the second part of the novel Pather Panchali, left out of the first film, and about two-thirds of Bibhuti Bhushan's Aparajito. It was "one single attitude" of Apu in the novel Aparajito, Ray has said in his posthumously published My Years With Apu, that decided his choice. In the film, Apu hurries back from college on hearing of his mother Sarbojaya's illness to find he has lost her. But in the book, a wire from the village carries the news of her death to him in Calcutta (Kolkata). Apu's first reaction is a feeling of liberation, an exhilarating happiness that he is now free from bondage to explore life in any way he chooses. Then, immediately, there is remorse and shock, and a sense of guilt that he could have felt this way. The full impact of his loss comes home to Apu when he goes back to an empty house to find his mother's pickles sitting unguarded on a shelf. He can eat as much as he wants, he can do as he pleases, but now he longs for the bondage he had once fretted about. Still, there is no wishing away that first moment of liberation, that instinctive recognition on the part of Apu that his way of life has irreversibly meandered away from his mother's and that her death leaves him free.

Sarbojaya is a little bemused by the idea of Apu's going to school, but she does not have the heart to refuse. A still from Aparajito.-

This particular scene, of course, does not occur in the film. Instead, Ray picks up the hint of a difficult mother-son relationship to develop the idea as his theme in Aparajito after the initial scenes in Benaras. Bibhuti Bhushan's depiction of the relationship is gentler, dwelling perhaps more on the tenderness in it than on the inevitable branching of ways and the clashing sets of beliefs and aspirations that separate mother and son. As Apu grows up in the novel, making his way through middle and high school on the back of scholarships and his mother's meagre resources, the stress is on his young mind drinking in the mysteries unfolding through his reading in the school library and on his friendships and his relationships with his teachers. As new horizons open up before him, it is clear that he must irreversibly move away from traditional commitments while his mother watches in a sort of bemused bewilderment. This wonder of the human mind at all things unfamiliar, this excitement at the possibility of new knowledge and rejection of the comfort of security is a constant theme running through Bibhuti Bhushan's fiction.

BIBHUTI BUSHAN, who began writing only in the 1920s, was born in 1894. Chronologically, he cannot strictly be said to belong to the great 19th century Bengali Renaissance. In some other important ways too, he does not fit into the Renaissance mould. Almost all the great Renaissance figures came from comparatively wealthy and influential families, with fairly easy access to institutions of learning and Western education. And if many of them had roots in villages, usually in the shape of land that gave them their incomes, they were equally at home in the city. Almost all of them also had a Brahmo background, which automatically defined the kind of circle they moved in - progressive, liberal, rational, dismissive of caste prejudices and welcoming towards change. Bibhuti Bhushan grew up in a village. His family could barely afford his education and it was only because a kindly benefactor took an interest in him that he managed to complete his matriculation - he later graduated from Calcutta's Ripon College (Apu's college in the book). Also, Bibhuti Bhushan was rooted in the Hindu ethos, deeply attracted by the supernatural and convinced of the need for cultural continuity. Yet, his work embodies the best of the Renaissance values, most importantly the awareness of a vast unknown waiting to be explored outside the limits of home and family. Perhaps this was characteristic of the point in history that he occupied - this steady trickling of the attitudes of what had been an elitist movement to a wider Hindu circle through the spread of education, through greater access to the printed word and through easier travel made possible by the growing network of the Indian Railways. Inevitably, it carried with it the potential for intimate conflicts of the kind that Ray has shown in Aparajito, between Sarbojaya, who stands for tradition, and her son, who seeks change. That Satyajit Ray, a firm believer in progress who came from a line of Renaissance men and women, should be attracted by the work of Bibhuti Bhushan is hardly surprising.

Ray's search for the right face for the role of Aparna, Apu's wife in Apur Sansar, took him to Sharmila Tagore.-

In Ray's treatment, the mother-son conflict is more direct than in Bibhuti Bhushan's book and is developed into the central theme through a succession of scenes of great emotional depth and complexity. Sarbojaya is surprised when Apu wants to go to school at a time when she thinks that they are settling down at last and when she foresees a future for him as the village priest. She does not, however, have the heart to deny Apu his whim. But she is appalled when he wins a scholarship and wants to go to college in Calcutta. Where will the money come from? What about Apu's duties as a priest? And what about her own health? Who will look after her? There is a sharp exchange and she slaps him. But in the end, defeated by her love for him, she lets him have his way. Back home during a vacation, Apu finds the village has lost its charm for him. His mother's company cannot compare with the attractions of the city. Later, Sarbojaya is not even willing to let him know of her illness. She knows now that her son's examination is more important.

This was one reason why Aparajito was never a big hit with Bengali audiences, which were used to saccharine-coated portrayals of the mother-son relationship, though Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, two other great film-makers, admired it more than the two other films in the trilogy. Ray himself wrote in My Years With Apu: "The mother-son relationships they [Bengali viewers] were used to were painted in soft colours. How could a boy of fifteen be so unfeeling towards a widowed mother who has sacrificed her whole life for him? The truth is that Bengali audiences were not ready for the kind of psychological relationship that Aparajito depicted."

Biographers have detected shades of Ray's relationship with his own mother in his handling of the theme. During the years when Ray was trying to find out what to do with his life, seeking some sort of middle ground between his own interests in Western classical music and films and his mother's insistence that he should work for a degree, there might have been some strain in the relationship. The parallel with Sarbojaya and her son, of course, consists purely in the opposing pulls of two different aspirations - if at all there is a parallel. Suprabha Ray with her Brahmo background belonged to a world far removed from Sarbojaya's. She may not have initially supported her son's taking up film-making as a way of life, but it must have been possible for Ray to relate to her in a way that was not open to Apu in relation to Sarbojaya. Even if we do accept echoes of a personal experience on a psychological plane, Ray's treatment of the theme follows an artistic logic.

At the heart of Apur Sansar is the beauty of the relationship betweenApu and his wife.-

Bibhuti Bushan wrote a book. Ray's is a film - a medium that can assume freedoms that a book cannot, but also one that needs far greater economy of description and narration. Bibhuti Bhushan could develop his mother-son relationship over several hundred pages, he could afford to follow the growth of Apu's mind far more slowly and gently hint that he was growing away from his mother. Ray was constrained to encapsulate the problem in a series of scenes in quick succession, through a vastly sharpened set of exchanges. Bibhuti Bhushan could dwell on other relationships that Apu made during his years in a high school hostel (an episode that Ray skips, making his Apu go straight to college in Calcutta from the local village school). But the economy of Ray's medium meant he had to concentrate on Apu's relationship with his mother. The effect is to make the conflict far harsher than it is in the book, and also more dramatic. This makes Aparajito lose out on some of the lyricism of Pather Panchali and it also lacks the light-hearted appeal of the first part of Apur Sansar. But of the three films in the trilogy, Aparajito is the richest in characterisation.

RAY did not think of making Apur Sansar until well after Aparajito was made, and two films were made in between (Jalsaghar and Paraspathar). In fact, when, at the end of a screening of Aparajito at the President's private projection theatre, Jawaharlal Nehru asked Ray what would happen to Apu now, all he could think of saying was that he did not have in mind a third film on Apu. But when he was asked at a press conference following the screening of Aparajito at the Venice Film Festival whether he had a trilogy in mind, "[he] found [himself] saying yes". Why did he do that? Here is what he said in explanation years later: "Probably I thought it would sound impressive. But it was widely published and now I found the idea stuck in my mind, although I didn't really know whether there was a third part in the rest of the novel Aparajito." There was, of course. The story of Apu, one of the most beloved literary characters in the Bengali-speaking world, demanded a final interpretation by the master.

Apur Sansar was more popular than Aparajito with Ray's home audience, though the famous slap in the film drew a lot of criticism as being uncharacteristic of the gentle Apu and for deviating from the original. At the heart of the film is the beauty of Apu's relationship with his wife. Once again, Ray's art involves much omission and elision, a simplification of plot and a concentration of the dramatic element in the narrative. Indeed, Ray's Apu in adulthood is in a way a simpler character than Bibhuti Bhushan's, less narcissistic and with fewer contradictions. But the basic mould of his character follows the original model - the wondering mind grasping at the unknown and the unknowable, susceptible to the beauty of human relationships but in the end rising above the disappointments in life to accept responsibilities and carry on the quest for meaning.

Apu's wedding is of course pure drama, an episode that would be any film-maker's delight. Ray softens the shock for an incredulous audience by making Apu react furiously when his friend first asks him to marry his cousin because the intended bridegroom has turned out to be a half-wit. Bibhuti Bhushan's Apu had reacted with more gentleness. But Apu's incredulity in Ray's film is meant to mirror the incredulity of the audience, which is won over to accepting Apu's decision because he had seemed to share their shock. So maybe there are excuses for his behaviour: he did not want to let his friend down, he was moved by the plight of the girl who would be condemned to spinsterhood for life if a groom was not found for her that night, and so on. But whereas a Western audience (or even a young urban Indian audience now) might find the whole affair a trifle absurd, it does not perhaps strike an audience used to a culture of arranged marriages quite in that way. Soumitra Chatterjee, who identified with the character he played, has been quoted by Andrew Robinson as saying: "What is after all so extraordinary about it? It is nothing but an extension of a normally negotiated marriage, except that that takes a little more time. Apu had to give his consent on the spur of the moment." That, one suspects, was perhaps how Bibhuti Bhushan himself saw the marriage, like anyone else with moorings in the contemporary Hindu way of life. But because Bibhuti Bhushan was also a romantic, his hero falls in love with his sensitive and beautiful bride, whom he married by chance.

Ray's depiction of their married happiness must count among the most sensitive handlings of the theme in world cinema. In Ray's art, constraints of censorship turn into a triumph of suggestiveness. Ray's lovers convey intimacy without a single intimate shot. Aparna wakes up in the morning to find one end of her saree tied to Apu's garment. She frees herself and departs to perform her morning chores with an affectionate smack at her husband, who pretends to be asleep. He slowly turns to look at her as she sets about lighting the chulla. A little later, there is a silent exchange between them as he fishes out his box of cigarettes from under the pillow to find she has inserted in it a note to remind him of his promise to restrict himself to a puff after his meal. Next, he picks up a hairclip that must have slipped out of Aparna's hair during the night, and gently turns it around between his fingers. This little scene firmly establishes the married couple as lovers who have known each other intimately. (More than two decades later, the hairclip would come back as a symbol of intimacy in Ghare Baire, though this time in a relationship that has no social or emotional legitimacy.) Several shots later, the glow of the matchstick in Aparna's hand, after she has lit Apu's cigarette inside a closed carriage, seems to encapsulate the glow of their love.

Bibhuti Bhushan's Apu had responded to Aparna's death with greater stoicism and resignation than Ray's Apu does. He, it is true, had also neglected his little son for several years, but not with the angry frustration of Ray's hero. That neglect had sprung more from detachment, an absence of feeling for a son who is not real for him until he meets him. But when father and son do meet, Ray's Apu finds his heart going out to him much in the manner of his model in the book. Once again, Ray had only a few scenes to develop this relationship whereas the writer had some 100-odd pages. He introduces an extra poignancy in his treatment by making Kajal refuse to accept his long-absent father at first. This makes for a dramatic ending as Apu sets off for Calcutta with his son, who now accepts him as a friend if not as a father yet.

That final shot is classic Ray, a joyous affirmation of the richness of life. This is what Robinson has written about it in his biography of Ray: "Apu has transcended his grief at last, and is a better, more whole person. The music which plays out The World of Apu [Apur Sansar], as Apu carries off his son on his shoulders to a new life together, expresses this complex of emotions: the basic notes are recognisable as those of the Apu-Aparna theme last heard in the carriage, but they have a nobility and serenity of emotion more reminiscent of a hymn."

Apu on his way to a new life with his son, who now accepts him as a friend though not yet as his father. This classic Satyajit Ray shot draws the curtain on the Apu Trilogy.-

We meet Apu as an aspiring writer at the beginning of the film, torn between his need for money and his conviction that he should stop worrying about security and devote himself to the writing of his "amazing novel". When his landlord threatens to evict him, he goes off to look for a job and pawn some of his books to ward off imminent disaster, all of which he does with a resilient good humour and without self-pity. But when a friend treats him to an unexpected meal, he bubbles with confidence and scoffs at prospects of security - he cannot bear to be a clerk, he has better things to do and his novel to write. The romance of his marriage turns his mind away from his writing, and he abandons it altogether during the years when he mourns his wife.

Bibhuti Bhushan, who followed his Apu and his son back to Calcutta, had him carry on with his writing. At the end of the book, Apu starts making money on his writing. There is a hint that he is destined for great achievements as he makes preparations to travel abroad. The novel ends with his trip to his village, Nishchindipur, to leave his son with a childhood friend, a woman of the same age as his own elder sister who was lost in childhood. Nishchindipur is Bibhuti Bhushan's fictitious name for Gopalnagar, where he grew up. The name has connotations of "peace" and "contentment" with its play on the Bengali word for "contented" - nishchinto. Nishchindipur is almost a state of mind for Apu, a home to return to and a place where one can safely leave behind one's son.

Ray does not make it clear what Apu intends to do about his writing. But for a Bengali viewer familiar with the original, there is a little hint that he will follow his model. Visiting his wife's parental home to fetch his son, he tells his father-in-law that he is planning to go abroad and that he has made arrangements for Kajal to stay in Nishchindipur during his absence, just like Apu in the book had done. So maybe, we hope, he will now start writing again like Apu in the book. And there will be more separations, but as Apu strides away with his son we know that those separations will be qualitatively different from the one that has just ended.

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