The great, sad, gentle sweep of "The Apu Trilogy" remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be. Standing above fashion, it creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived. The three films, which were made in India by Satyajit Ray between 1950 and 1959, swept the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and London, and created a new cinema for India--whose prolific film industry had traditionally stayed within the narrow confines of swashbuckling musical romances. Never before had one man had such a decisive impact on the films of his culture.
Ray (1921-1992) was a commercial artist in Calcutta with little money and no connections when he determined to adapt a famous serial novel about the birth and young manhood of Apu--born in a rural village, formed in the holy city of Benares, educated in Calcutta, then a wanderer. The legend of the first film is inspiring; how on the first day Ray had never directed a scene, his cameraman had never photographed one, his child actors had not even been tested for their roles--and how that early footage was so impressive it won the meager financing for the rest of the film. Even the music was by a novice, Ravi Shankar, later to be famous.
The trilogy begins with "Pather Panchali," filmed between 1950 and 1954. Here begins the story of Apu when he is a boy, living with his parents, older sister and ancient aunt in the ancestral village to which his father, a priest, has returned despite the misgivings of the practical mother. The second film, "Aparajito" (1956), follows the family to Benares, where the father makes a living from pilgrims who have come to bathe in the holy Ganges. The third film, "The World of Apu" (1959), finds Apu and his mother living with an uncle in the country; the boy does so well in school he wins a scholarship to Calcutta. He is married under extraordinary circumstances, is happy with his young bride, then crushed by the deaths of his mother and his wife. After a period of bitter drifting, he returns at last to take up the responsibility of his son.
This summary scarcely reflects the beauty and mystery of the films, which do not follow the punched-up methods of conventional biography but are told in the spirit of the English title of the first film, "The Song of the Road." The actors who play Apu at various ages from about 6 to 29 have in common a moody, dreamy quality; Apu is not sharp, hard or cynical, but a sincere, naive idealist, motivated more by vague yearnings than concrete plans. He reflects a society that does not place ambition above all, but is philosophical, accepting, optimistic.
He is his father's child, and in the first two films we see how his father is eternally hopeful that something will turn up--that new plans and ideas will bear fruit. It is the mother who frets about money owed the relatives, about food for the children, about the future. In her eyes, throughout all three films, we see realism and loneliness, as her husband and then her son cheerfully go away to the big city and leave her waiting and wondering.
The most extraordinary passage in the three films comes in the third, when Apu, now a college student, goes with his best friend, Pulu, to attend the wedding of Pulu's cousin. The day has been picked because it is astrologically perfect--but the groom, when he arrives, turns out to be stark mad. The bride's mother sends him away, but then there is an emergency, because Aparna, the bride, will be forever cursed if she does not marry on this day, and so Pulu, in desperation, turns to Apu--and Apu, having left Calcutta to attend a marriage, returns to the city as the husband of the bride.
Sharmila Tagore, who plays Aparna, was only 14 when she made the film. She projects exquisite shyness and tenderness, and we consider how odd it is to be suddenly married to a stranger. "Can you accept a life of poverty?" asks Apu, who lives in a single room and augments his scholarship with a few rupees earned in a print shop. "Yes," she says simply, not meeting his gaze. She cries when she first arrives in Calcutta, but soon sweetness and love shine out through her eyes. Soumitra Chatterjee, who plays Apu, shares her innocent delight, and when she dies in childbirth it is the end of his innocence and, for a long time, of his hope.
The three films were photographed by Subrata Mitra, a still photographer who Ray was convinced could do the job. Starting from scratch, at first with a borrowed 16mm camera, Mitra achieves effects of extraordinary beauty: Forest paths, river vistas, the gathering clouds of the monsoon, water bugs skimming lightly over the surface of a pond. There is a fearsome scene as the mother watches over her feverish daughter while the rain and winds buffet the house, and we feel her fear and urgency as the camera dollies again and again across the small, threatened space. And a moment after a death, when the film cuts shockingly to the sudden flight of birds.
I heard a distant echo of the earliest days of the filming, perhaps, when Subrata Mitra was honored at the Hawaii Film Festival in the early 1990s, and in accepting a career award he thanked, not Satyajit Ray, but--his camera, and his film. On those first days of shooting it must have been just that simple, the hope of these beginners that their work would bear fruit.
What we sense all through "The Apu Trilogy" is a different kind of life than we are used to. The film is set in Bengal in the 1920s, when in the rural areas life was traditional and hard. Relationships were formed with those who lived close by; there is much drama over the theft of some apples from an orchard. The sight of a train, roaring at the far end of a field, represents the promise of the city and the future, and trains connect or separate the characters throughout the film, even offering at one low point a means of possible suicide.
The actors in the films have all been cast from life, to type; Italian neorealism was in vogue in the early 1950s, and Ray would have heard and agreed with the theory that everyone can play one role--himself. The most extraordinary performer in the films is Chunibala Devi, who plays the old aunt, stooped double, deeply wrinkled. She was 80 when shooting began; she had been an actress decades ago, but when Ray sought her out, she was living in a brothel, and thought he had come looking for a girl. When Apu's mother angers at her and tells her to leave, notice the way she appears at the door of another relative, asking, "Can I stay?" She has no home, no possessions except for her clothes and a bowl, but she never seems desperate because she embodies complete acceptance.
The relationship between Apu and his mother observes truths that must exist in all cultures: how the parent makes sacrifices for years, only to see the child turn aside and move thoughtlessly away into adulthood. The mother has gone to live with a relative, as little better than a servant ("they like my cooking"), and when Apu comes to visit during a school vacation, he sleeps or loses himself in his books, answering her with monosyllables. He seems in a hurry to leave, but has second thoughts at the train station, and returns for one more day. The way the film records his stay, his departure and his return says whatever can be said about lonely parents and heedless children.
I watched "The Apu Trilogy" recently over a period of three nights, and found my thoughts returning to it during the days. It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.
The Apu Trilogy comprises three Bengali films directed by Satyajit Ray: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959). They are frequently listed among the greatest films of all time and are often cited as the greatest movies in the history of Indian cinema. The original music for the films was composed by Ravi Shankar.
They are based on two Bengali novels written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: Pather Panchali (1929) and Aparajito (1932). The three films went on to win many national and international awards, including three National Film Awards and seven awards from the Cannes, Berlin and Venice Film Festivals. Produced on a shoestring budget (Pather Panchali had a budget of roughly ₹ 150,000 ($45,300—equivalent to $413,800 in 2017)) using an amateur cast and crew, the trilogy is a milestone in Indian cinema and remains one of the most acclaimed works in the Parallel Cinema movement.
The three films comprise a "coming of age" narrative in the vein of a bildungsroman; they describe the childhood, education and early maturity of a young Bengali named Apu (Apurba Kumar Roy) in the early part of the 20th century.
Pather Panchali (Bengali, "Song of the Little Road")
Apu's early experiences in rural Bengal as the son of a poor but high caste family are presented. Apu's father Harihar, a Brahmin, has difficulty in supporting his family. After the death of Apu's sister, Durga, the family moves to the holy city of Benares.
Aparajito (Bengali, "The Unvanquished")
The family's finances are still precarious. After his father dies there, Apu and his mother Sarbajaya come back to a village in Bengal. Despite unrelenting poverty, Apu manages to get formal schooling and turns out to be a brilliant student. The growing Apu comes into conflict with his mother. Later, when his mother dies too, he has to learn to live alone.
Apur Sansar (Bengali, "The World of Apu")
Attempting to become a writer, Apu unexpectedly finds himself pressured to marry a girl whose mother rejected her mentally ill bridegroom on the day of their wedding. Their blossoming marriage ends in her death in childbirth, after which the despairing Apu abandons his child, but eventually returns to accept his responsibilities.
In 1950, Ray had decided that Pather Panchali, the classic coming of age story (bildungsroman) of Bengali literature, published in 1928 by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, would be the subject matter for his first film. This semi-autobiographical novel describes the growing up of Apu, a small boy in a Bengal village. He went ahead with the film after meeting Jean Renoir during filming of The River (1951) and after watching the Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (1948) while he was in London. Besides the influence of European cinema and Bengali literature, Ray is also indebted to the Indian theatrical tradition, particularly the rasa theory of classical Sanskrit drama. The complicated doctrine of rasa centers predominantly on feelings experienced not only by the characters but also conveyed in a certain artistic way to the spectator. The duality of rasa representation shows in The Apu Trilogy.
Ray gathered an inexperienced crew, although both his cameraman Subrata Mitra and art directorBansi Chandragupta went on to achieve great acclaim. The cast consisted of mostly amateur artists. Shooting started in late 1952, using Ray's personal savings. He had hoped that once the initial shots had been completed, he would be able to obtain funds to support the project; however, such funding was not forthcoming.Pather Panchali was shot over the unusually long period of three years, because shooting was possible only from time to time, when Ray or production manager Anil Chowdhury could arrange further money. With a loan from the West Bengal government, the film was finally completed and released in 1955 to great critical and popular success, sweeping up numerous prizes and having long runs in both India and abroad. During the making of the film, Ray refused funding from sources who demanded a change in script or the supervision of the producer, and he ignored advice from the government (which finally funded the film anyway) to incorporate a happy ending in having Apu's family join a "development project". Even greater help than Renoir's encouragement occurred when Ray showed a sequence to John Huston who was in India scouting locations for The Man Who Would Be King. The sequence is the remarkable vision Apu and his sister have of the train running through the countryside. It was the only sequence Ray had filmed due to his small budget. Huston praised Ray to Monroe Wheeler at the New York Museum of Modern Art, saying that a major talent was on the horizon. In India, the reaction to the film was enthusiastic; The Times of India wrote that "It is absurd to compare it with any other Indian cinema [...]. Pather Panchali is pure cinema". In the United Kingdom, Lindsay Anderson wrote a glowing review of the film. However, the reaction was not uniformly positive. After watching the movie, François Truffaut is reported to have said, "I don't want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands."Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic of The New York Times, wrote a mixed review of the film that its distributor Ed Harrison thought would kill off the film when it got released in the United States; however, it enjoyed an exceptionally long run.
Ray's international career started in earnest after the success of his next film, Aparajito (The Unvanquished). This film shows the eternal struggle between the ambitions of Apu as a young man and the mother who loves him. Some critics, notably Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, rank it even higher than the first film. Aparajito won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The film is also notable for introducing the technique of bounce lighting to recreate the effect of daylight on sets, pioneered by the cinematographer Subrata Mitra.
Ray had not thought about a trilogy while making Aparajito, and it occurred to him only after being asked about the idea in Venice. The final installation of the series, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), was made in 1959. A number of critics find this to be the supreme achievement of the trilogy (Robin Wood, Aparna Sen). Ray introduced two of his favourite actors, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, in this film. The film finds Apu living in a nondescript Kolkata house in near-poverty. He becomes involved in an unusual marriage with Aparna, the scenes of their life together forming "one of the cinema's classic affirmative depiction of married life", but tragedy ensues. After Apur Sansar was harshly criticised by a Bengali critic, Ray wrote an article defending it—a rare event in Ray's filmmaking career (the other major instance involved the film Charulata, Ray's personal favourite). His success had little influence on his personal life in the years to come. Ray continued to live with his mother, uncle and other members of his extended family in a rented house.
Cast and characters
This trilogy is considered by critics around the globe to rank among the greatest achievements of Indian film, and it is established as one of the most historically important cinematic debuts. Pather Panchali won at least thirteen international prizes (including Best Human Document at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival), followed by eleven international prizes for Aparajito (including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) and numerous other awards for Apur Sansar (including the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival). When Ray made Pather Panchali, he worked with a cast and crew most of whom had never been previously involved in film. Ray himself at the time of directing Pather Panchali had primarily worked in the advertising industry, although he had served as assistant director on Jean Renoir's 1951 film The River. From this foundation, Ray went on to create other highly acclaimed films, like Charulata, Mahanagar, and Aranyer Dinratri, and his international success energised other Bengal filmmakers like Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
This extract from Youth, by South African author J. M. Coetzee, talks of the music in the Apu trilogy, which is based on Indian classical music:
At the Everyman Cinema there is a season of Satyajit Ray. He watches the Apu trilogy on successive nights in a state of rapt absorption. In Apu's bitter, trapped mother, his engaging, feckless father he recognizes, with a pang of guilt, his own parents. But it is the music above all that grips him, dizzyingly complex interplays between drums and stringed instruments, long arias on the flute whose scale or mode – he does not know enough about music theory to be sure which – catches at his heart, sending him into a mood of sensual melancholy that lasts long after the film has ended.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Pather Panchali has a 97% fresh rating based on an aggregate of 38 reviews and in 2009 was included in its list of top 100 foreign films.Aparajito has a 94% fresh rating based on an aggregate of 16 reviews, and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) has a 100% fresh rating based on an aggregate of 22 reviews. This makes The Apu Trilogy one of the highest-rated film trilogies of all time (97%, 94%, 100%), along with the Toy Story trilogy (100%, 100%, 99%), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (91%, 96%, 93%), the original Star Wars trilogy (94%, 97%, 78%), and the Before Trilogy (100%, 95%, 98%).
Andre Robinson, in his book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye comments that the three films differ in their predominant moods. and taken together the trilogy is compared to the development of an Indian classicalRaga.
Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute's film magazine, listed Pather Panchali several times in its Critics' Poll of all-time greatest films, in 1962 (ranked #11), 1982 (ranked #79), 1992 (ranked #6) and 2002 (ranked #22).The World of Apu appeared in 1982, ranked at #42. In the 1992 edition, both Aparajito and The World of Apu were tied at #127, while The Apu Trilogy was ranked separately at #88. In a combined list of Sight & Sound critics' and directors' poll results in 2002, Pather Panchali was ranked at No. 28, The World of Apu at No. 93 and Aparajito at #160. If the votes are combined, then The Apu Trilogy as a whole would be ranked at No. 14 in 1982, No. 4 in 1992 and No. 14 in 2002.
In 1988, John Kobal's poll of critics and filmmakers ranked The Apu Trilogy at No. 35 on the list. In 1998, the Asian film magazine Cinemaya's critics' poll of all-time greatest films ranked The Apu Trilogy at No. 7 on the list, while Pather Panchali alone was ranked at No. 2 on the same list. If the votes are combined, then The Apu Trilogy would be ranked at #1. In 1999, The Village Voice ranked Pather Panchali at No. 12 (tied with The Godfather) in its top 250 "Best Films of the Century" list, based on a poll of critics, while The Apu Trilogy was ranked separately at No. 54 in the same poll. If the votes are combined, The Apu Trilogy would be ranked at #5. In 2000, an audience poll of best Asian films conducted by MovieMail ranked The Apu Trilogy at No. 2 on the list.
Pather Panchali was included in various other all-time greatest film lists, including Time Out magazine's "Centenary Top One Hundred Films" in 1995, the San Francisco Chronicle "Hot 100 Films From the Past" in 1997, the Rolling Stone "100 Maverick Movies of the Last 100 Years" in 1999, and the British Film Institute's Top Fifty "Must See" Children's Films in 2005. In 1996, The World of Apu was included in Movieline Magazine's "100 Greatest Foreign Films". In 2002, Pather Panchali and The World of Apu featured in "The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made".The Apu Trilogy as a whole was included in film critic Roger Ebert's list of The Great Movies in 2001 and in Time magazine's All-Time 100 best movies list in 2005. It was also ranked No. 17 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema" in 2010. The original Trilogy has been reconstructed via the Harvard Film archive & Criterion and was shown in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA the 1st week of July 2015.
Apur Panchali is a Bengali film based on Subir Banerjee's life, who played child Apu in the first installment of Apu Trilogy. Director Kaushik Ganguly won the award of best director for Apur Panchali in the 44th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in November 2013. The director mentioned in an interview that he found similarities between certain parts of the life of Subir Banerjee and the iconic character Apu. In the film actor Parambrata Chatterjee portrays a younger Subir Banerjee, while Ardhendu Bannerjee plays the role of the aged Banerjee.
According to Michael Sragow of The Atlantic Monthly in 1994:
In the four decades since Ray's debut as a writer-director—with the first Apu movie, Pather Panchali (1955)—his influence has been felt both in the type of work other directors attempt and in the means they employ to execute it. The youthful coming-of-agedramas that have flooded art houses since the mid-fifties owe a tremendous debt to the Apu trilogy, which Terrence Rafferty has rightly called "cinema's purest Bildungsroman." (In baggy-pants homage to Ray, American TV's cartoon-burlesque Bildungsroman, The Simpsons—which could be called "The Education of Bart Simpson"—contains an Indian convenience-store owner named Apu.)
Across the world, filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese,James Ivory,Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Kazan, Carlos Saura,Isao Takahata,Philip Kaufman,Wes Anderson and Danny Boyle have been influenced by The Apu Trilogy, with many others such as Akira Kurosawa praising the work. In Gregory Nava's 1995 film My Family, the final scene is duplicated from the final scene of Apur Sansar. Similar influences and references to the trilogy can be found, for example, in recent works such as Sacred Evil,Key's 2004 visual novelClannad,Paul Auster's 2008 novel Man in the Dark, the Elements trilogy of Deepa Mehta and even in films of Jean-Luc Godard. The technique of bounce lighting pioneered by Subrata Mitra, to recreate the effect of daylight on sets, has also had a profound influence on the development of cinematography.Ravi Shankar's soundtracks to the films were also a major influence on The Beatles, specifically George Harrison.
Awards and nominations
See also: List of awards conferred on Satyajit Ray
- President's Medals
- Winner – 1955 – President's Gold & Silver Medals (New Delhi) – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
- Winner – 1959 – President's Gold Medal (New Delhi) – Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)
- National Film Awards
International film festivals
- Cannes Film Festival
- Venice Film Festival
- Berlin International Film Festival
- British Film Institute Awards, London Film Festival
- Edinburgh International Film Festival
- Winner – 1956 – Diploma of Merit – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
- Winner – 1960 – Diploma of Merit – Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)
- San Francisco International Film Festival
- Winner – 1957 – Golden Gate for Best Picture – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
- Winner – 1957 – Golden Gate for Best Director – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) – Satyajit Ray
- Winner – 1958 – Golden Gate for Best Picture – Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
- Winner – 1958 – Golden Gate for Best Director – Aparajito (The Unvanquished) – Satyajit Ray
- Winner – 1958 – International Critics' Award – Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
- Vancouver International Film Festival
- New York Film Festival
- Winner – 1959 – Best Foreign Film – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
- Stratford Film Festival
- Winner – 1958 – Critics' Award for Best Film – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
Other international awards
- National Board of Review Awards (United States)
- Kinema Junpo Awards (Tokyo)
- Bodil Awards (Denmark) 
- British Academy Film Awards (United Kingdom)
- Other awards
- Winner – 1956 Golden Carbao (Manila) – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
- Winner – 1956 Vatican Award (Rome) – Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
- Winner – 1958–1959 Golden Laurel for Best Foreign Film (United States) – Aparajito (The Unvanquished)
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- ^Wood 1972
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