Apu Trilogy

Shotgun Review

Apu Trilogy

By Heidi Rabben September 24, 2014

Not to have seen the cinema of [Satyajit] Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.—Akira Kurosawa

Increasingly global in scope, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ film and video program has invested particular attention to film and video from Asia over the past few months. Astonishing Animation: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli took place in May, the New Filipino Cinema Festival this past June, and most recently in August, Satyajit Ray’s stunning Apu Trilogy.

The Apu Trilogy traces the life of an impoverished Bengali boy who suffers incredible loss throughout his tripartite transition from childhood to boyhood to manhood. Though the protagonist remains the same, each film stands alone as an autonomous story, and it’s not necessary—though perhaps more gratifying—to view them all in order to understand one individually. When the films are screened together, however, we witness the complete range of human emotion through the eyes of Apu as the director slowly chips away at his character to uncover the true nature of human resilience.

In each film we see Apu adopt certain types of identities in relation to the supporting characters around him. The first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), which was also Ray’s first, begins with the birth of Apu but primarily focuses on Apu as a brother to his sister, Durga. In the second film, Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), Durga has passed away, and since Apu can no longer be a brother, Ray emphasizes Apu’s role as a son. Finally, in the third installment, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), both parents have now also passed, and so Apu is reintroduced as an orphaned young man who later transitions to being a husband and father. Notably, each of these roles, with the exception of the latter, circulates primarily around the cycle of different women in the films and how they each shape Apu’s life. The director’s fascination with all of his actors’ emotive faces reveals a depth of character to these strong women in particular that belies their supporting roles.

In part because it is the completion of the series, and also because Apu transitions through the most roles in it, Apur Sansar feels the most complete of the three. In it, we first encounter Apu with a restored innocence. He has completed his studies, is living alone without a job in Kolkata, but has grand, idealistic ambitions to become a novelist. Despite his modest means and past obstacles, Apu has retained an infectious lightness of spirit and charisma from his youth, and rejoices in the weightlessness of his independence. However, this freedom becomes challenged almost as soon as it is established when Apu reluctantly becomes a groom, marrying his friend’s cousin, Aparna, to save her from a cursed life.

We then watch the couple go from awkwardly married strangers to tenderly playful partners as Apu’s love for Aparna soon eclipses his personal ambitions. But almost as suddenly as Aparna became a part of his life, Apu loses her to complications during childbirth, and the shock sends him into a spiral of disillusionment. He refuses to meet his newborn son, and after a near suicide, tosses away his life’s work and becomes a nomadic hermit. Just when we start to lose hope for this character that has overcome loss so many other times, Apu reunites with his now five-year-old son Kajal, and we regain our breath to catch a glimpse of the cycle of boyhood renewing itself.

Watching these films now highlights Ray’s influence not only on legendary filmmakers like the quoted Kurosawa above, but on more recent popular films—for obvious reasons, Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and more recently, Richard Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood (2014), which traces the life of a young American boy from ages six to eighteen, using the same cast over twelve years of filming. While both these films have a central male protagonist who the director follows over nearly the same formative window of time, neither takes as many risks nor reveals as many dimensions as Ray’s films. The Apu Trilogy demonstrates better than anything that has appeared since that we will never stop wondering about the narrative possibility of a single human life, and the inexorable fluctuation between gain and loss, comedy and tragedy, and life consistently punctuated by death while inevitably propelling forward.

Apu Trilogy is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in

San Francisco

, through August 24, 2014.

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