In 1993, the original negatives of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy were badly burned in a devastating fire at a London laboratory. Years later, the technology necessary to repair the films was finally developed, resulting in the meticulous 4K restoration of their 2015 release for the Criterion Collection, far surpassing any available copies in over two decades. Widely hailed as Ray’s magnum opus as well as one of the greatest bildungsromans in film history, the trilogy’s power is undeniable. One imagines Akira Kurosawa was thinking of films like these when he quipped that “never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon.”
1955’s Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) explores Apu (Subir Banerjee)’s early life in a rural village with his parents and mischievous older sister, Durga (Uma Das Gupta). Ray pumps his film full of dualities: we’re given as much time to gaze at the water striders of the pond near the village as we are the great chugging train visible beyond the little road. Along an emotional axis, we feel just as strongly how the mother’s anxiety, brought on by poverty and Durga’s misbehavior, clashes with the father’s idealistic optimism. These dualities are pushed to an emotional crest in one scene in which a neighbor accuses Apu’s mother of bad parenting and charges Durga with stealing her daughter’s expensive necklace. The mother defends Durga in front of the neighbors, only to harshly throw her out of the house when the accusers leave.
A short while later, she sends Apu out to bring Durga in for supper. Ray strikes a chord that is both heartwarming and tragic as he depicts this struggle between a mother’s pride and her love for her children. During a harsh storm, Durga dances around in the rain, only coming underneath a tree to warm her shivering brother. Her death from a fever caught during the storm brings a harsh reminder of reality to Apu’s father, who gives up his optimism and dreams of being a poet to pursue a stable occupation in the city. While packing to head to the city, Apu uncovers the stolen necklace among Durga’s things. He throws it into the pond, which obligingly swallows it up and conceals it forever. Refreshing within its coming-of-age genre, Pather Panchali is not merely a film about Apu, but one which delicately inhabits his youthful perspective—it’s more a film about the events that happen around him, as seen through his eyes. In other words, Pather Panchali is the rare film about growing up which cultivates a genuine sense of family, community, humility. After all, it is Durga who pulls away the covers on Apu’s sleeping body and literally opens his eyes for him for the first time in the film.
Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”), released one year later, follows Apu (Smaran Ghosal)’s life as he drifts away from both of his parents. In a narrative turn reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1954 masterwork Tokyo Story, Apu’s parents gradually and reluctantly allow their son to follow his own dreams. While his father lies sick with the fever that will eventually kill him, he lovingly asks Apu if he would like to go with his friends to set off fireworks, to which the still-boyish Apu responds that he would. Ray suggests that this childish naiveté, hand-in-hand with his teenage aspirations, is the motivating force for Apu’s inevitable shift away from his parents and towards a life of his own. Later, Apu is torn between staying home with his lonely mother and continuing his studies. The emotional stakes in this choice are made clear in a moment of supreme tenderness, in which Apu’s mother finds her son asleep, sprawled out over his books after an extended bout of studying, and proceeds to carry him to bed. Ray harshly juxtaposes this happy time with Apu’s quiet and awkward visits home when enrolled in Calcutta.
In one heartbreaking scene, Apu’s mother sits by his bedside and asks whether he would let her stay with him after graduating, admitting that her health has been severely waning, only to find that Apu is fast asleep. When Apu, toward the end of the film, returns home after receiving a message that his mother is severely ill, he finds an empty home. The camera watches from the gate as Apu searches an empty compound for his mother, and then pans across a bare wall to see him emerge alone from another side, calling her over and over. Apu is abruptly stopped when he finally finds his uncle bearing a telling face of sadness. He then collapses on the ground in tears. During one of Apu’s lessons in Calcutta, a professor scolds him for not paying attention to his lesson on synecdoche, a literary device that uses a small part of something to represent a whole. It is clear Ray requires no such scolding: through his observation of small moments, tender and heartbreaking both, he has made the story of one young man feel like that of humanity entire.
1959’s Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”) is by far Ray’s most confident of the trilogy in style and dialogue, reflecting Apu’s (and, by this point, Ray’s own) maturity. When Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is dragged along to his friend Pulu’s cousin’s wedding, the groom is found to be mad, leaving Pulu and his family no choice but to ask Apu to marry the bride by the end of the day to prevent her from remaining alone for the rest of her life, as per cultural convention. Apu’s first months with his new wife Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) bring his progress on his semi-autobiographical novel, formerly his obsession, to a complete halt. When his wife asks him if it is her fault, he responds that it is instead “to her credit,” affectionately indicating her transition from stranger to loved one.
Ray does an excellent job at crafting Apu’s most loving relationship in the trilogy out of what seems like the most spontaneous of coincidences. In an especially moving exchange, Apu tells Aparna that he will take on another student to help close the gap between his poverty and her former life of wealth with her parents. She responds by saying he should give up the student he has now, so that he may return home earlier, poor or not. Such scenes give the audience a sharp sense of the pair’s mutual care, but their romance is cut down nearly as fast as it began when Apu learns of his wife’s death in childbirth. Later, a train just like the one he marveled at as a boy is seen killing a pig as it speeds by, signaling how Apu’s once hopeful outlook on his personal progress and dreams has been crushed—seemingly for good. Throwing his manuscript into the forest, he gives up writing just as his father did after Durga’s death in the first film of the trilogy. Leaving his motherless child with his maternal grandparents to wander India for several years, Apu, at the end of the film, finally returns to see his son for the first time. All is not lost: the young boy leaves his toy train behind and walks off with Apu. Casting off the hurt and tragedy that had followed his life at every corner, Apu finishes the trilogy with a newfound investment in his own life—and, ultimately, in the themes Ray so splendidly depicts: family, community, and the lives of others.
The Apu Trilogy was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 17th courtesy of the Criterion Collection.