The Apu Trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959) by Satyajit Ray
Retro Review by Zach Dennis
Most say that the charm of Satyajit Ray’s films is their ability to relate a world that seems so foreign to your own.
Pather Panchali is no different. In this case, we are planted in the jungles of India and observe a family’s attempt to find basic comfort — financially, spiritually and physically. The film’s story is directly about Apu, a boy who we witness being born within the first moments of the film and someone we watch grow up over the rest of the film’s run time.
But, the film seems disinterested in solely focusing on Apu — instead, Apu is placed in the periphery in favor of his sister, Durga, and his mother, Sarbajaya. Both are active in the events of the story while Apu fits more of our role — an onlooker.
Apu’s father, Harihar Roy, works as a priest and consistently leaves the family alone to seek better work --- his overall goal is to create a better environment for his wife, daughter and son, but that point seems to be lost as he disappears without a semblance of communication to his family. The long distance between seeing her husband takes a toll on Sarbajaya, who sinks more and more inward.
Her daughter doesn’t offer much solace either. When we first meet Durga, she is snatching a guava from the orchard of one of their neighbors. She is caught and blasted by the woman, who also places much of the blame on Sarbajaya for having such an unruly child.
Ray is able to capture the spirit of a child — trying to understand the role of each important person in their life and only hinting at the complex textures that define them.
While life batters the rest of his family, none of these moments seem to settle with Apu until the end of the film. By the conclusion, Apu has silently been absorbing the tragedy befallen on his mother and father, but lacks the maturity to truly process what is happening.
This makes watching the final 30 minutes of the film that much more powerful and is what creates the lasting impression for Pather Panchali. We, the audience, are not given much time to really process the loss of Durga, and our emotions are intertwined with a desire to see Apu truly cope.
Instead, the family packs up and leaves the village — almost leaving behind the tragic memories that it brought and moving to Calcutta to start anew.
It makes the images of serenity for Apu and (his sister) that much more treasured. The two most important examples are when the two children discover the train tracks and when they go in the rain to the river. In the first memory, we see these children catching a glimpse of the outside world — of technology.
Modern technology will become more prevalent in the other Apu trilogy entries, but in this moment, it symbolizes freedom. Coupled with the sibling’s act of freedom in just coming to that spot, it opens up a humanity to the young Apu that he had yet to witness.
At the river, we find peace once again. Durga has been once again scolded by their mother. The wear of their father’s absence along with little monetary compensation has put a strain on her, and Durga’s thievery hits its boiling point, leading to Sarbajaya’s decision to toss her out of the house. They find solace once again in the rain and Durga dances next to the bank as Apu watched her — that last moment of pure joy in her life.
Death is never far away in any of the films of The Apu Trilogy, but this first one has an added poignancy because of its position in Apu’s life. Durga’s death symbolizes the loss of innocence for Apu. After that moment, he was never afforded the chance to recapture his youth. In Aparajito, the second film in the trilogy, he opens his life in Calcutta running around the streets with other kids, but those moments dissolve quickly and don’t return.
The passing of a loved one and its impact on a person’s progress is key to the trilogy. His father’s death represents his complete loss of childhood (as he is forced to move to the country with his mother and work as a priest), his mother’s death represents his broken ties to his past and finally, his wife’s passing represents his disconnection from any semblance of responsibility. When we find him later in Apur Sansar (the third leg of the trilogy), he is wandering — giving up his goals of finishing his novel — and is attempting to escape every moment that happened before.
Ray directs this with an understated touch. The big moments are small and even then, they lack the pronounced nature of exclaiming their significance to the user. In this way, they work like memories — lacking a real A or B point that leads you there, but creating an emotional response because of how affecting they are in the moment.
Just as the characters are feeling, Ray manufactures these warm moments with ease and precision.
So maybe that’s why The Apu Trilogy has become so revered. It asks us to grapple with difficult moments in the main character’s life, but also leaves us with emotional touchstones that generate a desire to return to them.
The relatability comes less from the day-to-day observation of the people of the story, but in the film’s ability to affect us on a personal level — both because of the story they are telling and Ray’s filmmaking abilities.
The Apu Trilogy may take us to a different part of the world, but its familiarity binds us with ubiquitous warmth