‘Apu’ in a changing India: Aparna Sen on Satyajit Ray

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Aparna Sen. A 2019 photograph. Photo: the hindu photo archives

Aparna Sen in ‘Teen Kanya’ (1961). Photo: The Hindu photo ARCHIVES

Satyajit Ray explaining a scene in ‘Pikoo’ to Aparna Sen as Arjun Guha Thakurta, who plays Pikoo, looks on. Photo: Nemai Ghosh/Courtesy of son Satyaki Ghosh

“Ray was famously accused by Nargis of selling India’s poverty, whereas he gave a face to rural poverty. He made us identify with the characters; he invested them with dignity.”

The eminent film-maker Aparna Sen, who is also one of the biggest stars of the Bengali screen, had acted in several of Satyajit Ray’s films, including Teen Kanya (1961) and Pikoo (1980), and shared a close personal relationship with him throughout his life. She is the director of such classics as ’36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Paroma (1985), Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002). In an exclusive interview with Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Aparna Sen talked about Ray’s evolution as a director, his use of symbols and imagery, and his artistic vision.


When we look at all of Satyajit Ray’s films from Pather Panchali [1955] to Agantuk [1991], we are looking at the evolution of a great director with respect to his relationship with society, and the changes the nation itself was undergoing. In my opinion, in all of Ray’s films I see ‘Apu’ changing along with India, even though the films have different characters. Through the characters that Satyajit Ray created and presented before us in his films, we see a change in the director’s attitude and perception. Pather Panchali was released just eight years after India’s Independence, and we see Ray as a young man, full of hope and Nehruvian ideology, with the influences of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi working very strongly within him.

In the Apu Trilogy, we find in him a tremendous amount of empathy—almost Chekhovian empathy—for all the characters. Nobody is really all bad or all good; rather, they are all human beings with their little joys and sorrows, and faults and foibles, trying to make do in the world. His female characters are very strong. Sarbajaya [Apu and Durga’s mother] is very poor, but she still maintains her dignity; she will not have her children steal from the neighbour’s garden. Even though we see her being horrendously cruel to Indir Thakrun, and we feel angry with her, we nevertheless forgive her because we are also aware of the kind of trials and tribulations that she is going through herself—her husband’s hardly ever home; he is not much of a provider; she has to somehow or the other manage to make do. She also loses her daughter. In the film, the way she puts up a fight with ‘Death’ as her daughter lies dying, is quite dramatic—the way she struggles to keep the door shut against the storm raging outside. In fact, it is a little unlike Ray to use such a symbol or imagery. His use of symbols was more subtle.

Also read: A Century of Ray

Moving piece of human drama

Ray was famously accused by Nargis of selling India’s poverty, whereas he gave a face to rural poverty. He made us identify with the characters—Harihar, Sarbajaya, Durga, Apu, Indir Thakrun; and he invested them with dignity. We think of them as equals, not just poor people. I think that is extremely important. Even now when people see Pather Panchali, they end up with tears in their eyes, because it is such a moving piece of human drama. It is the same for Aparajito [1956] and Apur Sansar [1959]. I think it is wonderful that in spite of coming from an urban middle-class background, Ray chose the rural poor for his first film. Aparajito is actually my most favourite film in the world, because of the way it is structured. The relationship between the mother and son is so beautifully projected. We notice in Apu a wonderful mingling of the affection he has for his mother with, at the same time, a sort of relief when his mother dies, because he does not want to be tied to the maternal yoke forever. The whole world is waiting for him to explore. There are such amazing contradictions in the characters in Ray’s films, which are so real and natural—this is something I adored in his early films. For instance, in Parash Pathor [1958], there is a scene in which Paresh Chandra Dutta [played by Tulsi Chakraborty] discovers the philosopher’s stone and he’s turning iron into gold—a whole factory, in fact; the poor, innocent man has no idea what this is going to do to the market. He and his wife are like two little children delighted with a new toy—you just have to love them. Ray’s characters were so identifiable. He also provides us with such remarkable insight into the psychology of the characters. Think of that scene in Devi [1960], where the father-in-law [played by Chhabi Biswas] is talking to the girl as she applies oil to his feet—it borders on voyeurism. You feel that there is an attraction the old man feels for his young and beautiful daughter-in-law [played by Sharmila Tagore]. It is almost Freudian, the way the daughter-in-law is elevated to the stature of a goddess: if he cannot get her, then neither can his son. But none of these issues are in the fore. You can say that Ray never meant it like that; but once the film is made it is open to interpretation. It is as much the audience’s as it is the maker’s. I believe the more interpretation a film has, the richer it is.

Years later, in Pratidwandi [1970], we see another ‘Apu’ in the persona of Siddhartha, who is trying to make sense of all the violence taking place. We see a very complex character here. There is so much anger in him, and yet he struggles to hold on to his rational, humane feelings. Like when he joins the angry mob beating up a driver after an accident, but then he sees a frightened little girl in the back seat and he realises the irrationality of his behaviour and moves away. Ultimately Siddhartha finds refuge in nature. He finds a job that takes him to a rural region, where he finally finds the songbird that he had once heard as a child and was always in search of.

In Jana Aranya [1975], too, I can find another kind of ‘Apu’ in the character of Somnath [played by Pradip Mukherjee]. He starts off as a quiet young man with hopes and ambitions of his own, but nothing finally materialises. However, Ray does not blame anybody for it. When Somnath unfairly gets poor marks in his exams in spite of being a good student, we are also shown the world from the perspective of the examiner who marks his paper. That person did not have his own glasses and had to borrow a pair from his neighbour, and Somnath’s handwriting was so minuscule that he could not make out what he had written, and there was no electricity, and he was being bitten by mosquitoes—one can understand and sympathise with the examiner, too. This Chekhovian aspect was for me the quintessential Satyajit Ray. But that changed slowly. Towards the end of Jana Aranya, when the song comes Chhaya ghonaieyechhey boney boney (Shadows are falling across the forests), it really feels as though a shadow is falling across India. The country is turning out in a way that Ray never expected, and the scales are falling from his eyes. Both Seemabaddha [1971] and Jana Aranya end in a very dark way. It is almost like the last agonised moan of this young director who had such high hopes for India. After that, almost all his films are about corruption—of course we are not talking about his children’s films, which are quite wonderful. One of my most favourite films of all time is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne [1969]. I can watch that film any number of times. The editing in that film is exemplary. In fact, I can repeatedly watch that film just to learn the masterful editing.

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

I feel another movie that could be clubbed with the Calcutta trilogy, even though it happened several years earlier, is Mahanagar [1963]. Here again we see how aware Ray was of contemporary reality. At that time banks were indeed closing down, and Ray brought that phenomenon into the film, and also the fact that more and more women were going out to work just to supplement the income of the family. In the film the central character, Arati [played by Madhabi Mukherjee], gives up her job because she would not tolerate injustice meted out to another colleague. She makes her decision solely from a moral and ethical standpoint. Her husband, who himself lost his job after his bank closed down, instead of being angry, is proud of her for taking that decision. Ray beautifully places man and woman on equal terms, as in the last scene where they both step out together in the big city, certain that there is a job waiting for either of them somewhere. This was 1963 and you did not see feminist films of that kind. There was such a deep understanding of both the man and the woman’s dilemma. But this city film ends with hope, unlike the more bleak Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya.

I must also say that I do not consider all of Ray’s films as masterpieces, even though they are better than most other films that we see. Ghare Baire [1984] is not one of my favourites; neither are Sakha Prasakha [1990] and Agantuk [1991]; but I can see what he was trying to do. He was very ill at that time, and it was a valiant appeal to the next generation to not accept the state of being. It seemed like he was saying, “My time is over, but yours has just begun. Don’t compromise with corruption.”

Element of the Upanishads

I find in Ray’s films a very strong element of the Upanishads. Human beings and human relations are shown to be very important, but at the same time, in the larger universal context of things, they are not. The leitmotifs that he uses to convey these ideas are also amazing; for instance, the sundial in Aparajito. Apu makes a sundial, and at that time there is so much joy in his discovery of knowledge and application of science. Subsequently he goes away to the city for higher studies, and the sundial that is left behind continues to keep time. Later Sarbajaya uses the same sundial. The sundial will go on keeping time even after Sarbajaya is dead and Apu has left the village for good, until it is destroyed by nature. I find what he is conveying to be very Upanishadic. On the one hand, human beings are so important, especially for each other, and on the other hand they are just a part of the whole. We identify with his characters and cry at their misfortune. When Aparna dies in Apur Sansar the audience is devastated. They are so taken up with Apu’s grief that they, like Apu, are not interested in the fact that Aparna gave birth to a baby before she died. Human relationships, however strong and universal like that between mother and son, will ultimately die and their memory will fade, but the universe will continue, like Time as symbolised in the sundial. Similarly, when Harihar and his whole family leave their village, the bastu shaap, the house serpent, is seen to appear, meaning nature will be taking over once humans leave the place. It is important to move on. We can see Apu always moving on.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

Moments are very important to Ray. After I finished making 36 Chowringhee Lane, he asked me what I felt about the film. I told him that I thought there were many faults. He said, “Of course there will be faults. This is your first film. Do you expect it to be perfect? But have you been able to create moments or not?” Ray in his movies kept creating “moments” and he would string these “moments” together like a necklace. These moments stay with the audience forever; and that is why we can keep watching films like the Apu Trilogy over and over again. It’s like going to one’s favourite holiday destination.

In Ray I saw a deep humanism that bordered on spirituality. The way he presented death in his films is particularly fascinating. In Pather Panchali, Apu sees Indir Thakrun die, but he does not understand it properly as he is too young. When Durga dies, he feels the loss. He feels there is something more powerful than him that can take his childhood companion away without any reason. Even if he does not comprehend the concept of death fully, we see him suddenly growing up. We see him getting ready for school by himself, combing his own hair, which earlier his mother and his sister used to do for him. There is this very poignant picture of a little boy having to grow up before his time. It really clutches at your heart. When Sarbajaya dies, we see Apu feel a simultaneous sense of loss and relief.

The representation of death by Ray is also very interesting. In Aparajito, when Harihar dies, there is a great flight of pigeons as though the soul was leaving its mortal confines. Then, when Sarbajaya dies, you have the dance of the fireflies, which dissolves in the black waters of the pond where the stars, particularly the Orion, are reflected. Another very interesting death is in Jalsaghar [1958], where the old and once-powerful zamindar rides out on his horse. He lived lavishly and had to die in a grand manner too. We can see in that scene a nostalgia for the feudal world that is now lost forever, and at the same time a rejection of that feudal world. One finds this kind of complexity in Chekhov as well.

Also read: ‘He lived life cinema’

Another very striking death scene is in Pratidwandi [1970]. The whole scene is treated in the negative. Now, why did Ray present it in that manner? The film begins with the death of Siddhartha’s father, and the “negative” presentation of the scene seems to suggest that it is not important as to who died, but what is happening to Siddhartha after his father’s death; and so when the camera focusses on Siddhartha, the negative turns to positive. I remember Manik kaka [Manik uncle; Manik was Ray’s nickname] once told me that a death scene was very difficult to show on screen. Interestingly, in the course of Pratidwandi we see that whenever there is something happening which Siddhartha considers to be bad, the presentation becomes “negative” again, like when the nurse-cum-prostitute begins to change her clothes in front of him. According to me, that is something Ray could have avoided. I felt that by doing that he was being a little judgmental; and Ray is anything but judgmental. In my opinion he perhaps did it to maintain a pattern in the narrative, which was something he truly believed in. The death scene in Sadgati [1981] is just shattering in the brutal manner in which it is depicted. Here we see Ray is justifiably judgmental. It is a very angry film, and we are also made to feel his anger. He truly understood and was affected by the world around him and that was reflected in his works. They say Ray was the last man of the Bengali Renaissance; I feel that is correct.

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