Apur Sansar

“If Ray was in love with his first lyrically young film, in the second it was more adult and mature…the final act, in Apur Sansar, is a restrained, deliberate bit of work…it comes firmly to grips with reality, and yet does so with tenderness and humanity.” Amita Malik

With Sarbojaya’s death in Aparaito, Apu’s estrangement from his village, Nishchindipur, and the tradition of his ancestors is complete. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) opens with its protagonist in Calcutta, with a graduate degree but jobless, and singularly devoid of any ambition. Living in a one room tenement near the railway tracks, with only his books and flute for company, Apu is idealistic and dreams of becoming a writer. The resemblance between the Apu of Apur Sansar and his literary counterpart is scant. “Ray’s Apu is here a nobler creation. He has dispensed with some of Apu’s contradictions, attenuated his narcissism and drawn him as someone of heightened sensitivity and refined emotion.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Apu was the contemporary Indian man at the crossroads of tradition and modernity – a predicament that the Indian youth, grappling with the issues of a newly independent nation, could identify with.

For Soumitra Chatterjee, who dons the mantle of the adult Apu, the character symbolized the idealism shared by his generation – “We were to a great extent the Apus of our time.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Chatterjee, whose acting experience included only amateur theatre in college, had approached Ray during the making of Aparajito but was rejected since he was too old for the role of a teenage Apu (later played by Smaran Ghosal). The actor went on to become a regular in Ray’s films, from Apur Sansar in 1959 to Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree) in 1990. Chatterjee regards Ray as instrumental in changing the acting style in Bengali cinema. Since the actors were usually from a theatre background, their acting was heavily influenced by stage histrionics. “Ray’s films brought about a real change…actors began trying to be cinema actors.” (Soumitra Chatterjee in Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray)

Apur Sansar also marks the debut of Sharmila Tagore. Tagore, who later became a major Bollywood star in the 1960s-70s, also acted in subsequent Ray films – Devi (The Goddess), Nayak (The Hero), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited). She was only fourteen when Ray ‘spotted’ her outside her school, St. John’s Diocesan. Sharmila is related to the more orthodox branch of Rabindranath Tagore’s family, and it took Ray considerable time and effort to convince her father. Though remarkably good, her performance in Apur Sansar was ‘heavily directed’. “Ray literally talked her through each shot: ‘Now turn your head, now look this way, now look that way, now look down, now come with your lines, pause here, and now come with your lines again.’” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Like its predecessor, Apur Sansar owes more to Ray than to Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel. Eliminating the various other plot complexities, the film concentrates primarily on two aspects – the relationship between the struggling intellectual Apu and his uneducated wife, Aparna, and Apu’s reconciliation with his estranged son, Kajal. Unlike the film, Bandopadhyay’s Apu has a much wider contact with other girls before marrying Aparna. While in Benares, he becomes attached to Leela, the granddaughter of his mother’s employer. Later in the narrative, Leela is part of Calcutta’s charm that alienates Apu further from his mother. Failure to find a suitable girl had forced Ray to write off Leela from the narrative, a decision that he felt weakened the dramatic element in Aparajito. However, Leela’s absence is hardly felt in Apur Sansar. It is a simple and poignant tale of the idealistic Apu and his naïve child-bride, with the scenes between the newly married couple “one of the cinema’s classic affirmative depictions of married life.” (Robin Wood). What perhaps makes it all the more poignant is that they take place in the very same dingy one room apartment, where we had earlier seen Apu the bachelor, lying alone on a crumpled bed, playing his flute listlessly; there seems to be a new joie de vivre in Apu now.

Apur Sansar was conceived only after the completion of Aparajito and released in 1959, with Ray working on two other films, Jalsaghar (The Music Room) and Paresh Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) in the intervening years. Though the film’s fidelity to its literary source was a question of much debate and controversy, it was a commercial success in Bengal and won the President’s Gold Medal. The release of Pather Panchali and Aparajito in England, and then in America, had aroused interest among the international audience. However, the Venice Film Festival refused to screen the film in the competitive section on the grounds of its similarity to its predecessors – a decision supposedly influenced by the Festival’s director, F. L. Ammannati’s penchant for favoring Italian films. As a mark of protest, the London Film Festival, normally devoted to films that had won festival awards, invited Apur Sansar to inaugurate the Festival, awarded it the Place of Honor, and also the largest number of screenings. The film won the Sutherland Award for “the most original and imaginative film first shown to a British audience at the National Film Theatre.”

Apur Sansar also won the NBR Award for the Best Foreign Film, the Diploma of Merit at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and was nominated for the BAFTA Award. Edward Harrison, who had earlier distributed Pather Panchali and Aparajito in USA, screened the Apu Trilogy films as part of a single program in New York, lasting five and a half hours, with two breaks for coffee, thus giving the audience the opportunity to view the Trilogy as an unified work.

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Aparajito – The Unvanquished

While Pather Panchali never leaves the village, Aparajito is constantly on the move as Apu grows up and becomes restless for new experience. Set in the 1920s, the film opens in the holy city of Benares on the Ganges, where the family has moved after Durga’s death. Though poor, they seem relatively happy – Harihar earns his livelihood as a priest, reciting Hindu scriptures on the banks of the holy river Ganges, and Apu has found new friends. Ray, who often compared Benares to Venice, paints a visual collage of this ancient Indian city, with its bathing ghats, priests, wrestlers, festival fireworks.

Aparajito is based on the second half of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Pather Panchali and the first half of his novel Aparajito. While translating Bandopadhyay’s popular Bengali novel into a cinematic text, Ray eliminated numerous characters and episodes. For Ray, books were not primarily written to be filmed – “If they were, they would read like scenarios; and, if they were good scenarios, they would probably read as bad literature.” The documentary elements and visual passages of Pather Panchali was subordinated by studio sets and Ray’s decision to concentrate on the relationship between the widowed Sarbojaya and her son, and their gradual estrangement.

After Harihar’s death, mother and son return to the village and live in their uncle’s house – a situation reminiscent of Ray’s own life, where he lived in his uncle’s house for twenty years after his father’s early death. Though he prepares himself for the vocation of his father and forefathers, Apu is already lost to a traditional way of life. There is pathos in Apu’s efforts to learn the priestly rituals when all he desires is to run off and play with the other boys, and go to school. However, it is at this point that the narrative of Apu evolves into that of a boy who must script his own destiny, and venture outside the microcosmic world of the village and its environs. The transformation that comes to Apu with adolescence becomes intensified when Pinaki Sengupta, as the boy Apu, is replaced by Smaran Ghosal as the youth Apu who captures the interest of his teacher, a stark contrast to the grocer-teacher played by Tulsi Chakraborty in Pather Panchali. However, Apu’s quest for knowledge and his desire to explore the world beyond the village alienates him from his mother, who wants him to continue in the tradition of his ancestors and become a village priest. Sarbojaya, with her half-hearted enthusiasm for Apu’s dreams, ceases to hold interest for him, and he, unconsciously, pays less and less attention to her wishes.

For Pather Panchali, the entire camera work was executed with direct sources of light – natural light for the daytime sequences and direct studio lighting for the night scenes. With Aparajito, Ray and his cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, began experimenting with the reflected light, which they continued to explore in subsequent films, including Ray’s first color film, Kanchenjunga.

In one of the scenes from Aparajito, as Sarbojaya stands waiting for Apu, she sees a group of fireflies swirling by the pond. Filming of this scene posed a technical challenge, as even the fastest available film stock could not capture the light emitted by the fireflies. Ray and his crew overcame the problem with an indigenous solution. Ray recounts in his ‘My Years With Apu’- We chose the toughest members of our crew, had them dressed up in black shirt and trousers and let each of them carry a flashlight bulb and a length of wire and a battery. The bulbs were held aloft in their right hands while they illustrated the swirling movements of fireflies in a dance, alternately connecting and disconnecting the wire to the bulbs.”

Aparajito was not commercially successful in Bengal, unlike its predecessor – probably because Apu was not the archetypal Bengali son and the treatment of the mother-son relationship was devoid of the conventional norms. Aparajito seems to have upset the Bengali middle class, Ray’s primary audience and the people he had grown up with. The film failed in Calcutta, with reviewers comparing it unfavorably with Pather Panchali. This came as a shock to Ray, who regarded Aparajito as considerably more mature than his first work. Due to the film’s unenthusiastic reception in Bengal the State did not even consider entering it for the National Awards.

In spite of the laurels for Pather Panchali, Ray did not feel he had truly arrived in the international scene until Aparajito won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1957. It had been a British member of the jury, Penelope Houston who wanted Ray to win. After much argument, the chairman Rene Clair acquiesced with good grace; but on the boat back from their meeting place to the awards ceremony, Houston recalls Clair saying to her, without a trace of malice towards Ray, “But now I hope Ray will go away and learn how to make films.”

Apart from the Golden Lion at Venice, Aparajito also won many other awards – Cinema Nuovo Award, Venice, 1957; Critics’ Award, Venice, 1957; FIPRESCI Award, London, 1957; Best Film and Best Direction, San Francisco, 1958; International Critic’s Award, San Francisco, 1958; Golden Laurel for Best Foreign Film of 1958-59, USA; Selznik Golden Laurel, Berlin, 1960; Bodil Award: Best Non-European Film of the Year, Denmark, 1967

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