Apu Trilogy


As a film geek from way back, I was very excited to learn about Criterion’s 4K digital restoration of all 3 films in the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray.


They are screening across the country this Spring and are a must-see for any lover of cinema.  They are eminently relatable and still very relevant today.  Here is the screening schedule:


Do yourself a favor and go see these films!

[Spoilers ahead]

Last week I saw Pather Panchali and Aparajito back to back in one night.  My favorite film prof from my time at U of M, Hugh Cohen, sent me a warning after learning how excited I was to see these films again.  He wrote,

“Do not get hyped.  Slow your metabolism to the point a doctor won’t be able to hear your heartbeat.  I used to tell my students going to see PP, walk slowly to the theater and crawl the last 200 ft.  Things get faster with Appajito.  In fact, someone recently said they preferred it to PP.  It’s easier to sit through, is faster, but it is transitional and not as great.  It doesn’t have Auntie.”

Hugh was right.  Transitional is a good one word review for it.  It was very good but not as rich as Pather Panchali, and suffered for me viewing it immediately afterwards.  As much as Hugh warned me about PP being so slow-paced, I found it much more engaging than Aparajito, even though one could argue that, plot-wise, there’s more happening in Aparajito (the death of the father, Apu goes to school, Apu leaves the village to go to Calcutta, the mother dies) it did not seem as substantial and deeply layered as PP.  However, its themes were still universal and remarkably relatable even today (parent dealing with empty nest, with kid away at school, kid outgrowing provincial hometown.)

Pather Panchali is just SO deep and rich.  I keep thinking about it and discovering more layers with each passing day.  Talk about universal themes:  trying to find enough money to get by, trying to keep your family fed, suffocating cultural gender roles, still-born dreams (the mother’s), the tragedy of pride (not accepting charity until it is too late), the tragedy of adhering to cultural mores to the detriment of your family.
Durga was such a shining light in this film; her death was SO CRUSHING.  Just a punch to the gut.  The more I think about it, the more I think that Durga is the center of PP, and not just because her character is so vibrant, mischievous, and irrepressible.  I think it goes far deeper than that.  I think more than anything, PP is an multi-generational examination of the women of a small Bengali village.  And its effect on Apu is evident; he does not follow in the footsteps of any patriarchal roles (he shuns priesthood for school and life of a writer.  Besides witnessing the suffocating limitations of life for the women in his life, he also witnesses in Aparajito that the life of priesthood kills his father–in fact, immediately after drinking water from the Ganges, his father dies!)
With Durga, Sarabajaya (the mother), and Auntie (Indir), you see how confining the life of a woman can be in a Bengali village of this era.  Working backwards, you have indigent Auntie who shuffles from family to family, relying upon the charity of whatever family is least tired of supporting her and her impishness.  She dies alone in the jungle.  (It is significant that her corpse is discovered by Durga.  Here in one image we have the alpha and omega of a Bengali woman’s fate!)  Then you have Sarabajaya, the mother.  She bears the brunt of the drudgery of domestic life.  Even within the stifling confines of cleaning, cooking, and keeping the kids in line, she is hamstrung by the long stretches of time with no money and the father’s inability to understand the dire consequences of its impact on his family.  So she must make do.  It is in Sarabajaya that we see the soul being crushed.  Her dreams have been dashed, but she is not so old as to forget them.  Compounding her bitterness is the proximity of Auntie.  Besides being another mouth to feed, Auntie is the physical incarnation of her future self.  There is no future for her and it is just too much for her to bear.  This makes her scolding of Durga’s mischievousness all the more sad:  the mother longs to feel freedom like the spirited Durga, and yet, at the same time, she tries to get Durga to grow up and accept more responsibility.  Knowing this much about Auntie and the mother, it is inescapable not to see Durga as a tragic character.  Her death is almost a foregone conclusion and takes on a metaphorical level because of her irrepressible, bright character.  There is no place in Bengali village life for a bright star like her.  As a girl growing into womanhood, she must either conform or be snuffed out.
Ray’s clear-eyed depiction of this cruel fact shows him to be a deeply humanistic director, not wallowing in the sadness of this film’s conclusion, but to show the story of this family in all of its shades.  Joy, frustration, disagreement, reconciliation, parental terror, grief, acceptance, hope.  Ray paints with this entire palette creating a rich, timeless tale that invites us to enter into his world again and again.  And you should.

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